Urban Agriculture vs. Food Riots

On the playing field of urban sustainability, urban agriculture is usually cast as one of the mascots. It keeps peoples' spirits up, it helps them get personally involved in the game, but in the end it won't have a big influence on the outcome. It's a pastime: rewarding, concrete, but not - at least for the moment - something that is leading us to any substantial change in the way we keep our cities going. There have been some interesting ideas of high-rise, high-density farming, but so far they have yet to find any serious takers. We are still unused to thinking about cities as producers of their own resources, and until recently we have had little to push us to change our minds.

The BBC's Stephanie Holmes published an article this week making the link between food-price riots and the increasing urbanization of poverty. Although the piece doesn't make any reference to urban agriculture, it's key points do put a different spin on what for most Northerners is a weekend diversion. Riffing on information from a variety of international organizations Holmes argues that the urban poor (unlike their rural counterparts) are more likely to mobilize politically because they are both more concentrated and more dependant on the market to provide what they need to survive. They are, to a great extent, trapped in a cash economy with no alternative ways of meeting their basic needs. With nothing else to fall back on, protest becomes a matter of survival.

How is this linked to you community garden? In this new context creating spaces within a city where residents can produce their own food takes on a new tint: it's way to keep the peace. It provides residents, in particular the most vulnerable, with a way of meeting their needs independent of fluctuations in international food prices. I have spent some time working in the city of Durban (eThekwini) in South Africa, a city where a significant amount of the city's fresh produce within municipal boundaries. Some of it is grown for sale, and some for personal use. No high-rise towers, no weekend gardeners, just people making good use of the land around them. (image: corn growing by the side of the road outside an informal settlement) Clearly this is different from the production of staples like flour and rice, but it does create a buffer to absorb part of the shock when global food prices shift.

Urban agriculture as riot prevention? Putting it that way might attract some attention. Underneath it though, it points to a good reason to start re-imagining what cities are and how they function. It is also a good reason for cities to look critically at what resources they currently have. I am not sure, for example, what the official policy on urban agriculture is in Durban. I think it is worth asking whether cities in Haiti, where serious rioting took place, could have benefited from having something similar in place. Not all cities have grown in the same way, and for some high rise high-tech solutions way be the only way to weave food production into the urban fabric. Others, like Durban, may still have substantial amounts of cultivable land and the question is whether or not they will be preserved as the city grows.


UPDATE: Gwen Dyer ran an interesting article on the food crisis in Vancouver's Georgia Straight last week. In it she points out that the current price hikes are infact due to market over-reactions to small shortfalls, not absolute shortages of food. All the more reason to appreciate the ability of local and urban agriculture to create spaces that are either less integrated into the global market or, in some cases, which function completely outside of the market system.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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