Act: Inspiration

Is the Future of Urban Agriculture Up in the Air?

July 20, 2017

Some old reports are like wine. They get better with age.

That’s because, as a typical saying goes, “sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

That’s my excuse for never being able to control the mess of files in my basement office. I see the mess as an investment in these files getting better with age.

Way back in the mists of 2009, I photocopied a lengthy report on “family business gardens” and “low/no space” urban agriculture. It was written for people living in overcrowded shantytowns on the outskirts of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

The report piqued my interest then because I had recently met a group of wonderful people from Colombo, including an inspired medical officer of health, at an urban agriculture conference.

They talked with me about their project for helping women shantytown dwellers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable people throughout the Global South. The venture organized women who were busy raising young families in very difficult circumstances. The women worked on their own time to grow high-value medicinal plants in the bits and pieces of free space on the roof, wall, entrance or yard of their shanties. The plants were sold at a decent price to the health department, which turned them into Ayurvedic medicines.

The women got some cash income and some independence. As a side benefit, they added a touch of homemade fragrance and beauty to an otherwise desolate living area.

Where I first portrayed the empowerment techniques of vertical agriculture, as used by shantytown dwellers in Sri Lanka

The project so appealed to me that I featured it as an example of food empowerment in my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

The 2009 report stayed hidden under a pile in the basement until a month ago, when my wife threatened to call the fire marshal if I didn’t clear out my files. I started culling, came across this old report, and started leafing through it.

It suddenly came to me that this old report was no longer relevant just for people in shantytowns. The idea of making use of bits and pieces of land, time and skill to grow high-value crops is now relevant to a huge span of people everywhere.

Where is it written that food producers can only work full-time on their own expanse of land in the countryside?

There is now an international reserve army of unemployed, underemployed, underpaid and unpaid people who have the magical combination that makes for self-reliance — access to some time, space, skills and relationships that help them get by with a little help from their friends, neighbors and family.

I’m thinking of the millions of people who now work for Uber, or in the so-called “gig economy” — retirees, the unemployed and underemployed, seasonal workers, temps, sessionals, artists, people starting their career, graduate students, post-docs, home-based caregivers.

They all have some freedom of movement, some bits of spare time, some makeshift tools, some knowledge that they can put to work. They might prefer to be in the proletariat rather than the informal or casual labor market, or they may like being independent. Either way, they need to supplement their cash income by providing for themselves. The subsistence and peasant economy is making a comeback!

The 2009 report — which was sponsored by several organizations, including an urban agriculture organization called RUAF — helps me imagine how we could turn the gig economy into the subsistence-plus and self-reliance economy. Urban agriculture might just offer a pleasurable and affirming way to supplement incomes with sales or barter, or to offset the need to spend hard cash on food.

If so, this opens up a wide range of options between a gardening hobby on one end of the spectrum, and a paid, fulltime, high-production job at the other end. There’s lots of room at both ends, and across the middle, of those polar opposites in today’s job frontier.

Once again, we see how binary (either-or) thinking is the enemy of creative thinking about food.

There’s no good reason why the precariat be denied the same right to innovate and disrupt corporate economies to the advantage of everyday people? Two can play at this game. Innovative disruption should not be monopolized by the Amazons and Ubers of the world.


The report is a manual that helps people make use of “unused and under-used labour in the family” to produce food for sale and for family consumption in Family Business Gardens. Everything is geared to making opportunities available to everyone. The food will be grown in and near the home, in spaces that are easy to find and use, using simple tools and resources that are readily at hand.

The project was formally launched in Sri Lanka on World Environment Day in 2000. They called it “Family Business Gardens” (FBG), using “Low or No Space Agriculture(L/N-SA). According to the manual, the “main thrust of the FBG concept is to convert the simple form of home-gardening into a source of family nutrition supply and a source of mental satisfaction based on sustainable agricultural entrepreneurship/s.”

While it might seem to be inspired by the “small is beautiful” idea made famous by a 1970s book of that title, the project deserves to be named “tall is beautiful.” Lacking space on the ground, the gardens rely on “vertical cultivation structures.”

Business thinkers in the Global North are often captivated by the idea of “Blue Ocean” thinking. This refers to the wide blue yonder of the open ocean, where a small and industrious creature can work hard without worrying about being eaten by aggressive and dangerous whales or sharks. The whales and sharks eat their fill in an ocean they’ve made red with the blood of the fish who were looking for the easy life in more abundant waters.

The metaphor of blue and red ocean is meant to encourage small, independent and hard-working entrepreneurs to venture into new territories, where their hard work won’t be gobbled up by big competitors.

This is the business classic that inspired Blue Ocean strategy. City farmers in the slums of Sri Lanka invented their own form of innovative blue sky thinking.

We might refer to FBG as a school of “blue sky,” rather than “blue ocean” thinking. Competition for space on the ground is intense, but space is there for the taking up above. Innovation is looking up.


Having said that, growing food in the air is challenging, to say the least. It takes serious innovation, imagination and savvy to develop no-cost and low-cost technologies that make use of this space. We might call it airscaping instead of landscaping.

The Cultivation Tower makes the grade. Towers are made of bamboo or plastic pipes. The hollow pipes are filled with soil,and seeded through punctured holes at regular intervals. Instead of a row of greens on the ground, we have a pipe of greens, perhaps leaning against a wall.

I first saw a version of a cultivation tower when I toured the rooftop food production facilities at the Free University of the Earth in Oaxaca, Mexico. I had just given a talk there, and was taken to the roof by students, who were expected to do food-related chores as part of their learning. Students gathered empty large-sized plastic pop bottles from the street, and filled them with damp soil. Then, they punctured the plastic to make space for seeds. Hundreds of these hung in the air, mostly at shoulder level. As soon as salad greens sprout, they are picked for eating. The containers are harvested continuously, which means new space is regularly made available for fresh sprouts. All the salad greens are eaten fresh-picked, with optimal taste and nutrition. It’s a model of resource, space and nutritional efficiency.

The name for the production system is “continuous harvesting.” It’s sometimes called “pick and come again.”

If a Cultivation Tower isn’t suitable, a Cultivation Wall, modeled on book shelves, can be used. A wall ten feet high and ten feet wide can hold 100 pots overflowing with leafy greens, tomatoes and flowers.

Other variations are the Cultivation Arch, the Cultivation Bangle, the Cultivation Mat, Cultivation Umbrella, Cultivation Cage, Cultivation Rack, Cultivation Cradle, Cultivation Trolley, Cultivation Bag…..and on and on — whatever can hold up or provide backing for containers with plants.


Such airscaping methods not only invent spaces to grow food. The plants fulfill several purposes. They clean the air. They cool the air with their evaporation. They beautify a space. They impress tourists and visitors, who might buy some of the food. They create conversation pieces that in turn get neighbors talking to one another. They turn food scraps into compost instead of leaving them to rot. They recycle hundreds of containers that otherwise become litter.

In short, Family Business Gardens are “multifunctional.” They perform many functions, including ones that promote healthier and more livable cities. Their efficiency comes from doing many things at the same time, not from doing one specialized task, such as food production, pure and simple.

There’s no reason to believe that gardens modeled on Sri Lanka’s Family Business garden model wouldn’t bring a similar range of benefits to cities in North America and Europe.

For a beautifully illustrated Powerpoint on Family Business Gardens by the author of this manual, see here.


Close to the place in the pile where I found the old Sri Lanka manual was a legal guide to 16 American cities that have adopted bylaws on urban agriculture. It was released in 2011.

The survey is still a timely reminder of how city governments use the law to stop citizens from doing something new. Zoning is a major tool of local governments. Zoning bylaws are blunt instruments. Their main function is to express a Culture of No, or to be stuck between a straight Yes or No.

For anyone who wants to prevent bad things from happening, No is a quick and decisive answer. Alas, No has the same impact on anyone who wants to make good things happen. That’s the problem with blunt instruments. It’s also why surgeons look for tools that are more agile.

As kids, many of us had conversations with parents that went like this: “Can I go out, mom? No!”

We’re adults and taxpayers now, but still have the same conversation with city officials. “Can I have chickens in my back yard, a beehive by the side door, a community garden plot, a street vending cart, a green roof, a food garden on my front yard, a food garden under the electricity wires, a baking oven in my neighborhood park? No!”

The most amazing thing about city policy on urban agriculture is how often, and in how many ways, food production is prohibited. Lawns are never prohibited, so it’s not a question of cities banning plants. Cities are just banning plants that are edible.

Before accomplishing anything in the realm of urban agriculture, cities need to move from No, to Yes, but. Urban food production needs to be on par with cellphone use. People use cellphones “as of right.” But some restrictions are placed on their use in theaters, classrooms and coffee shops, to give a few examples. Similar kinds of restrictions based on courtesy and public safety can limit antisocial behaviors of food producers, if that ever becomes an issue.

Growing food should be treated like driving a car. Yes, you can drive a car, but you have to have a license and obey the traffic laws. Yes, you can grow food, but you have to follow common sense safety and neighborly practices.

The limits could be stricter than the US limits on what kind of machine gun you can buy without any ID or background check, or what kind of permission is required before corporations broadcast false advertizing of junkfood to infants. But they don’t need to be as strict as limits for driving a car, which requires a test, a license and insurance. With urban agriculture and many other activities, we need “a culture of yes, maybe.”

The parent-kid equivalent would be “Yes, you can go out, but take cab money, and call if you’ll be home after midnight.”


The sixteen city survey disappoints me for the same reason I’m disappointed by most reviews of city policies on urban agriculture.

For some reason, urban agriculture policy is stuck on a small portion of the potential of urban agriculture. In effect, policy is mostly about growing food in public spaces and selling that food. But most of the potential is in growing food in front and back yards and eating that food, or sharing it with friends and family.

If we are looking for impact, the first place to look is front and back yards, where there are few complications — not public green space and vacant space, where there are many complications.

Basic math has to play some role in impactful public policy. You can get a rough sense of how relevant public space policy is for urban agriculture by looking at private home ownerships figures in various countries. In the US, about 62 per cent of people own a home. In Spain, 85 per cent of people are homeowners. In Norway, it’s 77 per cent. In Israel, it’s 71 per cent. In the UK, it’s 69 per cent. In Canada, it’s 67 per cent. In my hometown of Toronto, where both house prices and condo sales are crazy, it’s 72.8 per cent, ten points ahead of the land of the American Dream.

Homes are also where many disadvantaged people live. In the Global North, seniors are often homeowners, and are encouraged by public policy to “age in place.” Many homeowners rent out basements and attics to individuals with low incomes. If shanties in the cities of the Global South are counted as homes, the home base for urban agriculture policy is even more clearly a matter of equity.

I support policies to encourage growing food on public lands, as one of my earlier blogs makes clear. Policies that favor public allotments are especially important in countries, such as Germany and Denmark, where a smaller population owns homes. Such policies are essential in communities where home ownership is unusually low — as is the case for well over half the African-American and Hispanic population in the US.

But the place where land devoted to urban agriculture can increase by leaps and bounds is among homeowners. To put the potential into perspective, Americans presently devote more land to growing grass lawns than they devote to farming corn, the biggest crop in the country.

Encouraging urban agriculture there does not rely on policy as much as it relies on support. If cities want to encourage urban agriculture at home, they should support it, not just pass policy on it. 

Cities should donate rain barrels to gardeners, thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on stormwater management. Cities should train residents on how to establish rain gardens, thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on cleaning up after city streets are flooded. Cities should offer equipment and training for home composting to condition garden soils, thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on garbage pickup and landfill management. Cities should give tax deductions to homeowners who follow gardening practices that use grey water (from sinks and bathtubs), thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on sewage widening. Cities should offer tax deductions to people who share their backyard garden space with neighbors who want and need to grow food to make ends meet, thereby encouraging neighborliness essential to successful cities. Cities should pilot tax deductions to gardeners who use hand tools and organic production methods when gardening, thereby reducing the air, water and noise pollution caused by grass lawns — possibly North America’s most polluting technology.

 With homegrown urban agriculture, we can replace a crop of lawn that causes water, air and noise pollution with crops from gardens which phase out food insecurity.

These are the easy things a Culture of Yes would do to promote urban agriculture, green infrastructure and vital neighborhoods.

When we see what disadvantaged shanty dwellers of Sri Lanka are doing to turn their yards into oases, a civic culture of no toward urban agriculture becomes inexcusable.

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, gig economy, urban agriculture