EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Designing Cities for People: Farming in the City

While attending a conference on the outskirts of Stockholm in the fall of 1974, I walked past a community garden near a high-rise apartment building. It was an idyllic Indian summer afternoon, with many people tending gardens a short walk from their residences. More than 30 years later I can still recall the setting because of the aura of contentment surrounding those working in their gardens. They were absorbed in producing not only vegetables, but in some cases flowers as well. I remember thinking, “This is the mark of a civilized society.”

In June 2005, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that urban and peri-urban farms—those within or immediately adjacent to a city—supply food to some 700 million urban residents worldwide. These are mostly small plots—vacant lots, yards, even rooftops. 51

Within and near the city of Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, there are some 650 hectares of land producing vegetables. This land supplies not only the city’s fresh produce but a livelihood for 4,000 farmers who intensively farm their small plots year-round. On the far side of the continent, an FAO project has urban residents in Dakar, Senegal, producing up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of tomatoes per square meter each year with continuous cropping in rooftop gardens. 52

In Hanoi, Viet Nam, 80 percent of the fresh vegetables come from farms in or immediately adjacent to the city. Farms in the city or its shadow also produce 50 percent of the pork and the poultry consumed in the city. Half of the city’s freshwater fish are produced by enterprising urban fish farmers. Forty percent of the egg supply is produced within the city or nearby. Urban farmers ingeniously recycle human and animal waste to nourish plants and to fertilize fish ponds. 53

Fish farmers near Kolkata in India manage wastewater fish ponds that cover nearly 4,000 hectares and produce 18,000 tons of fish each year. Bacteria in the ponds break down the organic waste in the city’s sewage. This, in turn, supports the rapid growth of algae that feed the local strains of herbivorous fish. This system provides the city with a steady supply of fresh fish that are consistently of better quality than any others entering the Kolkata market. 54

The magazine Urban Agriculture describes how Shanghai has in effect created a nutrient recycling zone around the city. The municipal government manages 300,000 hectares of farmland to recycle the city’s night soil. Half of Shanghai’s pork and poultry, 60 percent of its vegetables, and 90 percent of its milk and eggs come from the city and the immediately surrounding region. 55

In Caracas, Venezuela, a government-sponsored, FAO-assisted project has created 8,000 microgardens of one square meter each in the city’s barrios, many of them within a few steps of family kitchens. As soon as one crop is mature, it is harvested and immediately replaced with new seedlings. Each square meter, continuously cropped, can produce 330 heads of lettuce, 18 kilograms of tomatoes, or 16 kilograms of cabbage per year. Venezuela’s goal is to have 100,000 microgardens in the country’s urban areas and 1,000 hectares of urban compost-based gardens nationwide. 56

There is a long tradition of community gardens in European cities. As a visitor flies into Paris, numerous community gardens can be seen on the outskirts of the city. The Community Food Security Coalition reports that 14 percent of London’s 8 million residents produce some of their own food. For Vancouver, Canada’s largest West Coast city, the comparable figure is an impressive 44 percent. 57

In the U.S. city of Philadelphia, community gardeners were asked why they gardened. Some 20 percent did it for recreational reasons, 19 percent said it improved their mental health, and 17 percent their physical health. Another 14 percent did it because they wanted the higher-quality fresh produce that a garden could provide. Others said it was mostly cost and convenience. 58

In some countries, such as the United States, there is a huge unrealized potential for urban gardening. A survey indicated that Chicago has 70,000 vacant lots, and Philadelphia, 31,000. Nationwide, vacant lots in cities would total in the hundreds of thousands. The Urban Agriculture report summarizes why urban gardening is so desirable. It has “a regenerative effect...when vacant lots are transformed from eyesores—weedy, trash-ridden dangerous gathering places—into bountiful, beautiful, and safe gardens that feed people’s bodies and souls.” 59

Closely related to the growth in urban gardening is that of local farmers’ markets, where farmers near a city produce fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and cheese for direct marketing to consumers in urban markets. A hunger for high-quality fresh produce and a desire to support local farmers has increased the number of U.S. farmers’ markets from 1,755 in 1994 to nearly 5,000 in late 2007. This movement toward consuming more locally produced food is now spilling over into restaurants that offer locally produced foods on their menus and into the small but growing number of supermarkets that sell local produce. Both restaurants and supermarkets are able to contract directly with local farmers to supply them with fixed amounts of seasonal products. 60

Given the near inevitable rise in future oil prices, the economic benefits of expanding both urban agriculture and the use of locally produced food will become more obvious. Aside from supplying more fresh produce, it will help millions discover the social benefits and the psychological well-being that urban gardening and locally produced food can bring.

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51. “Farming in Urban Areas Can Boost Food Security,” FAO Newsroom, 3 June 2005.

52. Ibid.

53. Jac Smit, “Urban Agriculture’s Contribution to Sustainable Urbanisation,” Urban Agriculture, August 2002, p. 13; Hubert de Bon, “Dry and Aquatic Peri-urban and Urban Horticulture in Hanoi, Vietnam,” in René van Veenhuizen, ed., Cities Farming for the Future—Urban Agriculture for Green and Productive Cities (Philippines: ETC-Urban Agriculture, 2006), pp. 338-39.

54. Smit, op. cit. note 53, p. 13; pond coverage from Nitai Kundu et al., “Planning for Aquatic Production in East Kolkata Wetlands,” in van Veenhuizen, op. cit. note 53, pp. 408–09; fish production from Stuart Bunting et al., “Urban Aquatic Production,” in van Veenhuizen, op. cit. note 53, p. 386.

55. Smit, op. cit. note 53, p. 12.

56. “Gardening for the Poor,” FAO Newsroom, 2004; P. Bradley and C. Marulanda, “A Study on Microgardens That Help Reduce Global Poverty and Hunger,” Acta Horticulturae (ISHS), vol. 742 (2007), pp. 115–23.

57. Katherine H. Brown and Anne Carter, Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States: Farming from the City Center to the Urban Fringe (Venice, CA: Community Food Security Coalition, October 2003), p. 10; U.N. Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects, op. cit. note 3.

58. Brown and Carter, op. cit. note 57, p. 7.

59. Ibid.

60. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Monitoring Service, “Farmers Market Growth,” at www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/ FarmersMarketGrowth.htm, viewed 17 August 2007; 2007 figure based on past growth to 2006.


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