Urbanisation, and the shift from rural to urban living by billions of people, has not only resulted in major environmental problems, but also in urban poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition, particularly in developing countries. But, almost unnoticed, it has resulted in the growth of a remarkable phenomenon: urban agriculture. According to UNDP, in 1996 some 800 million people were engaged in urban agricul­ture worldwide, with the majority in and around Asian cities. Of these, 200 million were thought to be market producers, with 150 million people employed full-time. Urban agriculture now occupies large minorities in many cities around the world. Cities such as Havana, Accra, Dar-es-Salaam and Shanghai have been studied extensively. But in thousands of other cities around the world people are also quietly getting on with their own food production.

Over the last several years I had the opportunity to witness urban agriculture in many different parts of the world. I was interested in this because, among other things, urban agriculture can help cities make the best possible use of organic waste materials.

Urban agriculture is conducted within or on the fringe of cities. It is concerned with growing plants and herbs and the raising of animals for food and other uses. The production of tree seedlings, orna­mental plants and flowers is also part of the picture. It is becoming apparent that in order to survive in a globalising food system, urban farmers must be highly innovative and adaptable. They must be able to cope with city constraints and tap as effectively as possible onto urban assets and resource flows. For instance, an important component is the use of compost and manures available in the urban environment.

Despite globalising tendencies, local urban food production is being practised in many places. In recent years its importance has been increasingly acknowledged by researchers, politicians and urban planners – transforming it from a largely neglected activity, to a major force for creating sus­tainable livelihoods for urban people.

In the developing world in particular, urban agricul­ture can greatly contribute to urban food security, improved nutrition, poverty alleviation and local economic development. In developed countries it is recognised as contributing to the reduction of ‘food miles’, involving city people in food growing and distribution via farmers’ markets.

Urban agriculture often builds on ancient traditions. Historically, most cities grew out of their own hinter­land, and some contemporary cities are still deeply ‘embedded’ in their local landscapes, even in Europe. For instance, Florence is still surrounded by orange and olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields on which a large proportion of its food requirements are grown. Many cities in Italy, and also in France, still have very strong relationships to their immediate hinterland, with ‘peri-urban’ agri­culture still much in evidence.

I found the same in China. China has an age-old tradition of settlements permeated with food grow­ing areas. Today, at a time of very rapid urban – industrial growth, urban agriculture is still a very important issue for the Chinese. Even mega-cities such as Shanghai, one of the fastest growing cities on the planet with about 15 per cent growth per year, maintains its urban farming as an important part of its economic system. A major shift has taken place, however, from ‘intra-urban’ to ‘peri-urban’ agriculture. As housing and office developments grew within the city, farmland there has been lost and food growing has shifted increasingly to the city’s periphery.

The Shanghai city authorities administer an area of about 600 000 hectares of land: 300 000 hectares of this are built up areas within the city itself. But as a deliberate policy, some 300 hectares of land on the edge of Shanghai are now deliberately main­tained as farmland for feeding the city. Most of this land is used to supply rice and wheat, though, as we saw above, production of animal feeds such as soybeans, particularly for beef produced in US-style feedlots, now takes place increasingly in far-flung places such as the southern Amazon.

Tens of thousands of hectares on the outskirts of Shanghai are intensely cultivated with a great vari­ety of vegetables. The Chinese like to cook fresh, locally grown vegetables. Stir-frying wilted vegeta­bles is not regarded favourably. Glass and poly­thene greenhouses are now much in evidence, producing three to four successive crops a year in Shanghai’s warm climate.

On the outskirts of Beijing, too, vegetable cultivation is much in evidence. But farmers have had to develop ingenious systems to cope with the much colder climate. Greenhouses, too, are much in evi­dence. During frosty conditions in January and February, they cover their polythene tunnels with several layers of bamboo mats in the evening to keep the heat in at night. Few growers in and around Beijing use coal fired heating systems in their green­houses to cope with the icy conditions outside.

In Chinese cities ‘closed-loop’ systems, using night soil as fertilisers for urban vegetable growing, are still widely maintained. The night soil is diluted, perhaps ten to one, and then ladled onto vegeta­bles beds. I was told that people prefer vegetables grown with night soil fertiliser because they taste better. But most new apartment and office buildings, which are in evidence everywhere, have water clos­ets, and it remains to be seen whether appropriate ways of using wastewater in urban farming can be developed.

In Russia, too, peri-urban food growing is an age – old tradition, with many people retreating to their dachas at weekends to cultivate crops in highly productive gardens. In St Petersburg most people are involved in urban farming: there are some 560 000 plots being cultivated on the periphery of the city. Even in remote places such as Irkutsk in Siberia with its very short growing season, I have seen people cultivate an amazing variety of veg­etables, including cucumbers and tomatoes, in well-insulated greenhouses, both for home supply as well as for sale in markets.

In South Africa, of course, during the apartheid days it was forbidden for the black majority to farm land within and around cities, because that meant people were there to stay. But now a dramatic growth of urban agriculture is under way as people get a permanent foothold in their towns and cities. And throughout Africa, in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere, much food growing takes places within cities, because they are often still very low density and there is room for food growing. Women tend to be the cultivators in urban areas.

Havana in Cuba is a particularly remarkable exam­ple of urban agriculture development. As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost a large proportion of its sugar export earnings. So a few years ago the authorities decided to practise food import substitution and to encourage urban agricul­ture within the city. Composted bagasse from the sugar cane fields is often used as fertiliser. Sugar cane, ironically, is grown with artificial fertilisers, but the bagasse that is composted effectively becomes an organic fertiliser and this is used on raised vegetable beds called ‘organiponicos’, which are irrigated with pumped underground water. In Havana, some 20 000 people now grow fruit and vegetables, mainly on plots adjoining their apart­ment blocks.

Whilst urban farming is being recognised more and more as an important source of food and income generation in cities around the world, adequate insti­tutional frameworks at national, municipal and local levels are still often lacking. It is becoming important to find ways to overcome this obstacle. Rather than competing with rural agriculture, urban and rural agriculture should be seen as complementing each other since urban agriculture tends to focus on prod­ucts that require closeness to the urban markets such as vegetables, flowers, poultry and eggs.

Opposition to urban agriculture has tended to come mainly from public health and urban planning circles because of concern about water pollution and soils contaminated by heavy metals. However, research has shown that concerns about adverse effects on public health have been exaggerated. There is broad consensus now that urban agricul­ture is an important area for government support at national as well as municipal level.

Updated: October 4, 2015 — 9:24 am