Urban agriculture is sprouting up all over the world. Urbanites are taking the soil into their own hands and wrestling back control of food production – from community allotments driving regeneration in Detroit and guerrilla gardeners turning flower beds into cabbage patches across cities to temporary growing plots in meanwhile spaces like the Skip Garden in London and commercial rooftop greenhouse operations like Lufa Farms in Montreal.
Urban agriculture is much more prevalent in developing nations. This often comes about through necessity, in response to economic breakdown, civil unrest or institutional decline, when incomes and food distribution systems are disrupted. Urban farming becomes a household survival strategy in these situations. In Kampala, Uganda, over 35% of the city’s population are engaged in agriculture, and this has improved the nutritional status of children there. In Yaounde, Cameroon, almost all the leafy vegetables consumed by poor urban residents are grown in the valleys surrounding the city.
In the Global North, there is increasing recognition of the vital role urban farming has to play in food security and health. According to Tim Lang, Food Policy Professor at City University, London, Britain has the worst levels of food insecurity in Europe. London, for instance, a city of nearly 8 million people, has only three to four days of food stores, if supply was disrupted. Food poverty is also prevalent in the city, and malnutrition in England has risen by over 51% since 2010.
City governments are starting to appreciate the social and environmental benefits of urban agriculture. Last October, 119 cities signed up to The Milan Urban Food Pact, committing to feed cities in a more just and sustainable way. The pact calls on municipal leaders to acknowledge urban and peri-urban agriculture’s role in contributing to food and nutrition security, human well-being, and in protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services.
In London, the new mayor, Sadiq Khan is responsible for devising and implementing the new London Plan – a city-wide policy and planning strategy that every borough council must conform to. Just Space, a network of local and London-wide metropolitan groups campaigning on planning issues, is determined that citizens will set the agenda for the Plan.
Rob Logan, of the Community Food Growers Network, has been working with Just Space on the food policy recommendations for the London Plan. He says one of the most dominant issues amongst community growers is long-term access to land. “It’s so hard to be financially sustainable as a community food organisation. With cuts to funding and increasing rents and land values, you’re up against it.” Paying workers a living wage with London weighting, whilst keeping prices competitive in a global market is also a significant challenge. “So we’re already at a point where it’s near impossible,” says Logan. “Policy change and more supportive representative bodies are critical right now.”
Just Space is recommending the protection of current food growing spaces and a scaling up of the use of land for food production is built into the new London Plan. They also want to grant extended agricultural tenures that are long enough to develop financial viability, biodiversity, soil replenishment and community development; integrate food growing space as a requirement in all new housing developments; utilise green roof methods; and provide greater support in training the next generation of urban farmers.
But can a metropolis the size of London really produce enough food to feed itself – especially, in light of competing demands for housing and recreational space? Logan explains that, “considering the population of London, I don’t think it’s an aim for London to feed itself…but it is an aim to build much more accessible food systems that work for everyone in the city.”
A recent report by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots, echoes these concerns. It recognises the important role of urban agriculture in food justice and climate change resilience, but questions if all kinds of urban agriculture are safe, resource efficient and accessible to marginalised people. “The smaller-scale and fragmented nature of urban agriculture tends to be less efficient than larger operations in the use of water, fertiliser and other resources.” Hydroponics, for example, are very energy and water intensive. Also, unregulated fertiliser and pesticide use and untreated irrigation water could pose a health risk. While most urban agriculture in the developed world is aligned with principles of sustainability, this is not always the case. Ideally urban agriculture would use organic, closed-loop methods to make best use of resources and limit pollution.
This is not to burst the agrarian bubble but just to point out that the goal is not necessarily self-sufficiency, but to see urban agriculture as part of a broader, more dynamic, sustainable food system.
Growing Communities, a social enterprise in London, has developed a model for feeding cities fairly and sustainably, based on 20 years experience of local, community-led food trade. The Food Zones is director Julie Brown’s vision for a food system that is fair, efficient and resilient in the face of climate change and resource depletion. The food zones form concentric circles that radiate from zone 1, the domestic growing space within gardens or allotments, moving outwards to urban, peri-urban and the rural hinterland within 100 miles, to zone 6 which represents the world beyond Europe. For Growing Communities, 25% of the fresh produce they trade, is from within the urban zones.
If we are to produce more of our food within cities we must also consider livestock. Katherine Sharpe, who keeps farm animals at Stepney City Farm, says, “I think the fundamental problem is how we use our city spaces: we want our green space to be available for picnics, dog walking, playing football and so on, which isn’t compatible with livestock rearing.” There would need to be so many changes to policy and planning to make it possible, as well as educating the public on how to co-exist with farm animals. “Ideologically, chickens and pigs would be the sensible things to keep in the city. There is a rich history of backyard chickens and ‘pig clubs’ during WW2 and afterwards,” Katherine explains, “they were our original recycling machines – turning kitchen scraps into eggs and meat. But the current ban on swill means…feeding kitchen scraps is illegal, so the feed would be delivered, stored and expensive.”
Large-scale livestock farming operations would best be kept to the green belt. In the UK, this green band of land around cities is protected for the purpose of leisure, visual amenity, nature conservation and agricultural uses. In London, this accounts for 22% of Greater London’s total landmass, yet less than 10% is actively farmed. One of the reasons for this is land-banking – land owners keeping land fallow or only giving very short tenures, in the hope that planning regulations will change to allow more lucrative development.
According to the London Assembly’s Cultivating the Capital Report 2010, those actively farming on the green belt are operating under intense financial pressures and need to diversify and modernise in order to survive. This often causes conflict with city planners, who have limited awareness of issues relating to food production. Farms often find when they need to expand and include modern packing and distribution facilities to meet national standards, their planning permission is denied. Polytunnels and on-site farm shops are also unpopular with city planners, but both are increasingly essential for farms, extending the growing season and providing extra income.
To change these attitudes, the London Plan needs to specifically state that agriculture is one of the most beneficial uses of green belt land. Planners and policy makers need to recognise that urban agriculture, in all its forms, is viable and important land use.
Governments have far to go to fully support urban agriculture. Yet, successful relationships with local councils are beginning to emerge. One of Growing Communities urban farms is in Dagenham, a food desert, where they’ve transformed 1.4 acres of neglected land into a productive organic farm. The council granted them a ten year lease on the land, which enabled them to attract Lottery funding to involve more of the local community in growing, making and selling food. Training, employment and volunteering on the farm is giving locals a new, healthier relationship with food. Enterprises like these demonstrate the long term socio-economic benefits of mixed-use urban agriculture and could be a model for the future.
You can’t stop an idea whose time has come, and as the Milan Pact suggests, we’re moving towards an era where urban agriculture is a critical contribution to a rich fabric of sustainable food production.
Photograph: Shyamantha Asokan