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.

Healthier People

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 land.

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 practices.

Tinker, I. 1993. Urban Agriculture is Already Feeding Cities. Urban Agriculture in Africa, IDRC, Ottawa. In press.