On the last day of the second week of my course ‘Understanding Rural Development’ I discussed the topic of urban and peri-urban agriculture. As background to this topic I mentioned the following trends:
- More than 50% of the world population is living in cities;
- The world population is increasing from to present 6.5 billion to an expected 9.1 billion in 2050;
- As result of the above more and more land suitable for agricultural production is being converted into residential and industrial areas;
- The number of farms in rural areas continues to decrease;
- Especially in ‘developed’ countries there is a growing societal demand for non-food rural goods and services;
- A rapid increase in food-related health, social, ethical and environmental problems, such as obesity, malnutrition, food insecurity, socio-spatial differences in access to food, environmental problems, et cetera.
Given these trends, the question is how to feed the growing urban population and to do this in a sustainable and healthy way. In class we discussed whether or not urban and peri-urban agriculture are a means to feed the urban citizen. And, elaborating on that, what kind of (peri-)urban agriculture is desirable and/or necessary.
For class debate I showed three different forms of urban (or metropolitan) agriculture:
- Community gardening in San Fransisco;
- Hydroponics in New York;
- A circular economics based agro-industrial park in Shanghai.
All three can examples can play a role in feeding urban citizen, although I am inclined to say that the first two are more realistic than the latter. This may also be due to the fact that the first two are empirical realities, while the latter is just a design. Anyhow, just have a look and judge for yourself.
When preparing the topic of urban agriculture I learned quite a lot about the impact and potentials of urban agriculture and about its many expressions. Let me mention a few:
- At this moment, at a global level, approximately 800 million people are involved in urban or peri-urban farming, implying that more than 25% of the urban population worldwide is involved in food production.
- The city of New York has around 5000 hectares of flat roofs on office and apartment buildings and if all these roofs were used for hydroponics-based vegetable production enough vegetables could be produced to feed 15 million people;
- In Australia 3% of agricultural land is located in peri-urban regions, yet this 3% of agricultural land accounts for 25% of the national Gross Value of Agricultural Production;
- A form of urban agriculture I had never heard of is SPIN farming, which stands for Small Plot INtensive farming. A SPIN farm (also known as the urban multi-plot farm) is made up of a collection of gardens situated in (sub)urban home owners’ front and backyards. To get an idea of a SPIN or urban multi-plot farm have a look at the website of the Boulder Community Roots Garden.
I am convinced that we will see a growth of urban agriculture in ‘developed’ countries as well as ‘developing countries’ (where urban and peri-urban agriculture are crucial to feed the urban citizen and where it is already much more widespread than in North America and Europe). As result urban agriculture will also become a topic of scientific research in the years ahead as it is (potentially) a form of food production that has many benefits in terms of creating healthy and sustainable cities. Of crucial importance is that research on the dynamics, expressions and potential benefits of urban agriculture and on its strengths and limiting and enabling factors is based on comparative analyses of cases from the ‘North’ as well as from the ‘South’. I believe that in Europe and North America we can learn a lot from experiences in Asian, African and South American cities.
Studying urban agriculture is not only scientifically interesting for different scientific disciplines but also highly relevant for policy making. Until now many countries seems to underestimate or simply neglect this form of food production and its (potential) impact on sustainable development as the urban-rural dichotomy is still very present in today’s policies. Agricultural and rural policies generally do not apply to (peri)urban areas whilst urban policies do not address the issue of food production as this is considered to be a rural activity. The need to overcome this distinction is increasingly being recognised by cities that are developing and implementing their own food strategy, such as London, Amsterdam, Gothenburg, Dar es Salaam, Toronto, etc. One of the bottlenecks in the implementation of these urban food strategies is the tension between the integrated character of urban food policies and the sectoral character of national agricultural, health, environment, etc. policies.
Understanding the dynamics of urban agriculture or more in general of urban food strategies and the interaction between (inter)national (sectoral) policies and local/regional (integrated) policies is a domain we will work on in the forthcoming years. For that I welcome suggestions for interesting cases from all over the world.