urban agriculture around the world

Many cities are now re-examining their attitude to urban agriculture. The challenge they face is how to control agricultural activity so that it can be integrated into the city environment for the benefit of the urban farmers and the rest of the city’s population.

Urban agriculture is associated with urban land squatting and is viewed as a socioeconomic problem, not a solution. Authorities are hesitant to be more proactive on urban agriculture because its is largely seen as resulting from a failure to address adequately rural development needs.

— Mayor Fisho P. Mwale, Lusaka, Zambia

Can agriculture succeed in the urban environment?

Cities are growing fast as people move from the countryside to seek a better future. So fast that the municipalities cannot keep up with the influx. There are too few jobs and limited facilities. Many of these new arrivals face poverty and malnutrition, often spending three-quarters of what little income is available to provide just one meal a day.

In an effort to improve their situation, many of the urban poor use any available space to grow more food. From rooftops to window boxes, on roadsides, riverbanks, and vacant lots, people will find places to grow a little food to feed their families. Some even manage to grow enough to sell the surplus, providing much needed income. For others, especially on the outskirts of the city, farming becomes their main occupation and may provide support for an entire family or group of families.

City administrators have traditionally opposed this uncontrolled activity. These urban farmers often take over public spaces or private lands, and disputes over the use of land can lead to violence. There may also be health hazards if the soil or water used is contaminated. Keeping livestock in the densely populated areas may create a variety of risks.

Thanks to pioneering research initially led by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), many cities are now re-examining their attitude to urban agriculture. The challenge they face is how to control agricultural activity so that it can be integrated into the city environment for the benefit of the urban farmers and the rest of the city’s population.

Urban agriculture has several advantages…. It increases urban food security (produce from rural areas is expensive and less fresh) and creates sources of income. urban agriculture also reduces open space maintenance costs to local government.

— Mayor Christopher Iga, Kampala, Uganda

What’s old is new again

Farming in the city is not a new practice. There is ample evidence in the remains of ancient cities around the world to show that agriculture was once a normal part of city life. Cities were designed to incorporate the production of food, fodder, medicinal plants, and even building materials. If it worked then, why not now?  Instead of trying to ban agriculture in the city, why not encourage it? Persuade the urban farmers to organize and become more efficient, help them find and share available space, provide support for food processing and marketing, create effective rules and regulations, and provide facilities that will enable them to contribute to the city’s sustainability and food security. It was an idea whose time had come — again.

Maximizing the potential of urban agriculture

International Development Research Center (IDRC) was the first major international agency to support formal research in the field of urban agriculture more than twenty years ago. The approach has been to try and maximize the potential for urban agriculture to improve household food supply, incomes, and health by removing some of the constraints — such as outdated by-laws and restrictive regulations —  and at the same time improve the management of waste, water, and land.

To achieve this the researchers focused on both policy and technology, bringing researchers, politicians, and technocrats together with the producers to develop effective policies and practical solutions. They also helped create networks of cities to promote the sharing of ideas, technology, and results. And the Centre worked to bring urban agriculture research into the mainstream through collaboration with other donor organizations, as well as with academic institutions and nongovernment organizations.

Urban agriculture experiences in Latin American and Caribbean cities reveal that it is possible to use local resources and technologies to help reduce the costs of urban economies and improve the standards and the quality of life of the population.

— The Quito Declaration, Ecuador, April 2000

Sowing the seeds of sustainable urban development

Over two decades International Development Research Center (IDRC) has disbursed some CA$ nine millions on over 90 urban agriculture projects in more than 40 countries. Here are just a few examples:

• Representatives of twenty Latin American and Caribbean cities met in Quito, Ecuador, to discuss the potential of urban agriculture. All the city mayors signed the Quito Declaration in support of urban agriculture. More than 50 cities have now signed the declaration.

• The Sustainable Dar es Salaam Project in Tanzania’s capital city (co-funded with the un-habitat program) led to a new strategic urban development plan for the city, and policies for integrating urban agriculture into improved management of the city’s environment.

• In Uganda, the Kampala Structure Plan was revised to include urban agriculture as a legitimate land use and an Urban Agriculture Unit was set up under the Kampala City Council administration.A research team made up of staff and students from several Ghanaian universities, studied three cities in Ghana and determined urban waste composting really does offer a win-win situation for urban farmers and municipalities. They found that urban agriculture, combined with landscaping and other uses, could absorb as much as twenty percent of the cities’ organic waste.

• In several cities in both Africa and Latin America, sites that were unsuitable for food production are now used to cultivate flowers instead. Sale of the flowers, often for export, provides the income families need to purchase food.

• In Port au Prince, Haiti, partnering with local and international organizations, researchers set up demonstration gardens that incorporated organic waste. Some 1,100 people in 68 groups were trained to set up and operate gardens. The concept worked so well that in three years the project had expanded to nineteen districts from the three originally planned.

• Near Amman, Jordan, researchers developed a wastewater recycling system that allows greywater from household uses to be reused in home gardens. Initial water savings were estimated to be at least fifteen percent, and the use of greywater in market gardens has increased household incomes by anywhere from 10 to 40 percent.

The Impact: Into the mainstream

What was once seen as a novel area for research has now become mainstream, with projects funded by major United Nations, international, and national agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations. Following the Quito example, city networks have formed in both East and West Africa to share experiences and training opportunities.

By-laws and regulations are being re-written to accommodate and encourage urban agriculture and to ensure the equitable distribution of land. Aerial surveys have enabled cities to create maps showing where space is available, and which areas are best suited for agriculture, with access to organic waste for composting and safe water supply. Schools, businesses, and public buildings are creating gardens plots for students and workers. Many universities now include urban agriculture in their curriculum, creating a cadre of professionals schooled in urban agriculture techniques. And urban agriculture was on the agenda at the third World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Canada in 2006.

Growing tomorrow’s green cities

Even in the most densely developed areas of the city there is still unused potential for urban agriculture. Mushrooms can be grown in trays indoors, fish can be raised in tanks, trays of silkworms can provide income, and medicinal herbs can be cultivated in containers and processed in the home.

Regional city networks must continue to grow as more and more cities realize the benefits that urban agriculture can bring. As new enabling legislation and comprehensive city plans are introduced it is important to ensure that training is provided for city staff who must implement the new rules. More needs to be done to increase public awareness of the positive contributions made by urban agriculture.

There is also a need for more education for producers on key issues such as safe use of pesticides and the dangers of contaminated soil and water. This can best be achieved working through formal producers’ organizations. Such organizations can also help to ensure fair distribution of land and resources, and security of tenure.

The International Development Research Centre (www.idrc.ca) is a Canadian Crown corporation that works in close collaboration with researchers from the developing world in their search for the means to build healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous societies. This text is reproduced here with the permission from IDRC. It was edited slightly (see original).

Editor’s note: From 1996 to 2004, Dr Luc Mougeot ran IDRC’s Cities Feeding People program. If you’re interested in this topic check out his book — Growing Better Cities: Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Development.  You can also read more about IDRC’s environment and natural resource management efforts.

Like all IDRC publications, noncommercial and academic users may read, download, copy, distribute, or reprint — provided suitable credit and reference is given to IDRC and the original source page. And commercial users just need to ask permission. Yay!


The International development research centre is a Canadian Crown corporation that works in close collaboration with researchers from the developing world in their search for the means to build healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous societies. Le Centre de recherche pour le développement international est une société d'État canadienne qui collabore étroitement avec les chercheurs des pays en développement et les appuie dans leur quête de moyens de créer des sociétés en meilleure santé, plus équitables et plus prospères.

One comment

  • A common mistake is not to distinguish two-dimensional ‘agri’-culture (Latin ‘ager’ = ‘field’) production from traditional three-dimensional ‘indigenous’ (Latin = ‘self-generating’) mixed multilevel orcharding food production. When food and material trees are planted in the city or urban areas, they provide many times (some UN reports consider 100 times) the production of lower plants only.

    We’ve been taught in our colonial schools, churches and other institutions that traditional indigenous production is “primitive” (having ‘principle’) and ‘savage’ (derived from ‘Sylva’ = ‘of the forest or tree’) and how colonialism improved upon it. In actual fact indigenous production represents hundreds of thousands of years of scientific experimentation and improvement within systems-thinking and democratic (both political and economic) governance where people maintained personal and community control. Our ‘exogenous’ (Latin = ‘other-generated’) system is both short-term and unproductive.

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