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With half the world’s population now living in urban areas and most of the world’s best cropland already under cultivation, urban gardening and agriculture is rapidly becoming an important source of food for city dwellers. Researcher Margarida Correia notes, “urban agriculture marks a return to early cities, where food production was part and parcel of daily life.”
Urban agriculture has the following general characteristics: It is located within or on the fringe of a town, city, or metropolis; grows, raises, processes, and distributes a diversity of food and non-food products; uses and reuses human and natural resources, products, and services largely found in and around that urban area; and in turn, supplies human and material resources, products, and services largely to that urban area. However, urban agriculture is more than just a way to produce food in cities. In terms of the three elements of sustainable development: Environment, economy, and society, urban gardens and agriculture provide a number of significant functions.
From an environmental perspective, urban gardens can make an integral contribution to the amount of green space in cities. Increased green space can assist in reducing airborne pollutants, thereby improving air quality. Urban gardens also create suitable habitat for a number of bird species. Common urban gardening techniques, such as regular crop rotation and crop-mix, discourage pest problems and reduce the need for pesticide use, leading to both health and environmental benefits. Related to this, locally-grown produce does not have to be transported long distances, therefore requiring fewer preservatives. Moreover, gardens absorb rainwater and stormwater, which reduces urban sewer loads. Communities participating in urban gardening initiatives also harvest rainwater and recycle grey-water from their homes for use in gardens. Urban organic waste can also be composted and used in gardens. Rooftop gardens in particular have been noted for their insulating effect, keeping buildings cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Economically, urban agriculture has proven to be financially beneficial. Community-sourced food products lower family food expenses, especially in cities where most fresh produce is imported, and therefore costly. In addition, some community gardens sell a portion of their produce at local farmers’ markets with the proceeds providing funds for related projects.
In many cases, urban gardens are communitydriven initiatives. Neighborhoods or other social units collaborate in the maintenance, growing, and harvesting of these gardens, all of which provide excellent vehicles for community integration and pride. Other community benefits also emerge from these initiatives, such as youth programs, local school activities, and job training for local residents and youth. Some gardens donate produce to local food banks, addressing access to fresh food in less advantaged communities. As experience with urban agriculture expands and diversifies, communities are integrating other social programs, such as prisoner rehabilitation.
Interrelated to all of these factors is the issue of food security. Cuba is frequently cited as an excellent example of how urban gardening and agriculture can be harnessed to provide food for urban and suburban populations. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s drastically reduced agricultural inputs sent to Cuba, and in the immediately following years the national caloric intake of Cubans declined by one-third. In response, the number of urban gardens in Cuba has surged to about 8,000 nationwide and statistics indicate that urban agriculture produced 58 percent of the country’s vegetables-over 1.7 million tons-in 2000.
Urban gardens have been planted in a diverse range of urban spaces: Patios and balconies, abandoned plots of land, rooftops, schoolyards, and more. Urban gardening initiatives have occasionally been fraught with land-use planning or zoning issues, such as in New York City in the 1990s, when over 100 vacated lots containing community gardens were due to be auctioned off by the city council. Over 60 of these were bought by a local organization and are now protected. In developed countries, the leaders in urban gardening initiatives are Germany and Switzerland. Esslingen in Germany has a bylaw requiring flat and sloping roofs-up to 15 degrees-to be vegetated. In Switzerland, a new law stipulates that all new buildings must relocate the green space taken up by the building’s footprint to their rooftops; even existing buildings-some centuries old-are required to vegetate 20 percent of their roof surfaces.
- Miguel A. Altieri et , “The Greening of the ‘Barrios’: Urban Agriculture for Food Security in Cuba,” Agriculture and Human Values (v.16/2, 1999);
- Margarida Correia, “Harvest in the City,” Earth Island Journal (v.20/3, 2005);
- International Development Research Centre, www.idrc.ca;
- Sonja Killoran-McKibbon, “Cuba’s Urban Agriculture: Food Security and Urban Sustainability,” Women and Environments International Magazine (no.70/71, 2006);
- L. Mougeot, “The Role of Urban and Periurban Agriculture in Urban Food Security and Poverty Alleviation,” presentation given at United Nations Development Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization’s “Food for the Cities: Parallel Event at Istanbul+5” (June 2001);
- Goya Ngan, Green Roof Policies: Tools for Encouraging Sustainable Design (Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, 2004);
- Raquel Pinderhughes, “From the Ground Up: The Role of Urban Gardens and Farms in Low-Income Communities,” Environmental Assets and the Poor (Russell Sage Foundation, 2000);
- World Resources Institute, “Inexhaustible Appetites: Testing the Limits of Agroecosystems,” (July 2001), wri.org (cited September 2006).