Urban agriculture is as old as towns and cities themselves, although it has only relatively recently been recognised by national and international bodies for its importance for the sustainability of cities and urban societies. It is an economic activity, engaged in for commercial reasons by an estimated 200 million people, and informally by an additional 600 million people worldwide. The United Nations Development Programmes’ (UNDP) groundbreaking book, Urban Agriculture; food, jobs and sustainable cities (Smit, 1996), identifies three economic benefits of urban agriculture: employment, income generation and enterprise development; national agriculture sector and urban food supply; and land-use economics.
‘Urban agriculture’ (UA), for the purposes of this chapter is narrower than the definition used in the rest of this book. In this chapter it refers to small areas, such as verges, allotments, private and community gardens, and balconies within the city, for growing crops and raising poultry and livestock for eggs, meat, milk, etc., for home consumption or sale in neighbourhood markets. ‘Peri-urban agriculture’ refers to farm units close to town which operate semi or entirely commercial farms and market gardens to grow crops and raise poultry and livestock. The term urban and periurban agriculture (UPA) is used to refer to both phenomena.
There are some studies of the economics of urban agriculture, although these are limited, and focus on developing countries or the ‘South’. This is not surprising given the number of development agencies and NGOs involved with research, development and facilitation of UPA in the South. UPA is, however, recognised as a global phenomenon and is participated in, studied, and described the world over. UPA in the North (excluding well-known examples such as Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union) is generally no longer percieved as a response to national crises affecting the entire population, or a ‘coping strategy’ as it once was during the First and Second World Wars and in previous centuries. In the North it is generally seen as a response to reducing long term environmental degradation or particular local conditions, often related to specific areas of social depravation. In the South it is relied upon by many households for their very existence.
Studies of UPA on a macroeconomic scale, show that the contribution to national economies is not insignificant (See Table 9.1). However, survey data relating to the income earned from urban farming cannot be generalised given the diversity of conditions between seasons, cities, and within cities (Nugent, 2000). Studies calculating UPA’s income contribution are unlikely to accurately estimate the quantities of food produced because informal agricultural activity is not usually included. One estimate, however, did calculate that the 30000 or so allotment holders in London produce nearly as much fruit and vegetables by weight as commercial horticultural enterprises (Garnett, 1999). And one study in the United States (US) of informal gardeners found that the net economic value of 151 plots was between $160 and $178 per year, with a range between $2 to $1134 (The Philadelphia Urban Gardening Project, 1991).
UPA’s contribution to employment is also likely to be underestimated because it is not generally recorded in labour statistics of economies, partly because farmers may not count self-employment in UPA as a ‘job’. When attempting to calculate the size of the urban agriculture market, difficulties also arise because urban and rural produce is mixed at markets and cannot be determined if the origin is not specified (Petts, 2001). Prices are also difficult
to measure due to fluctuations and variations over time and between different markets.
Although urban agriculture currently makes a significant contribution to the food needs of many
urban populations, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that, in the future, the 12 ‘mega-cities’ (10 million plus population) will experience increasing difficulty in feeding themselves (FAO, 1998).