Urban Farming Techniques

One of the most promising developments for a future of worldwide food security is that of urban agriculture. It has long been tradition in Asia, Europe, and many parts of Africa, and today the technique is a multifaceted solution to many obstacles to food security. It is even more valuable due to the growing urban population worldwide: 2.5 billion more people are expected to be added just to urban areas by 2050 (United Nations). Urban farming is food, fuel, or sales items grown within the limits of a city or just outside it, and produced specifically for local markets (Smit and Nasr). Varieties of urban agriculture include: aquaculture, or fish and aqueous plants bred in tanks, ponds, rivers, or bays; livestock raised in backyard pens or similar spaces; orchards such as vineyards, street trees, and backyard trees; space-efficient crops such as vegetables grown on rooftops, in cellars, in vacant lots, alongside canals and roads, and in small community farms (Smit and Nasr).

Urban farms can vary from individual or household small gardens, group or cooperative farms, to commercial enterprises, but most are micro- to small farms. Products include staple foods, fruits, vegetables, and livestock such as poultry (Feeding the Cities). Non-food crops like medicinal herbs, ornamental plants, and tree products are important to urban gardens as well, since growing a greater variety of crops provides more opportunities for farmers’ income through sales, in addition to nutritional needs met by farmer-used food crops (RUAF). As a general guideline for choosing crops, all food produced in an urban garden should be low value to discourage theft, have a quick rotation due to uncertainty of land security, and be hardy and adaptable to various conditions as a result of lack of shelter or proper tools in many cases (Feeding the Cities). These general guidelines, adapted to different climates and city structures, can make the practice possible, affordable, and effective in most all regions of the world.

Marketing of products is normally done by farmers themselves, and is closely related to processing and production of food due to the close proximity of all three stages within the city. Compared to rural areas, the flow of resources is quite fast and thus improves the interaction between these aspects of agriculture. Urban farming is integrated into the ecosystem of a city, using its inhabitants as laborers and linking consumers to their food. It influences and is influenced by policies and plans of local government, and interacts with the urban poor: anyone from mid-level government officials to schoolteachers, as well as more wealthy investors. Women are particularly involved in production, acting as farmers, processors, and salespeople to combine this outside job seamlessly with their everyday household tasks (RUAF), which improves their standing in communities as they become more widely necessary to the production of income and food.

Urban farming can be done within the city or on its outskirts; on a homestead or away from a residence (off-plot); on private, public (e.g. rooftops), or semi-public land (such as schoolyards and hospital grounds). In contrast with rural farming, urban production units are usually highly specialized, since they are limited to only a few acres of land as well as a smaller number of crops. More attention and effort are given in order to increase the efficiency of the small crops through maintaining optimal growth conditions (of soil, water, sunlight, et cetera), but the technology tends to be much less advanced than that of rural farming (RUAF).

Benefits of Urban Agriculture

By 2025, 65% of the world’s people will live in cities (Feeding the Cities); this number includes the anticipated addition of four billion people in the next century (Fedoroff). In 2000, half of the world’s poor lived in cities, and urban farming has been shown to increase economic stability for low-income households (RUAF). As the population of the earth grows, food production must multiply many times over, meaning we must maximize the land used for producing food. It is much simpler to develop methods of urban farming, where many people live, than to try to encourage traditional urbanites to move to a rural farm in order to produce more food. Thus, the benefits of urban farming cannot be overstated in this time of a population boom within our cities.

Urban agriculture can solve problems from disposal of urban wastes, to poor air and water quality, to poverty, as will be explored in this article. Benefits of urban agriculture include environmental improvements such as reduced run-off and lower energy consumption, which can improve the sustainability of cities and ensure a greener future; avoided costs of wastewater treatment and organic waste disposal when these are safely used as nutrients for urban soil; reduction of urban squalor as a result of higher incomes; fewer expensive imports; uplifting the status of women in society; beauty through flowers, trees and gardens; income for producers; and employment for under-employed urbanites (Feeding the Cities).

Producers of urban crops often get 40-60% of their family’s nutritional needs from their own home (RUAF). In large Chinese cities, over 90 percent of vegetable requirements are produced in cities (Smit and Nasr). The city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, reports that urban agriculture is 60% of its informal sector and that the average farmer’s annual profit was 1.6 times the average annual minimum salary of the city. In Mexico City, home milk production can supply a family’s entire necessary income (RUAF). The sale of produced food provided direct earnings in cash for more than 100 million people by the late 1990’s, an important source of income for the chronically poor (Feeding the Cities).

Urban costs of supplying and distributing food are increasing drastically while the demand is not yet satisfied, especially among the poor; urban agriculture greatly reduces such expenses and assists the lowest income households. It supplies much of the food cities need without the transport expenses or urban waste and wastewater disposal problems due to the ability to use such wastes as resources for fertilizer and irrigation (Feeding the Cities) and improves food intake amount, quality, and freshness: in Kampala, capital of Uganda, children under five years living in a food-producing home were much less stunted than those in non-farming households (RUAF).

Urban farming provides a variety of social functions, such as a positive stimulus to women in communities, social integration, poverty alleviation, community pride, psychological relaxation, recreation, education about  animals and ecology for youth, and projects to involve disadvantaged societal groups such as orphans, the disabled, elderly people, and recent immigrants (RUAF).

It also performs many beneficial ecological functions. As growing cities produce more waste, local initiatives have been appearing to collect this organic refuse to produce compost or animal feed for urban gardens. Organic waste may cause environmental or health issues, so it is vital that farmers receive proper training, but it does contain many useful nutrients for crops and prevents the use of chemical fertilizers and thus contamination of groundwater. Compost-making also creates employment and income for the poor (RUAF). The reuse of wastewater allows cities to shift from a one-way system of resources to a closed-loop system (see figure below).

image00(Terrascope class of 2019, 2015)

Derelict open spaces throughout a city can be transformed into green zones, providing reserved housing-free buffer zones to simplify city planning, in addition to shade, temperature control, and sequestration of carbon dioxide. The spaces are also prevented from becoming dumpsites or high crime regions (RUAF). Disaster risk is also reduced by the farms’ adaptations to climate change and reduction in runoff. Construction on flood plains is prevented, urban temperatures drop, and dust and carbon dioxide is captured more efficiently when urban gardens are installed. Energy spent in transport, cooling, preservation, processing, and packaging of food from far away is reduced along with methane emissions from landfills and chemical fertilizer.

Future of Urban Agriculture and Solutions to Obstacles

These numerous benefits of urban farming lead us to strongly promote its use in the coming century as a step toward global food security. Indeed, over 800 million urbanites are currently engaged in urban agriculture in some way and 15-20% of world’s food is produced in cities already (RUAF). Yet, with all these advantages, urban agriculture only exists in 10% of North American cities, in contrast to over 80% of Asian and Siberian cities  and 66% of households in Kenya and Tanzania (Feeding the Cities, Smit and Nasr). This difference in practice is due in large part to its status as a long tradition in these areas, while it has always been uncommon in North America. However, most urban households report that they would farm if they had access to land (Feeding the Cities).

This reveals a greater underlying problem: not enough people are aware of urban agriculture, and many don’t yet have opportunities to be engaged in it. The practice must be much more greatly promoted by municipal governments and organizations to make it more widespread. Urban agriculture has experienced a history of discrimination by city and local authorities, including legal action and confiscation of produced goods. The technique faces a lack of available land due to legal red tape preventing the use of spare and waste vacant lots, so policymakers should make these more accessible to farmers. Solid wastes and waste water can be provided for free to urban farmers, a practice in certain cities that both increases the efficiency of crop growing  with these nutrients and solves the city’s problems with waste disposal.  This is traditional around Africa, especially in Zambia and Tanzania. Kano, Nigeria, has for centuries used household waste as fertilizer (Smith). Modesto, California, and the surrounding area have looked into the city allowing use of waste water as irrigation recently (KQED). Many urban-farming supportive cities also currently provide organic wastewater treatment prior to giving the resource to farmers, such as Jakarta, in Indonesia (Smit). Urban authorities should also promote sustainable practices and urban farming in general, as it improves the sustainability and self-sufficiency of the city as a whole. Effective strategies also include providing improved seeds and establishing cooperatives among urban farmers (Feeding the Cities).

Urban policymakers should create an environment conducive to safe and sustainable urban agriculture, such as making the acceptance of it as a land use formal. Many policies and bylaws should be reviewed in cities to ensure that all unsubstantiated legal restrictions are removed and to implement new plans to regulate the development of urban farming most effectively. Current sector policies usually define agriculture organizations strictly to the rural sphere, but this leaves urban agriculture without a spearheading organization. As a solution, many cities have selected a leading institute of agriculture and have both created an office or department of urban farming and established an interdepartmental committee to link urban food production and consumption within the government (RUAF).

Authorities should also improve access to vacant spaces in the city for potential farmers and the security of the use of the land for agriculture. Availability, accessibility, and suitability of land are all vital to the success of sustainable urban agriculture. In cities such as Dar es Salaam, Dakar, Pretoria, Kathmandu, Accra, and Beijing, zones have been demarcated as permanent spaces for urban farming (RUAF). As cities around the world continue to grow and therefore plan new expansion areas, the zoning department could implement strategies to do the same. Government officials in these areas have also taken inventory of available vacant land, using community mapping and GIS, in order to demonstrate that there are usually many more lots than potential farmers realize; for example, over 70,000 vacant lots were counted in Chicago recently. Yet, many people, especially in countries like the US where the practice is not traditional, don’t know much about urban farming or aren’t aware of the resources needed to begin a farm; these lots then go unused, or the zoning department prevents their use for agriculture specifically, often citing safety reasons.

Some land is not yet used, but is intended for other uses; other lots are not fit for construction for a variety of reasons, such as the presence of power lines; however, these spaces should not be disregarded. Temporal, limited use of land by organized urban food-producing groups is a viable option for urban agriculture due to its quickly changing nature and relative mobility. Short and medium term leases are given to groups of urban poor, along with a contract detailing conditions, by private landowners. Allotment gardens can also be sold on private land. The city of Rosario, Argentina, even gives a tax reduction to landowners that lease out to urban producers (RUAF).

It is likewise important that policymakers enhance productivity of urban farms and their economic viability by improving farmers’ access to safety training, technical advice, and credit opportunities. Agrotourism has been found recently to be an effective source of income for many poor who provide tourists with food, accommodation, and guiding around the urban-farmed area, but many cities block this industry with overly stringent laws.

Training should include emphasis on sustainable and ecological farming practices, management of health and environmental risks, and the development, management, and marketing of urban farms and food. Space-intensive and water-saving methods are usually included in training sessions along with strategies to reduce health risks of reuse of wastes. Because much urban farming occurs on rooftops and cellars, non-soil production methods should be incorporated as well. Rosario, Argentina is an example of a city that strongly encourages urban agriculture, providing short training courses for new groups of community farmers as they are formed.

Using urban farming methods as opposed to traditional farming can reduce a variety of health risks. Facilitation of coordination between municipal health, agriculture, and environmental departments is useful to assess risks and design preventive strategies. Zoning can be done in a way that most effectively reduces the risk of urban farms by considering population density, proximity of water sources, and pollution from main roads or industrial areas.

Local governments should ensure that untreated wastewater is not used to irrigate food, especially fresh leafy vegetables, but instead to water trees, shrubs, industrial-use crops, herbs, and flowers. This can be verified by regular tests of water quality and soil in urban farms, as well as required inspections of treatment facilities. Pollution prevention tactics include separating city and industrial wastes, treating industrial waste at the source, and periodically testing soil and water quality near agricultural plots. Finally, governments should ensure that training of vendors, consumers, producers, processors, and inspectors includes hygienic information about washing and scraping of crops, heating of milk and meat, and the importance of fresh nutritious food (RUAF).

City authorities must encourage greater access to credit and finance, especially loans, with an emphasis on women producers and the resource-poor to improve these disadvantaged groups’ esteem and value in their communities. An effective strategy is to create a guaranteed fund and stimulate credit institutions (via encouragement, dialogue, and/or legal changes) to establish credit plans specifically for urban food producers. Municipalities can also facilitate direct marketing by giving urban production groups access to existing markets with entrance conditions or by creating farmers’ markets with new infrastructure, licenses, and quality control of some kind. Many cities have also created labeling systems for eco-grown and safe urban food to inform consumers (RUAF).

Because farmer organizations tend to be quite small, there is great need for farmers to represent their interests in policymaking and planning. They must be able to negotiate access to land, credit options, and temporal arrangements. Such groups may play a role in anything from training setup to infrastructure development to the certification of quality of various urban products.

All of these steps, when taken by local and city governments and members of a community, will lead to increased productivity of existing urban farms and increase their number worldwide. As referenced previously, producers of urban food receive up to 60% of all nutritional requirements from their own gardens (RUAF); if urban farming were more widespread, billions more could have nearly self-sufficient food security. The many aforementioned benefits of urban agriculture are undeniable for its merit as a future prevention of food insecurity. We all must urge our policymakers to encourage the practice, both at home and abroad, before world food production is not enough to feed the billions of hungry mouths that are only increasing.

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Works Cited

Feeding the Cities, Role of Urban Agriculture. (1996, November 13). Natural Resource Management and Environment Department, FAO. Retrieved November 10, 2015, from www.fao.org/docrep/x0262e/x0262e22.htm#v.

Fedoroff, Nina V. Food in a Future of 10 billion. (2015, August 21). Agriculture & Food  Security. Retrieved 10 November 2015 from http://agricultureandfoodsecurity.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40066-015-0031-7

Resources on Urban Agriculture and Food Security Foundation. Retrieved November 9, 2015 from www.ruaf.org.

Smit, Jac and Nasr, Joe. Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Cities. (1992, October).  SAGE Social Science Collection, Environment and Urbanization. Retrieved 12 November 2015 from http://eau.sagepub.com/content/4/2/141.full.pdf.

Sommer, Lauren. Parched California Farmers Hope to Tap Wastewater from Cities. (2015, June 29). KQED Science. Retrieved 17 November 2015 from http://ww2.kqed.org/science/2015/06/29/parched-california-farmers-hope-to-tap-wastewater-from-cities/

Smith, O.B. (1999). Agriculture urbaine en Afrique de l’Ouest: une contribution a la securitealimentaire et a l’assainissement des villes. IDRC.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352). Retrieved 10 November 2015 from http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Highlights/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf