Talk about growing food in cities, and many images come to mind: community gardens, allotments, city farms with educational activities, horticulture activities at the city fringe… Urban and peri-urban agriculture can indeed be very diverse.
As part of a wider project investigating the innovation potential of agriculture in urban settings, a team of German researchers led by Ina Opitz realized that there had never been a proper literature review to understand key differences between agriculture carried out in inner cities and that at the city fringe in the Global North. Their article, published in 2015 in Agriculture and Human Values, provides a useful map of key differences and acts as an important reminder for policy makers of the importance to include that diversity in urban food policies.
Agriculture at the city fringe: businesses facing urban sprawl
Researchers found that peri-urban agriculture, i.e. agriculture that is performed at the fringes of cities, is generally located on large-scale sites (up to 100 hectares). It is based on agricultural land, i.e. land that is protected for agricultural activities by planning policies. However, it is threatened by urban sprawl.
In general, peri-urban farmers are trained as agricultural professionals. They are running their activities with a view of generating an income. They can chose to diversify to integrate educational or recreational services for nearby urban dwellers, but before anything they are seeking to make a living. Peri-urban farmers use a wide array of food distribution channels (from local to international chains) and they arbitrate between them based on business arguments.
The challenges of peri-urban farms are those of businesses at risk of losing their asset base, i.e. land. Cities should therefore aim at re-enforcing existing protection and curbing urban sprawl. Even if city officials are generally not familiar with farming, they should integrate it in their local development policies.
Agriculture at the core of cities: finding its place in the urban fabric
By contrast, urban agriculture (community gardens, allotments, backyard gardens, rooftop farms or gardens and urban farms) takes place within the urban fabric. It is located on smaller plots, and on land that is generally not protected by any planning policy (and even sometimes illegally occupied). Only a few cities in the world (such as, for instance, Brighton and Hove, in the UK) have set up a legal framework to protect urban agriculture.
Urban agriculture also faces numerous ecological challenges, such as land contamination (that makes it necessary to install raised beds), or the lack of easily accessible nutrients (that makes it crucial to make or access compost). Specific growing techniques such as hydroponic or aquaponics are being developed to deal with the lack of space or food growing in buildings.
The profile and motivation of urban farmers are somewhat different from that of their peri-urban counterparts. They do not necessarily have the skills to do grow food. They are also seeking a wide array of benefits (educational, social…), growing food only being one of them. Urban growers are mainly involved in local chains (self-consumption, direct marketing sales or donations to soup kitchens or local non-profit organisations). However, there has been a recent evolution towards more commercially-oriented forms of urban agriculture.
The challenges of urban agriculture are those of a new comer to the city that needs to innovate both technically and socially in order to find its place in the urban fabric. Therefore, policies should encourage innovation and participation while creating the legal framework that will ensure that food growing is not just there to fill the gaps before urban development takes over. It should also encourage economically motivated people to start such activity, as it cannot only rely on volunteering.
Supporting all forms of food growing in city region food policies
The policy implications of such an analysis are manifold. First, this paper recalls the need to acknowledge and embrace that diversity. All forms of food growing have something to bring to the city.
Second, even if all forms of food growing overlap to an extent, it reminds cities to take the time to map that diversity to ensure that policies are tailored to their needs. For instance, protecting peri-urban agriculture means ensuring that agricultural zones are preserved, when protecting urban agriculture means setting up an entirely new legal framework at the city level.
In order to capture such diversity and properly act upon it, cities will need to look beyond their administrative borders. According to Regine Berges and Ingo Zasada, who took part in the research, food policies will be all the more efficient as they set an agenda for an entire city region. Cooperation between cities will therefore be key for success.
Last but not least, the researchers recall that fostering the development of food growing in and around cities is not only the responsibility of local authorities. National policies have also a role to play in setting long-term signals, regarding, for instance, the importance of preserving land for food growing.
Source: Opitz, I., Berges, R., Piorr, A., Krikser,T. (2015), Contributing to food security in urban areas: differences between urban agriculture and peri-urban agriculture in the Global North, Agriculture and Human Values, vol. 33(2), pp.341-358
NB: the author would like to thank Regine Berges and Ingo Zasada for their inputs and comments.