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Up to 70 percent of urban households in developing countries participate in agricultural activities. More than half of all urban households in the poorest expenditure quintile rely in part on agricultural activities to satisfy their food needs (FAO, 2010).

And it can save the day.

During World War II, as part of the war effort, residents in every city and town in the United States grew ”victory gardens” that produced over 40% of the nation’s crop.

Historically, urbanization processes and agriculture have tended not to go hand in hand.  As cities have expanded, agricultural use of city land has been phased out and eventually excluded from master plans and zoning ordinances of most cities, banning farming activities in most of them. Urban agriculture has since been the lot of the informal sector: Studies on the livelihoods of informal settlements in various countries have shown that people rely on urban agriculture (despite the constraints posited by slums) to reduce poverty and improve their food security.  For example, in Jakarta (Indonesia), the social movement Indonesia Berkebun is using vacant land to plant food crops.

There is, however, a growing number of cities around the globe that encourage urban agriculture.  Detroit (Michigan) does it in order to bring a solution of its vacant land and related maintenance expense; Madison (Wisconsin) and Cleveland (Ohio) see it as a response to food insecurity and local demand for fresh food; in New York City (New York), a high scale restaurant produces its own crop and uses plots of land where construction began and was later halted for a new real estate venture. In Paris (France), building developers have been asked to incorporate rooftop gardens and more and more community groups are planting on roofs or in abandoned lots in the city.

So here is a question for policy makers: is banning farming activities in cities the best alternative? Should we instead look into existing opportunities and risks to better integrate agricultural activities into urban development, and ensure that it helps to achieve social, economic and environmental sustainability?

Negatives of urban agriculture are related to risks associated with health hazards, water contamination, and food safety concern.  For instance, environmental concerns such as soil contamination (lead-contaminated soil and contamination due to the use of pesticides), air pollution, increased water demand and higher load on sewage systems, as well as issues related to the use of agricultural equipment in urban settings.

However, some cities have come to the conclusion that benefits from urban agriculture would clearly outweigh potentially negative consequences.  Key steps to officially adopt urban agriculture within the city include discussions and agreements on:

  • The inclusion of urban agriculture in city’s master plan and zoning ordinance.
  • The type of acceptable agricultural use (for instance:  Community gardens? Agricultural district? Animal husbandry?)
  • The dimensions of the land dedicated to agricultural purposes.
  • A management plan for agricultural land (to control its impact on surrounded land).
  • Whether urban agriculture can be a tool to promote income generating activities (through tax incentives for private enterprises, for the owners of private property, as well as leases of city-owned land).
  • Amendments to building codes to consider rooftop gardens and vertical gardening.

With the adequate incentives and safeguards, potentials of urban agriculture include increases in economic prosperity by creating jobs; improvements in health and safety of residents by providing wholesome food and greater access to well-maintained green spaces; improvements in social capital, uniting residents around a common purpose; and improvements in local environment by removing blight from vacant lots.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2010) Fighting Poverty and Hunger: What Role for Urban Agriculture. Policy Brief. Economic and Social Perspectives.