Take it Seriously: Urban Agriculture and Food Security Revisted

A few months after leaving South Africa last year, and in the midst of the global food-price riots, I wrote a piece on Urban Agriculture and Food Security. It was mostly guess work at the time, but based on the amount of food I had seen being grown in Durban it seemed pretty clear that individual and community gardens provided a buffer zone between the most vulnerable residents and skyrocketing international food prices.

Now that I'm back in Durban for the next two months, more information on the theme has come my way at it seems like my guess wasn't far off. Stephanie Nieuwoudt, at IPS, provides a portrait of the women running one particular project in the township of Philippi, just outside of Capetown.

More and more residents have been turning to local agriculture to find nourishment in the face of climbing prices. And the yields are impressive: a
local official there explains that "a backyard garden four times the size of an ordinary door, can supply a household of six people with fresh vegetables for a year." Properly maintained it can keep producing for year. The Philippi project and many other like it have been carried globally since 2005 as part of the Cities Farming for the Future Project.

Apart from the gardens themselves, the most interesting thing to have emerged from the first phase of the project is what has gotten in their way. People don't take urban agriculture seriously. In many cities, both municipal officials and local farmers are in the dark about the role that local agriculture can play in supporting urban development. Urban agriculture has not played a big role in established models of urban development up to this point (it's "Central Park" after all, not "Central Farm"). As a result it simply isn't on the radar of key decisions makers and isn't receiving the support it needs (service provision, credit, structures for land tenure, infrastructure and training).

Beyond food security (which is itself crucially important) urban food production can do a lot. It can promote the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups, reduce the amount of waste in municipal landfills (or streets), reduce urban heat island and to improve the overall urban micro-climates and help maintenance of buffer zones around urban areas. But only if city officials and residents learn to see agriculture for what it is. Not a remnant of the rural past that many new arrivals have left behind, but as a key part in the systems that will allow residents to create cities that are healthy and stable homes for even the most poor.

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UPDATE 14/04/09: Worldchanging just posted an piece by Mark Winne on the same theme, but from an American angle. From Fresh From...the City:

“Urban farming can be transformative in terms of the economy, nutrition, health, and public safety,” Cimperman says. “Our goal is to make Cleveland a national leader in the local food economy.” He and the FPC have secured a zoning change that permits community gardening. They are now working on new zoning to create larger plots, one-acre or more, and allow chicken-raising and beekeeping.

Similar approaches have succeeded in Portland, Oregon, where the 15-member Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council has encouraged the city to open up more land for community gardens through their “Diggable City” project, which has turned the public spotlight on the need for more urban plots. Even though 3,000 people currently till the city’s community gardens, there are still 1,000 gardener wannabes on a waiting list

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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.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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