Urban agriculture: what and why?

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What is urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture can be defined shortly as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities. The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system: urban agriculture is embedded in -and interacting with- the urban ecosystem. Such linkages include the use of urban residents as labourers, use of typical urban resources (like organic waste as compost and urban wastewater for irrigation), direct links with urban consumers, direct impacts on urban ecology (positive and negative), being part of the urban food system, competing for land with other urban functions, being influenced by urban policies and plans, etc. Urban agriculture is not a relict of the past that will fade away (urban agriculture increases when the city grows) nor brought to the city by rural immigrants that will lose their rural habits over time. It is an integral part of the urban system.

In each city a further specification of urban agriculture is possible by looking at the following dimensions:

  • Types of actors involved. Large part of the people involved in urban agriculture is the urban poor. Contrary to general belief they are often not recent immigrants from rural areas (since the urban farmer needs time to get access to urban land, water and other productive resources). In many cities, one will often also find lower and mid-level government officials, school teachers and the like involved in agriculture, as well as richer people who are seeking a good investment for their capital. Women constitute an important part of urban farmers, since agriculture and related processing and selling activities, among others, can often be more easily combined with their other tasks in the household. It is however more difficult to combine it with urban jobs that require travelling to the town centre, industrial areas or to the houses of the rich.
  • Types of location. Urban agriculture may take place in locations inside the cities (intra-urban) or in the peri-urban areas. The activities may take place on the homestead (on-plot) or on land away from the residence (off-plot), on private land (owned, leased) or on public land (parks, conservation areas, along roads, streams and railways), or semi-public land (schoolyards, grounds of schools and hospitals).
  • Types of products grown. Urban agriculture includes food products, from different types of crops (grains, root crops, vegetables, mushrooms, fruits) and animals (poultry, rabbits, goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, guinea pigs, fish, etc.) as well as non-food products (like aromatic and medicinal herbs, ornamental plants, tree products, etc.) or combinations of these. Often the more perishable and relatively high-valued vegetables and animal products and by-products are favoured. Production units in urban agriculture in general tend to be more specialised than rural enterprises, and exchanges are taking place across production units.
  • Types of economic activities. Urban agriculture includes agricultural production activities as well as related processing and marketing activities as well as inputs (e.g. compost) and services delivery (e.g. animal health services) by specialised micro-enterprises or NGOs, etc. In urban agriculture, production and marketing tend to be more closely interrelated in terms of time and space than for rural agriculture, thanks to greater geographic proximity and quicker resource flow.
  • Product destination / degree of market orientation. In most cities in developing countries, an important part of urban agricultural production is for self-consumption, with surpluses being traded. However, the importance of the market-oriented urban agriculture, both in volume and economic value, should not be underestimated (as will be shown later). Products are sold at the farm gate, by cart in the same or other neighbourhoods, in local shops, on local (farmers) markets or to intermediaries and supermarkets. Mainly fresh products are sold, but part of it is processed for own use, cooked and sold on the streets, or processed and packaged for sale to one of the outlets mentioned above.
  • Scales of production and technology used. In the city, we may encounter individual or family farms, group or cooperative farms and commercial enterprises at various scales ranging from micro- and small farms (the majority) to medium-sized and some large-scale enterprises. The technological level of the majority of urban agriculture enterprises in developing countries is still rather low. However, the tendency is towards more technically advanced and intensive agriculture and various examples of such can be found in all cities.

Why urban agriculture?

The rapid urbanization that is taking place goes together with a rapid increase in urban poverty and urban food insecurity. By 2020 the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America will be home to some 75% of all urban dwellers, and to eight of the anticipated nine mega-cities with populations in excess of 20 million. It is expected that by 2020, 85% of the poor in Latin America, and about 40-45% of the poor in Africa and Asia will be concentrated in towns and cities.

Most cities in developing countries have great difficulties to cope with this development and are unable to create sufficient formal employment opportunities for the poor. They also have increasing problems with the disposal of urban wastes and waste water and maintaining air and river water quality. Urban agriculture provides a complementary strategy to reduce urban poverty and food insecurity and enhance urban environmental management. Urban agriculture plays an important role in enhancing urban food security since the costs of supplying and distributing food to urban areas based on rural production and imports continue to increase, and do not satisfy the demand, especially of the poorer sectors of the population. Next to food security, urban agriculture contributes to local economic development, poverty alleviation and social inclusion of the urban poor and women in particular, as well as to the greening of the city and the productive reuse of urban wastes (see below for further explanations and examples). The importance of urban agriculture is increasingly being recognised by international organisations like UN-Habitat and FAO (World Food and Agriculture Organisation).

The main reasons why Municipalities and international organizations are supporting urban agriculture are related to the following benefits of (intra- and peri-) urban agriculture:

  • Contributions to urban food security and nutrition

The contribution of urban agriculture to food security and healthy nutrition is probably its most important asset. Food production in the city is in many cases a response of the urban poor to inadequate, unreliable and irregular access to food, and the lack of purchasing power. Most cities in developing countries are not able to generate sufficient (formal or informal) income opportunities for the rapidly growing population. The World Bank (2000) estimates that approximately 50% of the poor live in urban areas (25% in 1988). In urban settings, lack of income translates more directly into lack of food than in a rural setting (cash is needed). The costs of supplying and distributing food from rural areas to the urban areas or to import food for the cities are rising continuously, and it is expected that urban food insecurity will increase (Argenti, 2000). Food prices in Harare, for example, rose 534 percent between 1991 and 1992 due to the removal of subsidies and price controls, spurring poor urban consumers to get access to food outside of market channels through home production or bartering (Tevera 1996).

Urban agriculture may improve both food intake (improved access to a cheap source of proteins) and the quality of the food may improve (poor urban families involved in farming eat more fresh vegetables than other families in the same income category).
In Harare, sixty percent of food consumed by low-income groups was self-produced (Bowyer-Bower and Drakakis-Smith, 1996).
In Kampala, children aged five years or less in low-income farming households were found to be significantly better-off nutritionally (less stunted) than counterparts in non-farming households (Maxwell, Levin and Csete 1998). Urban producers obtained 40 to 60 percent or more of their household food needs from their own urban garden (Maxwell and Zziwa 1992). In Cagayan de Oro, urban farmers generally eat more vegetables than non-urban farmers of the same wealth class, and also more than consumers from a higher wealth class (who consume more meat) (Potutan et al.1999).

In addition to production for their own consumption needs, large amounts of food are produced for other categories of the population. It is estimated (UNDP 1996; FAO 1999) that 200 million urban residents provide food for the market and 800 million urban dwellers are actively engaged in urban agriculture in one way or another.

These urban farmers produce substantial amounts of food for urban consumers. A global estimate (data 1993) is that 15-20% of the world’s food is produced in urban areas (Margaret Armar-Klemesu 2000).

Research on specific cities and products yield data like the following: in Hanoi, 80% of fresh vegetables, 50% of pork, poultry and fresh water fish, as well as 40% of eggs, originate from urban and peri-urban areas (Nguyen Tien Dinh, 2000); in the urban and peri-urban area of Shanghai, 60% of the city's vegetables, 100% of the milk, 90% of the eggs, and 50% of the pork and poultry meat is produced (Cai Yi-Zhang and Zhang Zhangen in Bakker et al. 2000); in Java, home gardens provide for 18% of caloric consumption and 14% of proteins of the urban population (Ning Purnomohadi 2000);Dakar produces 60% of the national vegetable consumption whilst urban poultry production amounts to 65% of the national demand (Mbaye and Moustier 1999). Sixty percent of the milk consumed in Dakar is produced in/around the city; and in Accra, 90% of the city’s fresh vegetable consumption is from production within the city (Cencosad 1994). Over 26000 popular gardens cover 2438,7 hectares in Havana and produce 25000 tons of food each year; a total of 299 square kilometres of urban agriculture produces 113525 tons/year (Mario Gonzalvez Novo and Catherine Murphy in Bakker et al. 2000);

Urban agriculture to a large extent complements rural agriculture and increases the efficiency of the national food system in that it (IDRC 1998) provides products that rural agriculture cannot supply easily (e.g. perishable products, products that require rapid delivery upon harvest), that can substitute for food imports and can release rural lands for export production of commodities.

  • Economic impacts

Growing your own food saves household expenditures on food; poor people in poor countries generally spend a substantial part of their income (50 – 70%) on food. Growing the relatively expensive vegetables therefore saves money as well as on bartering of produce. Selling produce (fresh or processed) brings in cash.

In Dar es Salaam, urban agriculture forms at least 60% of the informal sector (personal communication Mr. Majani UCLAS, Dar es Salaam, 2001) and urban agriculture is the second largest urban employer (20 percent of those employed). In 1993, urban fresh milk production was worth an estimated USD 7 million in 1993 (Mougeot 1994). The annual gross output of over ten thousand UA enterprises in the city of Dar es Salaam totalled 27.4 million USD, with an annual value added amounting to 11.1 million USD. In 1991, the individual urban farmer’s annual average profit was estimated at 1.6 times the annual minimum salary (Sawio 1998).

In Addis Abeba, above-normal profits are earned by even the smallest-scale backyard producers with very low capital (Staal 1997). In Harare, savings accruing to small-scale urban farmers are equivalent to more than half a month’s salary (Sanyal, 1996). In Nairobi in the early 1990s, agriculture provided the highest self-employment earnings among small-scale enterprises and the third highest earnings in all of urban Kenya (House et al. 1993).
In Mexico City production of swine brings in 10-40% of household earnings, urban cowshed-based milk can supply up to 100% of household income and in sub and peri-urban areas maize production provides 10-30%, vegetable and legume production even up to 80% of the household income (Pablo Torres Lima, L.M.R. Sanchez, B.I.G. Uriza in Bakker et al. 2000).

Besides the economic benefits for the urban agricultural producers, urban agriculture stimulates the development of related micro-enterprises: the production of necessary agricultural inputs and the processing, packaging and marketing of outputs. The activities or services rendered by these enterprises may owe their existence in part or wholly to urban agriculture. Other services may also be rendered by independent families and groups (e.g. animal health services, bookkeeping, and transportation).

Input production and delivery may include activities like the collection and composting of urban wastes, production of organic pesticides, fabrication of tools, delivery of water, buying and bringing of chemical fertilisers, etc.).

Transformation of foodstuffs may include the making of yoghurt from milk, or the frying of plantains or yams, chicken or eggs, etc. This might be done at the household level, to sell at the farm gate or in a local shop or market, and larger units to sell in supermarkets or even for export.

Special attention is needed for the strengthening of the linkages between the various types of enterprises in clusters or chains. The municipality and sectoral organisations can play a crucial role in stimulating micro-enterprise development related to urban agriculture. In Ecuador the municipality of Quito has provided marketplaces for urban farmers. The organic refuse left after a market day is collected by a women's group who compost the refuse to use in their own farms. A true win-win situation.

  • Social impacts

Urban agriculture may function as an important strategy for poverty alleviation and social integration. We mentioned earlier the positive stimulus it may give to women. Several examples exist of municipalities or NGOs that have initiated urban agriculture projects that involve disadvantaged groups such as orphans, disabled people, women, recent immigrants without jobs, or elderly people, with the aim to integrate them more strongly into the urban network and to provide them with a decent livelihood. The participants in the project may feel enriched by the possibility of working constructively, building their community, working together and in addition producing food and other products for consumption and for sale.

In more developed cities, urban agriculture may be undertaken for the physical and/or psychological relaxation it provides, rather than for food production per se. Also, urban and peri-urban farms may take on an important role in providing recreational opportunities for citizens (recreational routes, food buying and meals on the farm, visiting facilities) or having educational functions (bringing youth in contact with animals, teaching about ecology, etc.).

  • Contributions to urban ecology

Urban agriculture is part of the urban ecological system and can play an important role in the urban environmental management system. Firstly, a growing city will produce more and more wastewater and organic wastes. For most cities the disposal of wastes has become a serious problem. Urban agriculture can help to solve such problems by turning urban wastes into a productive resource. In many cities, local or municipal initiatives exist to collect household waste and organic refuse from vegetable markets and agro-industries in order to produce compost or animal feed, but one can also find urban farmers who use fresh organic waste (which may cause environmental and health problems). Quality compost is an important input that can fetch a good price, as the example from Tanzania shows. Compost allows an urban farmer to use less chemical fertilisers and by doing so preventing problems related to the contamination of groundwater. In addition, compost-making initiatives create employment and provide income for the urban poor.

Farmers may use wastewater for irrigating their farms when they lack access to other sources of water or because of its high price. The use of fresh (untreated) wastewater has the additional advantage for poor urban farmers that it contains a lot of nutrients (although often not in the proportions required by their soils and crops). However, without proper guidance, the use of wastewater may lead to health and environmental problems. Farmers need to be trained in self- protection during handling of the wastewater, proper crop selection and adequate irrigation methods, among other things.
Technologies such as hydroponics or organoponics, drip irrigation, zero tillage etc. substantially reduce water needs and health risks and are very interesting for the urban environment and can indeed be found in many cities.

The treatment and reuse of more urban wastewater in agriculture also needs to be ensured. This necessitates special decentralised treatment facilities and low cost (preferably bio-) technologies. In many cases, partial treatment will be optimal for agricultural reuse. More and more experience is being gained in public-private initiatives involving private enterprises and/or civic organisations in the development and management of municipal wastewater treatment plants. However, in most municipalities, the treatment capacity will be far lower than what is needed for many years to come, and farmers will continue to use raw wastewater - a fact that should urge municipalities and other actors to take proper accompanying measures. Without a doubt, each situation will require a tailor-made solution, preferably to be found by involving the stakeholders in a process of participatory problem analysis, planning and implementation.

Secondly, urban agriculture may also positively impact upon the greening and cleaning of the city by turning derelict open spaces into green zones and maintaining buffer and reserve zones free of housing, with positive impacts on the micro-climate (shade, temperature, sequestration of CO2). Degraded open spaces and vacant land are often used as informal waste dumpsites and are a source of crime and health problems. When such zones are turned into productive green spaces, not only an unhealthy situation is cleared, but also the neighbours will passively or actively enjoy the green area. Such activities may also enhance community self-esteem in the neighbourhood and stimulate other actions for improving the community's livelihood.

Thirdly, urban agriculture and urban forestry contribute to disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change by reducing runoff, keeping flood plains free from construction, reducing urban temperatures, capturing dust and CO2, while growing fresh food close to consumers reduces energy spent in transport, cooling, processing and packaging, whilst productive reuse of urban organic wastes and wastewater (and the nutrients these contain) reduces methane emissions from landfills and energy use in fertilizer production.

Three policy perspectives on urban agriculture

It is useful to distinguish three main policy perspectives on urban agriculture each associated with different types of urban agriculture. These three perspectives are helpful in designing alternative policy scenarios for the development of intra- and peri-urban agriculture.

The social perspective is mainly (but not exclusively) associated with subsistence oriented types of urban agriculture that form part of the livelihood strategies of urban low income households with a focus on producing food and medicinal plants for home consumption. In addition, the family expenses on food and medicines are reduced and some cash is generated from sales of surpluses. These households seek out multiple additional income sources for their survival. Examples include home gardening, community gardening, institutional gardens at schools and hospitals, and open field farming at micro scale with low levels of investment. These systems show little direct profitability but have important social impacts such as enhanced food security, social inclusion, poverty alleviation, community development, HIV-AIDS mitigation etc.

The economic perspective is particularly related to market oriented types of urban agriculture. Activities usually involve small-scale family-based enterprises and sometimes larger scale entrepreneurial farms run by private investors or producer associations. The activities not only include food production (e.g. irrigated vegetable production, stall-fed dairy production) but also non-food products (e.g. medicinal and aromatic herbs, flowers, ornamental plants). These commercial farms are associated with small-scale and larger enterprises involved in delivery of inputs (such as seed, compost, fodder, agro-chemicals) and the processing and marketing of agricultural products. These types of urban agriculture have a more pronounced economic impact and higher profitability, but their externalities for the city and urban populations, especially those of the intensive larger scale enterprises, tend to be higher especially through risk of water and soil contamination due to intensive use of agro chemicals, health risks from use of contaminated water for irrigation and risks of animal-human disease transfers (zoonosis).

The ecological perspective refers mainly to types of urban agriculture that have a multi- functional character: Besides provision of food and generating income they can play a role in environmental management for example, through nutrient recycling via decentralised composting and reuse of organic wastes and wastewater. They can also provide other services demanded by urban citizens: urban greening, improvement of the urban climate, keeping buffer zones and flood plains free from construction, provision of opportunities for leisure and recreational activities, storm water storage and flood prevention, etcetera. In order to enable such a combination of functions, urban and peri-urban agriculture will have to adopt agro-ecological production methods, link up with eco-sanitation and decentralised sustainable waste management systems, as well as becoming part of the planning and management of parks, nature reserves and recreational services.

The three policy perspectives on urban agriculture suggest different scenarios for the development of urban agriculture and enable to consider alternative policy measures, in relation to the actual situation in the city and the existing policy priorities. It should be stressed that the three perspectives certainly are not mutually exclusive and in practice, most policies on urban agriculture will be based on a specific mix of the three perspectives, giving different emphasis to a certain perspective in certain locations and with certain categories of the population and another perspective in other parts of the city territory and with other actors.

Multi-stakeholders Policy Development and Action Planning

Due to the cross cutting and multi-dimensional nature of urban agriculture, policy development and action planning on urban agriculture should involve various sectors and disciplines: agriculture, health, waste management, community development, parks and nature management, among others. Moreover, urban farmers, and the CBOs and NGOs supporting them, have to be involved in the planning process. An important aspect of strategic urban planning is related to the participation of the urban poor themselves in the analysis of the situation, in the definition of priorities and in action planning and implementation. Such consultative processes will make the outcomes of policy development and action planning not only robust and comprehensive, but also accepted and sustainable. Increasingly this is recognised and incorporated in urban planning approaches such as the multi-actor planning methodologies adopted by Local Agenda 21 and the Sustainable Cities Programme.

The RUAF Foundation, through its "Cities Farming for the Future" programme, introduced the “Multi- stakeholder Policy making and Action Planning (MPAP) approach in twenty cities around the world. In those cities, a Multi-stakeholder Forum on Urban Agriculture and/or Food Security has been established, involving all direct and indirect stakeholders in urban food production and consumption, assisted by one or more multi-disciplinary working groups. This multi-stakeholder forum functions as a platform for dialogue and consensus building among the various stakeholders regarding the following: problem definition, agenda setting and identification of priorities; making choices among alternative strategies and policy instruments available; coordination of the drafting of action plans and participatory budgeting. The results are integrated in a City Strategic Action Plan on Urban Agriculture that will be formally presented for approval to the City Council  (or one of its commissions). Subsequently, the Forum will coordinate the implementation of the actions plans, monitor the results obtained, draw lessons and adjust the strategies of the City Strategic Action Plan, if needed.

Municipal strategies for the Development of Safe and Sustainable Urban Agriculture

Urban policy makers can substantially contribute to the development of safe and sustainable urban agriculture by:

  • Creating a conducive policy environment and formal acceptance of urban agriculture as an urban land use;
  • Enhancing access to vacant open urban spaces and the security of agricultural land use;
  • Enhancing the productivity and economic viability of urban agriculture by improving access of urban farmers to training, technical advice, and credit and supporting the establishment and strengthening of urban farmer organisations;
  • Taking measures that prevent/reduce health and environmental risks associated with urban agriculture.

We will discuss below for each of these four areas mentioned above a number of key issues that require for policy attention and policy measures that might be adopted.

  • Creation of an enabling policy environment

Formal acceptance of urban agriculture as an urban land use and its integration into urban development and land use plans is a crucial step towards effective regulation and facilitation of the development of urban agriculture. Existing policies and by-laws regarding urban agriculture will have to be reviewed in order to identify and remove unsubstantiated legal restrictions and to integrate more adequate measures to effectively stimulate and regulate the development of sustainable urban agriculture.

A second important step is the creation of an institutional home for urban agriculture. Conventionally, sector policies have been defined under the assumption that agriculture refers to the rural sphere and will be attended to by institutions other than the urban ones, whilst most agricultural organisations don’t operate in the urban sphere. As a consequence, urban agriculture often does not have an institutional home.
Municipal authorities can play a key role in filling this gap by selecting a leading institute in this field, creating an urban agriculture office or department in this lead agency with proper staffing, and establishing an interdepartmental committee on urban food production and consumption. Nairobi and Accra have created a municipal agricultural department. In Villa Maria del Triunfo (Lima,  Peru)  an  urban  agriculture  sub-department  was  created  under  the Department  of Economic Development. The city of Rosario (Argentina) made in 2001 its Secretariat of Social Promotion responsible for the coordination of the new Urban Agriculture Programme. In Cape Town, South Africa, an inter-departmental working group has been established in 2002 to coordinate the activities in the field of urban agriculture of various Municipal and Provincial departments and facilitate integrated policy development. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, an Interdepartmental Committee on Urban Agriculture was created to coordinate the activities of the various Municipal departments active in this field including the Departments of Town planning, Health, Finance, and others.
Also important is stimulating the dialogue and co-operation among the direct and indirect stakeholders in urban agriculture. This can be done by setting up a multi-actor platform and working group on urban agriculture that organises the joint analysis  of the presence, role, problems and development perspectives of urban agriculture in the city and coordinates the process of interactive formulation of a policy and the planning and implementation of action programmes by the various actors.

  • Enhancing access to vacant land and security of land use

Naturally, land is a critical asset for urban agriculture, and its availability, accessibility and suitability are of particular concern to urban farmers. City governments may facilitate access of urban producers to available urban open spaces in various ways. Below we present a number of measures taken by various cities in the South to enhance access of (especially poor) urban producers to land and improve their security of land use.

Integration of urban agriculture in urban land use planning and zonification. Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Dakar (Senegal), Maputo (Mozambique); Pretoria (South Africa), Kathmandu (Nepal), Accra (Ghana), Kathmandu (Nepal) and Beijing (China) are examples of the many cities that have demarcated zones for urban agriculture areas as a form of permanent land use in the perspective to support agriculture in combination, to protect open green areas, flood plains and areas under power lines to be built upon, to create buffer zones between conflicting land uses. Demarcation of such zones alone is not enough Zoning in itself is not sufficient to maintain these green open spaces. To realise that, the political will of the local authorities and the practical, technical and financial support provided to the urban producers to stimulate the development of sustainable and multi-functional agriculture in these zones, is very important.

Making an inventory of the available vacant open land within the city. Contrary to the common belief, even in highly urbanised areas surprisingly high amounts of vacant land can be found that could be used for agriculture on a temporary or permanent basis. In the city of Chicago, researchers identified 70,000 vacant lots. Various cities, like Cienfuegos (Cuba), Piura (Peru) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) have made an inventory of the available vacant open land within the city (using methods like community mapping and/or GIS) and analysed its suitability for use in agriculture, which creates a good starting point for enhancing access, especially of the urban poor, to land for urban farming.

Temporal lease of vacant municipal land. Various cities, like Havana (Cuba), Cagayan de Oro (the Philippines), Cape Town (South Africa), Lima (Peru), Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and Governador Valadares (Brazil) have formulated a City Ordinance that regulates the (temporal) use of vacant municipal land by organised groups of urban producers. The vacant land (that might be land that is earmarked for other uses but not yet in use as such or land that is not fit for construction e.g. flood zones, land under power lines, etcetera, or buffer zones and land reserves for future use) is given in short or medium term lease to organized groups of urban poor for gardening purposes (multi annual purposive specific leaseholds or occupancy licenses). Often the contract with the farmers includes conditions and  regarding  the required  land, crop  and waste  management practices and eventually some restrictions.

Stimulating landowners to give vacant land in longer term leases for agriculture. The City of Rosario (Argentina) is providing a tax reduction to land owners that do lease out their land to urban producers (levying municipal taxes on land laying idle might be a complementary measure) and created a Land Bank which brings those in need of agricultural land in contact with landowners in need of temporary or permanent users. Also the city of Cagayan d’Oro, the Philippines, assists associations of the urban poor in the establishment of allotment gardens on privately owned land, which proves to be a successful strategy. Other examples of tenure agreements between urban producers and owners of private or semi-public estates with idle areas can be found in Accra (hospital grounds), Harare (golf club), Santiago de Chile (school yards), Dar es Salaam (university campus) and Port-au-Prince (church grounds). ​

Taking measures to improve the suitability of available tracts of land. The City of Cape Town (South Africa) not only provides access to vacant land but also is assisting urban gardening groups in removing debris from that land, ploughing it, delivery of compost, etcetera. In New York community groups and volunteers, with the help of the Department of Sanitation, cleaned out derelict open spaces in their neighbourhoods and started there a community supported garden, leading amongst others to an increase of the prices of residential properties within 1000 feet of the garden.

Providing assistance to reallocation of those urban producers that are poorly located (and therefore may cause serious health and/or environmental risks due to these locations). For example, in Jakarta, Indonesia, 275 dairy cattle farmers with over 5,500 cows have been reallocated from the inner city (where they caused disease and waste problems) to a peri-urban area. Cape Town (South Africa) is planning a similar action creating new livestock kraals in the peri-urban area for the intra-urban herd owners.

Including space for individual or community gardens in new public housing projects and slum upgrading schemes. Cities like Vancouver (Canada), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Kampala (Uganda), Rosario (Argentina), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Chicago (USA) are experimenting with the inclusion of space for home and/or community gardening in new public housing projects and slum upgrading schemes.​

Promotion of multifunctional land use. Under certain conditions urban farming can be combined with other compatible land uses. Farmers may provide recreational services to urban citizens, receive youth groups to provide ecological education, act as co-managers of parks, and their land may also be used as water storage areas, fire break zones, flood zones, etc. By doing so the management costs of such areas may be reduced, and protection against unofficial uses and informal re-zoning may be enhanced. In Bangkok (Thailand) aquaculture in urban or peri-urban lakes or ponds is combined with recreational activities like angling, boating, or a fish restaurant. In Calcutta the maintenance of the wetlands, agriculture and aquaculture are combined with wastewater treatment and reuse.

The Municipality of Beijing is promoting the development of peri-urban agro-tourism both in the form of larger agro-recreational parks as well as family-based agro-tourism: farmers diversifying their activities by offering services to urban tourists (food, accommodation, sales of fresh and processed products, functioning as tourist guide, horse riding, etc.). The local government made agro-tourism part of municipal and district level planning; established an agro-tourism association and information dissemination service; assists interested farmers with business planning, tax exemptions and funding of infrastructure development, and provides subsidized water and electricity. Some municipalities (e.g. Pretoria, South Africa; Vancouver, Canada; Rosario, Argentina)) entered into a partnership with producers to manage municipal open green spaces (and saving in this way the municipality considerable maintenance costs) by combining community gardening with other functions (e.g. park maintenance, recreational services).

  • Enhancing the productivity and economic viability of urban agriculture

The potential for improvement of the efficiency in urban farming systems is high. The urban farming sector tends to be highly dynamic, amongst others due to the closeness to the consumers, but its development is restrained amongst others due to urban farmers’ limited access to training and extension services. Agricultural research and extension organisations and other support organisations (i.e. credit institutions) have - until recently - given relatively little attention to agriculture in the urban environment. And where it has happened, most attention was given to the larger scale, capital intensive and fully commercial farmers, especially peri-urban irrigated vegetable production, poultry and dairy production.

Important measures that can be taken by Municipal Governments to enhance the productivity and economic viability of urban agriculture include the following:

Provision of training and extension services to urban producers. Governmental organisations, educational  institutes, NGO’s  and  the private sector  can  be stimulated by the Municipal Government to provide training, technical advice and extension services to urban producers, with a strong emphasis on ecological farming practices, proper management of health risks, farm development (e.g. intensification and diversification), enterprise management  and  marketing.  Cost-sharing systems (farmers, municipality, governmental organisations, and private enterprises) will be needed to ensure sustainability of such activities. For example, the Cape Town policy on urban agriculture (South Africa) calls upon the services of the research, training and support organisations in and around the city to provide the urban farmers with training on business administration, technical skills, marketing, etc.
The Botswana policy  paper  on  urban  agriculture  assigns  a critical role to  farmer  education  through the production of books, brochures, posters, and community level demonstration projects  and advocates for the integration of urban agriculture into the formal training and education system (e.g. agricultural colleges, technical schools). In Chicago, the Food Policy Council is the platform where the Municipality and NGO’s, like Heifer and Growing Power, coordinate their activities regarding capacity building and training activities for community gardeners.​

Strengthening farmer organisations. Most urban farmers are poorly organized, and if so mostly in an informal way, and thus lack channels and power to voice their needs. This limits the representation of their interests in urban policymaking and planning at the various levels and hampers their participation in development programmes. Well-functioning farmer organisations can  negotiate  access  to  land,  adequate tenure  arrangements  and  access  to  credit.  Such organisations may also take up roles in farmer training and extension, infrastructure development, processing and marketing; and control / certification of the quality of the products marketed. More efforts are needed to identify existing farmer organisations and informal networks of (various types of) urban farmers, and to analyse their problems and needs and effective ways to further develop these organisations. Municipalities may stimulate their departments as well as Universities, NGOs and CBO's present in the City to actively support farmer organisation and capacity development and to strengthen the linkages between farmer organisations and private enterprises, consumer organisations and support organisations.
The PROVE programme of Brasilia FD stimulated the urban producers to establish producer associations and their capacities were enhanced to gradually replace the government officers in their supporting role. In Rosario, Argentina, the Municipal Urban Agriculture Programme supported the establishment of the Urban Producers Network and helped them to establish working relations with various governmental and non-governmental organisations. In Beijing, agricultural cooperatives, often closely linked to village-level management, are created that facilitate capacity building and joint marketing.​

Development of adequate technologies for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is performed under specific conditions that require technologies different to those used in the rural context. Such specific conditions include among others: limited availability of space and the high price of urban land, proximity to large numbers of people (and thus a need for safe production methods), use of urban resources (organic waste and wastewater), and possibilities for direct producer-consumer contacts. Most available agricultural technologies need adaptation for use in these conditions whilst new technologies have to be developed to respond to specific urban needs (e.g. non-soil production technologies for use on roofs and in cellars; development of safe and economic practices for reuse of wastewater).
Municipalities can provide budget and expertise for local technology development, and/or to stimulate research organisations and universities to put urban agriculture issues on their research agenda and to undertake participatory action-research with urban producers. Also more coordination between research institutes, agricultural extension organisations, NGOs and groups of urban farmers could be promoted. Special attention is to be given to introduction of ecological farming practices (like integrated pest and disease management, ecological soil fertility management, soil and water conservation, etc.), space intensive and water saving technologies, health risk reducing practices and the creation of farmer study clubs and field schools that actively engage in the technology development and assessment process.
The national urban agriculture programme in Cuba undertakes ample practical research to develop technology appropriate for the urban conditions e.g. agro-ecological production methods that do not harm the environment. The Botswana policy paper on urban agriculture urges research and extension institutions to develop and disseminate technologies with and to small-scale urban farmers. The following technologies are mentioned: (a) adaptable cultivars (e.g. cabbage, tomato, union, etc.), (b) water saving techniques (e.g. drip irrigation system or micro-irrigation system), (c) appropriate production practices (e.g. hydroponics, concrete benches, protected agriculture).​​

Enhancing access to water, inputs and basic infrastructure. Also access to year round supply of low cost water is of crucial importance in urban agriculture as well access to (composted or fresh) organic materials and other sources of nutrients (like wastewater). Municipalities can play an important role in enhancing access of urban farmers to water and production inputs. The city of Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) provides treated wastewater to poor urban farmers in community gardens, while the city of Tacna (Peru) agreed to provide urban farmers its treated wastewater in return for their assistance to maintain public green areas. The City of Gaza (Palestinian Authority) promotes the reuse of grey household water in home and community gardens.
Mexico City (Mexico) promotes systems for rainwater collection and storage, construction of wells and the establishment of localised water efficient irrigation systems (e.g. drip irrigation) in urban agriculture to stimulate production and to reduce the demand for potable water. The municipality of Cape Town assist community garden groups with basic infrastructure (a fence, a tool shed, a tank and hoses for irrigation) and allows them to use up to a certain amount of piped water daily free of charge. The city of Havana facilitates adequate supply of quality seeds, natural fertilizers and bio-pesticides in small quantities to urban farmers through a network of local stores and is supporting the establishment of decentralised low-cost facilities for compost production and the installation of composting toilets.

Enhancing access of urban farmers to credit and finance. Improvement of the access of urban farmers to credit and finance (with an emphasis on women-producers and the resource poor farmers) is very much needed. Municipalities can stimulate (e.g. by creating a guarantee fund) existing credit institutions to establish special credit schemes for urban producers or to allow the participation of urban producers in existing credit schemes for the informal sector. In Brasilia FD (Brazil), the PROVE programme provided the urban producer associations with a non-monetary guarantee in the form of "Mobile Agro-industries" (metal frames that can be transported on a truck). Since these frames are mobile and durable, they can be used as collateral for a commercial loan. The inclusion of urban agriculture in the municipal budget is also an essential component in the promotion of urban agriculture activities. In many cities, the City Council allocates resources to support its policy and programme on urban agriculture (infrastructure development, training, marketing support, start-up kits, etcetera.

Facilitate (direct-)marketing. Due to the low status of urban agriculture and the usual exclusive focus on food imported from rural areas and the exterior, the creation of infrastructure for direct local marketing of fresh urban produced food and local small processing of locally produced food has received little attention in most cities. Municipalities may facilitate marketing by poor urban farmers by providing them access to existing city markets or to assist them in the creation of farmers’ markets (infrastructure development, licenses, control of product quality), authorize food box schemes and/or support the establishment of “green labels” for ecological grown and safe urban food. An example is Brasilia D.F. that is furthering the integration of small food production with local food processing and marketing.

The Budapest municipality assisted Biokultura, the local organisation of urban and peri urban farmers, to establish a weekly organic farmers’ market for organically grown food products. The municipality of Governador Valadares has prioritised the marketing of urban agricultural products in different ways: (a) by providing incentives for the formation of cooperatives for the production and commercialization of products, (b) by the creation of sales and distribution centres as well as farmers markets in the city and c) by buying agricultural products from the urban farmer  groups  to  supply  to  schools,  community  kitchens,  hospitals  and  other  service organizations.​

Supporting micro-enterprise development. Various Municipalities are promoting the development of small scale enterprises: suppliers of (often ecological) farm inputs (compost, earthworms, open pollinated seeds and plant materials, bio-pesticides) and processing enterprises (food preservation, packaging, street vending, transport) by provision of start-up licenses and subsidies or tax reductions to micro- and  small entrepreneurs, provision of technical and management assistance to micro- and small enterprises or provision of subsidies and technical assistance for local infrastructure and equipment for small scale food preservation and storage facilities. In Ghana, the Tema Municipality cooperated with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in the establishment of a milk collection system in order to encourage dairying in the peri-urban areas of Tema. In Brasilia, the Municipality facilitates the development of small agro- processing and/or packaging units managed by urban farmer groups and assisted them in setting up quality labels and other marketing strategies.

  • Measures  to  reduce  the  health  and  environmental  risks  associated  with  urban agriculture

Rather than restricting urban agriculture out of fear - often unspecified – of health and environmental risks associated with urban agriculture, cities –instead- better design a series of accompanying measures to reduce these risks. The following measures are regularly recommended to prevent eventual risks associated with urban agriculture:

Improved coordination between health, agriculture and environmental departments. The first measure to be taken is to create mechanisms of cooperation between agriculture, health and environment/waste management departments to assess actual health and environmental risks associated with urban agriculture and to design effective preventive and mitigating strategies for which the participation of all these sectors is required. In Kampala, Uganda, health, agricultural and town planning specialists closely cooperated in the development of the new ordinances on urban agriculture livestock and fisheries. In Phnom Penh (Cambodia) steps are being taken to improve the coordination between municipal departments, universities and private organisations  for  controlling and monitoring the microbiological and chemical quality of the wastewater-fed fish and plants in order to reduce a number of health problems (especially skin infections) related to wastewater fed aquaculture. In Kumasi, Ghana, small kits have been made available to various local organisations to periodically test the quality of the irrigation water.

The Accra working group on urban agriculture, with the Accra Metropolitan Assembly as a member, has drafted revised by laws on the use of waste water and support an awareness campaign on health risk minimisation strategies in production and marketing (Farm to Fork) of urban vegetables. The Ministry of Housing, Construction and Sanitation of Peru (MVCS) is formulation of policy guidelines for the promotion of productive use of treated wastewater in intra- and peri-urban agriculture) and recreational use of wastewater (irrigation of parks and other public green areas).​

Health considerations when zoning urban agriculture. Many cities identify zones where certain types of urban agriculture are allowed (often defining required management practices) and other types are excluded (due to expected negative effects in the given local circumstances) in order to reduce health and environmental risks. When preparing such a zoning and related regulations, factors like population density, the ecological sensitivity of the area concerned, closeness to polluting industry, closeness to sources of drinking water, etc. should be taken into account as well as the potential risks related to certain types of urban agriculture. Furthermore, the available means to enforce the zonification and related regulations should be taken into account. A city may want to avoid free roaming cattle and major concentrations of stall-fed dairy cattle or piggeries in central districts (traffic, bad smells, flies, waste management problems). Also intensive horticulture and poultry keeping in areas that are sources of drinking water (risk of water contamination) or mono-cropping in river stream beds (erosion problems/siltation of dams) might need to be avoided. Also proper location of crop fields in relation to sources of contamination is important in order to reduce the effects of air pollution. Within 50-75 meters of a main road, leafy vegetables could better be avoided; production of food crops close to industries that emit certain toxic elements should be discouraged.​ ​

Farmers education on the management of health and environmental risks. Health risks associated with urban farming can be reduced substantially if farmers are made well aware of these risks and know how to prevent them. Examples of preventive measures that can be implemented by farmers themselves are the following: Application of ecological farming methods to reduce risks related to intensive use of agrochemicals; ​Adoption of adequate animal wastes management, regular cleaning and disinfection of the stables, proper handling of animal feed, etc. in order to prevent health risks related with raising animals in proximity of homes; and Use of adequate irrigation practices and proper crop choice to reduce health risks related to the use of wastewater in agriculture. Untreated wastewater preferably should not be used for food crops (especially not fresh leafy vegetables), but may be used for growing trees or shrubs, crops for industrial use and other non-edible plants (ornamentals, flowers). In Xochimilco, Mexico, urban producers have shifted from vegetable growing to a lucrative floriculture when untreated canal waters became unfit for food growing. In Hyderabad, India, farmers shifted from production of paddy to fodder grass production, when river water that is used for irrigation, gradually became more polluted. Food fish farmers in Bangkok, facing increasing pollution and food safety problems, were stimulated to switch to ornamental fish production. Vegetable producers in Ho Chi Minh City have begun cultivating ornamental plants for the urban middle class to reduce the risks of growing vegetables with wastewater. Municipalities in Ghana, Jordan and Senegal are field testing the various methods and procedures proposed by WHO to reduce risk of use of wastewater in urban agriculture in situations where comprehensive wastewater treatment is too expensive and not feasible in the near term (as common in many cities in the South). ​

Training of food vendors and consumers. During production, processing and marketing crops can get contaminated. Access to clean water and sanitation facilities in markets should be provided and food-hygiene training is to be provided to small food processors and vendors. Consumers need to be educated regarding washing or scraping of crops, heating of milk and meat products and securing hygienic conditions during food handling. They also need education regarding the importance of fresh nutritious foods and medicinal herbs and their preparation (also in relation to HIV-AIDS). A FAO project on making street foods safer, among others in Dakar Senegal, is training food vendors, food inspectors and consumers in food hygiene issues. In Accra, Ghana, a multi-partner project resulted in the training of more than 3,000 street food vendors on improved hygiene practices as well as increased consumer awareness.

Prevention of industrial pollution of soils and water by industry. Contamination of soils, rivers and streams by industry is a growing obstacle to safe urban food production. Separation of city waste (residential and office areas) and industrial waste streams and treatment of industrial wastes at the source should be promoted. In areas where contamination might occur (e.g. down streams of industrial areas: both wind and water) periodic testing of soils and water quality in agricultural plots might be needed. Increasing pollution and contamination of the city’s domestic wastewater with industrial wastewater effluents is a major constraint to the continued viability of irrigated urban agriculture as well as to aquaculture. In many South-East Asian cities, the continuity of the existing potential for growing aquatic vegetables and fish using urban wastewater will depend on the city planners’ ability to coordinate and develop strategies for effective separation of toxic industrial waste from domestic sewage.
There are already encouraging examples in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) of relocation and zoning of urban industries to industrial parks which allow for more effective treatment and monitoring of effluents. In the medium term, enforcing existing pollution control legislation to control contaminants at their source and monitoring and regulation of industrial wastewater discharge in public water sources can be effective in reducing health risks.

Final remarks

A growing number of cities are designing policies and programmes on urban agriculture, applying multi-stakeholder planning approaches to identify effective ways to integrate urban agriculture into urban sector policies and urban land use planning and to facilitate the development of safe and sustainable and multi-functional urban agriculture. Urban agriculture has the potential to become a dynamic economic sector that quickly adapts to changing urban conditions and demands, intensifying its productivity and diversifying its functions for the city. governmental policy should create the proper framework conditions for optimal development of the social, economic and ecological benefits of urban agriculture, whilst reducing negative effects on public health and environment that some types of urban agriculture can have if improperly managed or not well located.

The sustainability of urban agriculture is closely related to its contributions to the development of a sustainable and resilient city that is socially inclusive, food-secure, productive and environmentally-healthy.