Urban agriculture isn’t anything new.
Humans have been growing crops and raising animals in and around cities since we began organizing ourselves into long-term settlements over five thousand years ago. For many centuries, there has been a natural integration of urbanization and food production as the farming activities that have made the very exisistence of cities possible spilled over into cities themselves.
It has only been in recent decades (since the post-World War II era), and particularly in most North American cities, that the division between urban and rural has been more sharply defined and upheld. Urban planning and regulatory practices of the last half century in North America have attempted to sever the natural ties between cities and food production, urban and rural, metropolis and farm. This tendency has grown out of a particular cultural bias viewing cities as “progress” and farming as “backward” and a misguided notion of public health viewing food production and the raising of animals as potentially dangerous, dirty, and infectious. Land use patterns, real estate speculation, and the emergence of the “global food system” have also contributed to the marginalization of urban agriculture in the past sixty years.
But this is changing once again as a global renaissance of urban agriculture is well underway. The United Nations Development Program reveals that in 1993, just 15% of food consumed in cities worldwide was grown in cities. However, by 2005, that number increased to 30%. In other words, urban food production has doubled in just over 15 years! What is driving this trend?
There are several key factors that can be identified:
More and more of the planet’s human population continues to migrate to urban areas. In fact, in 2010 we crossed the threshold to where over half (50%) of the world’s people now live in cities. This marks a dramatic shift in a pattern which began slowly several hundreds of years ago but which now shows no sign of slowing down. As most of our species live in cities, it follows that we will have an increasing need for food produced within or near to these cities.
Urban migration patterns, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latina America, have also resulted in larger numbers of poor and desperately poor city dwellers. Many of these people have no choice but to try and grow some of their own food to meet their needs where they live. It is a matter of survival.
The global food system is showing many indications of strain and fragility at a time when demand continues to rise sharply. Food security is increasingly on the agenda for municipalities and communities worldwide. How will we feed the millions that live within our urban boundaries if the global food chain is interrupted by spikes in fossil fuel prices (not to mention other agricultural inputs), severe climate events such as drought, flooding or unseasonal freezing, or political and economic upheaval? Growing our own food in and around where we live will certainly be on the table as a key response to this scenario.
Grass Roots Interest
Individuals and communities around the world are showing a marked increase in connecting more directly with and participating in food production activities. Whether motivated by concerns for health, environmental sustainability or food security, or perhaps by a deeper emotional or spiritual need, an increasing number of North Americans are planting, hoeing, hatching and harvesting within the cities where they live. They are also demanding greater access to land and the right to raise their own food within city limits.
In response to the pressures from the above four factors and others, municipal governments and regulators are being forced to play catch-up by updating their bylaws, regulatory frameworks and programs relating to urban agriculture. Some municipal governments continue to do this begrudgingly, responding only to pressure from citizens, while others take a more proactive role in encouraging appropriate urban agricultural activities within their cities. Currently, there remains a tremendous variability in regulation of urban agriculture within cities in North America and around the world.
Current Examples of Urban Agriculture
in North America
North American cities are arguably not the leaders in urban agriculture today. Out of necessity, enlightened leadership or a different cultural, historical and social framework, many cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America are much further along this continuum than our cities find themselves. (i.e. An estimated 60% of Bangkok’s urban footprint is under cultivation with up to 73% of inhabitants involved in growing food. UNDP An estimated 200,000 earn an income from growing food in Cuban cities today.) However, there are clear signs that urban agriculture is gaining momentum in North American cities today.
Contemporary examples of urban agriculture can be categorized as follows:
Private Yards and Gardens
While private food gardening has always been a part of North American cities, the lull in this activity of the past generation or so may be coming to an end. From a rise in vegetable seed sales, to the development of a plethora of urban food gardening web-sites, to the great success of “Seedy Saturdays” in cities across Canada, growing food in your yard is definitely back. What is exciting about this aspect of urban agriculture is the new intentionality and purposefulness the activity seems to hold for so many people; we garden not just for pleasure or past time but as a political, environmental and social statement as well. Furthermore, there has been some excellent research documenting the incredible productive possibilities for gardening in small spaces, including the cumulative environmental and economic impacts. See the work of John Jeavons, promoter of the Biointensive gardening method, the Gervais family and their Urban Homestead project in Pasadena California and the excellent article by Michael Pilarski, The Role of Home Gardens in Feeding the World and Sequestering Carbon. The work of many small-scale permaculture practitioners further reinforce the importance of small-scale productive systems with a host of benefits.
There are as many examples of urban community food growing projects as there are communities concerned about food security and local food production. The diversity and creativity of these projects in cities throughout North America today is astounding. On the one hand, we have the now well-developed movement of Community Gardens which not only provide the space for people to grow food, but they provide the context for bringing people together to grow community. There are community gardens present in all major cities in Canada today and while they may trace their roots back to the allotment gardens of Europe and the Victory gardens of the war periods, their expressions today are diverse and evolving. Most community gardens are run by the members and require a nominal annual fee to cover costs. unfortunately, there is no national network of community gardens but many regional networks do exist. In recent years, a range of other community based urban agriculture projects have emerged across the continent. Many of these are aimed at empowering participants to become more self-sufficient in their food needs through learning food gardening skills, participating in food growing cooperatives, and, in some cases, being involved in advocacy work for food security and local sustainable food production. Many are run by non-profit organizations such as The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, Growing Power in Milwaukee, People’s Grocery in Oakland, or Lifecycles in Victoria. Lifecycles has created schemes such as the “Fruit Tree Project” whereby volunteers pick and share unwanted fruit from local fruit trees, and the “Sharing Backyards” program which connects people with extra yard space with those who would like to grow food. Some organizations, such as City Farmer in Vancouver also run demonstration gardens where the public can come to learn about growing food in urban areas.
Schools, housing complexes, churches, hospitals, businesses and even municipal governments themselves are undertaking activities promoting local food production. The Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley California pioneered a model of integrating extensive food gardens into schoolyards, thereby providing a rich context for food literacy among students, their families and the surrounding community. Village Homes in Davis California was also a pioneer in demonstrating that food production could be designed in to an entire urban subdivision. Hence the “edible landscape” planted more than thirty years ago now provides food for over 225 households in the community. The City of Vancouver has just undertaken an initiative to plant fruit trees in public parkland as an alternative to the usual ornamental species.
Small Commercial Enterprises
The possibility of making a living from growing food in cities may seem like a stretch, but many urban farmers around the world do just that. In addition to producers growing on larger tracts of land on the edges of cities, a new model for commercial urban agriculture called SPIN (small plot intensive) farming has grown out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The essence of the model is that the SPIN farmer borrows or leases yard space from a number of urbanites and grows high value, fast growing crops in small spaces. Produce is marketed through “foodbox” schemes, farmer’s markets or gate sales. The SPIN farming website currently lists over 100 such commercial ventures in North America but in reality there may be many more unofficial operations. In addition to SPIN, there are other efforts at commercializing urban agriculture through services that plant and maintain food gardens and edible landscapes for residential clients, small-scale production of high-value crops such as herbs and specialty vegetables, and other innovations. Conflicts with zoning bylaws and permitted uses have and will continue to occur as these initiatives continue to multiply.
Farming on land on the fringes of the city, often referred to as “Peri-urban Agriculture” has always been a common practice as close proximity to market is a key need for any grower. The challenge has and continues to be that these lands become sought after for other development purposes, and, as cities expand, speculators inevitably buy and re-sell these lands for tremendous profit. The City of Edmonton, like many other North American cities has been confronted by this issue in recent years. A very successful campaign to protect threatened agricultural land on the margins of the city has stimulated the City of Edmonton to create a formal policy on urban agriculture which includes a new filter in development permit applications that assesses the agricultural value of any given land. Many municipalities around North America are recognizing that protecting their surrounding agricultural lands may be a key to future food security. An interesting related development is the decision of cities such as Detroit to re-zone land within cities as agricultural, providing small commercial food growing opportunities on abandoned or underutilized space.
Roof-top Growing and Other Innovations
Cities have limited physical space and initiatives such as rooftop food production represent a promising under-utilized potential. The Rooftop Gardening Project in Montreal is a non-profit Montreal project dedicated to developing this potential. Other high profile rooftop food gardens in cities like Toronto and Vancouver at the Fairmont Hotels have begun to normalize these options. Pushing the envelope further in this regard is the notion of “Food-scrapers”, vertical farms built in cities relying on no outside inputs beyond the waste organic matter and water produced in cities themselves. Advocates of this option such as Dickson Despomier, The Vertical Farm Project, point out that by 2050, nearly 80% of the world’s population will live in cities and we will need to be far more innovative to produce the food we will need within the urban area.
Urban Chickens, Rabbits, Bees and Other Critters
Raising small livestock in the city is a growing and controversial phenomena in North America, though our counterparts from Europe and the Southern hemisphere may wonder what the fuss is all about as they have been happily doing it for generations. The reason that this development is so high profile in North America today is that it is cutting to the heart of the regulatory framework and underlying assumptions that have limited agriculture of all kinds in our cities. What is an appropriate activity for a city, and what is not? What kind of cities do we want to live in? Bylaws that prohibit chickens, rabbits, bees and other small livestock are being challenged in cities across the continent. For an overview of the issue in Canada see: On a Wing and a Prayer – The Urban Chicken Movement in Canada Takes Flight by Ron Berezan. Good websites on this issue include: Urban Chickens, and The City Chicken.
10 Good Reasons to Grow Food in Cities
- Great tasting, fresh, and nutritious food right outside your door. There is no doubt about it, home grown food tastes better and is more nutritious than imported foods. In fact, the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables begins to decline the moment they are harvested. Considering the typical weeks or months it takes for much produce to get form the field to our plate, it is no wonder that both taste and nutritional content have highly declined.
- Practice good economy. Both economy and ecology come from the same Greek word ‘oikos’ meaning “household”. When we grow some of our own food, we are beginning to bring together both the ecology and the economics of our household. Many urban dwellers find that they are able to save a substantial amount of money every year by growing some of their own food. Such a practice also reduces many of the hidden environmental costs (use of fossil fuels, water, pesticides, soil erosion) of the food that we eat. Furthermore, much of the food we import is grown by underpaid workers in difficult conditions on land that is much more needed to sustain their local populations.
- Nurture your physical, emotional and spiritual health. The therapeutic benefits of gardening are many. The physical activity involved in regular gardening activities contributes to general health and well-being. The pride and satisfaction that comes from harvesting one’s own produce is hard to match. Growing and consuming our own food, however, goes one step further – it connects us to the earth in a fundamental way that has been lost for most of us. Thomas Berry says that “Gardening connects us to the deepest mysteries of the universe” and many gardeners find that this is so.
- Create beautiful, aesthetically pleasing spaces. Gardening is a very creative activity and growing your own food is no exception. Developing a landscape with diverse food producing trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals adds tremendous colour, texture, smells and tastes to the local environment and in turn attracts many insects, birds, butterflies and other creatures. Such a beautiful landscape nourishes both the body and the soul.
- Conserve wilderness, natural areas, and biodiversity. As world population and consumption increases, the pressures on our little remaining wilderness and natural areas builds. When we grow some of our own food, we help to reduce the pressure on yet uncultivated lands. This is particularly critical as the available agricultural land on the planet is finite and is degrading at a very alarming rate. Our own gardens can contribute to supporting biodiversity both by decreasing pressure on wilderness areas and by providing additional habitat for local flora and fauna.
- Connect with your own bioregion. One cannot help but learn about their own ecosystem when actively gardening. Gardeners, and particularly food gardeners, are invariably more attentive to the seasons, the weather, the water cycle, and the local flora and fauna. Our gardens and we ourselves, become active participants in the bioregion in which we live.
- Learn and preserve endangered wisdom and essential knowledge for living. While most of us are the descendants of small farmers, there are relatively few people who now know and practice the essential human activity of growing food. With close to half of the world’s population now living in cities, it will become increasingly important for urbanites to play a role in learning and passing on this critical wisdom. From Africa to Asia to Latin America, city dwellers in the Southern hemisphere are leading the way in developing intensive urban agriculture. Many cities in North America are beginning to rise to this challenge.
- Contribute to local food security. Most of us depend on others, usually “far away others” for all of our food. When food production is far removed from where we live, we are vulnerable to events or circumstances that could interrupt this flow of food. The inevitable decline in the availability of fossil fuels will spell great changes for world food production and distribution in the coming years. It will be in all of our interests to invest in local food production – from our own yards, to our communities, to the farms that surround our cities.
- Help to preserve diverse seed stocks. The diversity of world seed stocks have been rapidly declining over the past 100 years. As more and more agriculture is controlled by transnational corporations whose primary agenda is to exert control over food production for profit, fewer and fewer strains of many fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes are now available. The development of genetically modified crops further threatens the integrity of our food supply. By planting and collecting diverse seeds, you are helping to protect our common heritage created by countless generations of small farmers over the past five thousand years. For information on seed conservation in Canada go to: Seeds of Diversity.
- Reduce climate change. Growing our own food is a tremendous way to reduce our impact on climate change. See The Earth Policy Institute. Most large-scale, conventional farming uses tremendous inputs of fossil fuel in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, fuel for machinery, and other indirect means. Fruits or vegetables grown thousands of kilometers away must be refrigerated and shipped from the field to our community. Much of the food (some estimates are as high as 50%) never gets eaten as it is lost due to spoilage at various stages of the production and distribution chain.When we choose to develop a yard lush with fruit trees, shrubs, vines, and diverse annuals and perennials, we are reducing our own use of fossil fuels and are also contributing to the absorption of CO2. This very simple act can be a major step in redirecting our path towards a more sustainable future.
Urban Agriculture: A Food Systems Approach
This analysis has thus far focused almost exclusively on the production of food in cities. Current urban agriculture advocates and researchers point out, however, that production is only one aspect of a healthy food system.
Ensuring food security and a local food strategy requires that we consider the entire food system: production - processing and preserving - distribution and access - consumption and celebration - and waste absorption.
If we are lacking in any one of these components, the entire system is compromised. We may produce abundantly in and near cities but we need to have the means to process and preserve that food so that it is available throughout the year. Likewise we must be able to distribute the food to those who need it and ensure that all have access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods through a variety of mechanisms. Celebrating what we eat will not only enhance our enjoyment but foster a culture of food that may develop further support for local food production and farmers who grow it. Finally, considering the nutrient cycle of all we consume and ensuring that we have the mechanisms in place to transform food waste into soil will ensure the long term productivity of urban lands and reduce demand for landfill space.
All of the components of healthy food system require education and food literacy and they require the public policy changes that are needed to support them. While each person may chose to focus their energies on one aspect of a healthy urban food system, it is important that all players maintain an understanding and appreciation for the whole system.
For a more detailed exploration of a food systems approach, see Agricultural Urbanism.
Links for Urban Agriculture
City Farmer - Vancouver, BC
A fantastic clearinghouse for the global urban agriculture movement.
Agricultural Urbanism - Vancouver, BC
The Edible Schoolyard Project - Berkeley, CA
Growing Power - Milwaukee, WI
International Development Research Centre - Ottawa, ON
John Jeavons, Ecology Action - Willits, CA
Lifecycles - Victoria, BC
Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF) - The Netherlands
The Rooftop Gardening Project - Montrreal, QC
SPIN Farming - Saskatoon, SK
The Stop Community Food Centre - Toronto, ON
Urban Agriculture Hub - Victoria, BC