Urban Agriculture Feeds Cities
Despite its critical role in producing food worldwide, urban food
production has largely been ignored by scholars and agricultural
planners. Government officials and policy makers at best dismiss
the activity as peripheral and at worst burn crops and evict farmers,
claiming that urban farms are unsightly and promote pollution
and illness. Contradicting this image, recent studies document
the commercial value of food produced in urban areas while underscoring
the importance of urban farming as a survival strategy among the
urban poor, particularly female heads of households.
Studies of urban agriculture challenge the assumptions of economic
development theorists, Marxists and modernists, who see urban
agriculture as the inappropriate retention of peasant culture
in cities and confidently predict its disappearance. Studies also
challenge development planners who perceive a dichotomy between
rural and urban, between agriculture and cities, and assign food
production solely to rural areas. Animals as well as vegetable
gardens have long been characteristic of urban life.
What is urban agriculture?
Urban agriculture refers not only to food crops and fruit trees
grown in cities but encompasses animals, poultry, fish, bees,
rabbits, snakes, guinea pigs and other indigenous animals. "Urban"
is difficult to define. Municipal boundaries seldom reflect land
use. As cities expand, they often engulf existing villages that
continue to farm in increasingly constricted surroundings. Transportation
systems tie more remote villages to the urban economy. Urban dwellers
often maintain their own peri-urban farms by visiting them on
a weekly basis, or by sending family members during the cropping
season. Long ago China recognized the different land uses surrounding
urban areas and created municipal boundaries to allow urban control
of the surrounding agricultural land.
Within town boundaries worldwide, squatters grow corn in window
boxes while middle class residents intercrop western vegetables
with flowers. Dense metropolitan areas contain river valleys,
floodplains, cliffs and quarries where building is unwise if not
impossible, and where urban gardens flourish. Public areas along
roads and railroads or under high tension lines beckon the malnourished
but are the most vulnerable to destruction by authorities.
Surveys by Save the Children in Kampala, Uganda indicate that
there are significant long-term benefits for children in poor
households that produce their own food. Both Save the Children
and UNICEF concluded that urban agriculture in Kampala supplied
sufficient food and that there was no need for supplementary feeding
programs despite civil dislocation throughout the 1980s.
In neighboring Kenya, home-grown food is critical to the nutritional
status of families: 25% of urban families in the six major cities
of Kenya claim they cannot survive without self-produced food.
Who are urban farmers?
In Africa the majority of urban farmers are women. In Kenya 56%
of the farmers in six cities surveyed were female; the ratio rises
to 62% in the larger cities. Sixty-four percent of these women
farmers are heads of households, a fact that illustrates how critical
urban agriculture is to the survival of poor families.
Urban farmers are not recent migrants; land pressure is such that
new arrivals have less access to land than longer-term residents.
A large percentage of the urban farmers are white collar workers,
even mid-level bureaucrats, with larger house plots.
A critical issue for urban development is land ownership or use
rights as modern systems of land registration clash with inherited
patterns. In Kenya, only 41% of urban farmers own the land they
use, while 42% (primarily the poorest) grow their crops on government
A second issue is the attitude of governments toward urban agriculture.
Colonial governments typically forbade visible urban agriculture
as unsightly; many of these laws still exist. Enforcement varies
from country to country, and often relates to the existence of
a food deficit in the country. Uncertainty created by anticipated
harassment keeps farmers from investing in soil or crop improvement.
Even if harassment ceased, land values and zoning would play equally
important roles in determining the extent of future urban food
production. Could gardens replace some parks as important green
space in built up areas? How should such land be taxed?
Urban agriculture is also condemned for its presumed negative
health impact. Many people continue to believe that malarial mosquitoes
breed in maize grown in urban areas, despite evidence to the contrary.
The potential health risks are insignificant compared with the
benefits of urban food production.
Government response to urban food production has generally been
one of neglect if not harassment. Land use regulations for both
public and private land are needed for urban food production to
flourish. More information about crops and fertilizers, water
and pesticides, could greatly increase crop production while immunization
and advice on feeding would improve livestock and reduce the number
of premature deaths. To encourage such governmental reconsideration
of policies toward urban and peri-urban agriculture, careful quantitative
comparative studies must be completed in order to understand current
Tinker, I. 1993. Urban Agriculture is Already Feeding Cities.
Urban Agriculture in Africa, IDRC, Ottawa. In press.