The limits of a “copy and paste” approach to urban agriculture

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With urban agriculture becoming fashionable in developed countries, a small number of iconic examples, from New York to Berlin, are now widely shared at the international level.

A paper published in Landscape and Urban Planning earlier this year by Autria-, UK- and Colombia-based scholars invites us to reflect upon the limits of such “ready-to-use” references when they are mobilised by policies or projects irrespective of the local contexts.

Importing references, discarding reality on the ground?

The authors develop their arguments based on observations of urban agriculture projects in very different countries: on the one hand, the cities of Bogota and Medellin in Colombia and on the other hand, the city of Vienna in Austria. However, they unveil a similar pattern taking place in both settings, namely, the temptation to use references and concepts coming from other countries to legitimize urban agriculture policies instead of building on the rich history of gardening in these cities.

The authors point out two main ideas that circulate at the international level as an “off-the-shelf” argument in favour of urban agriculture:

  • The subsistence lenses, i.e. the idea that urban gardening is a great complement to other sources of food for urban dwellers.
  • The “right-to-the-city” lenses, i.e. the idea that urban agriculture is a way to collectively reclaim urban space.

These ways of conceptualising urban agriculture are not wrong per se. What the authors point out, however, is that they should not be the only ones used in a particular city, because they may lead to miss the actual reasons that have led people to practice urban agriculture in the first place.

In Columbia, for example, urban gardening has been practiced for years for many reasons beyond mere subsistence or “right-to-the-city” reasons. It is a way for urban dwellers in informal settlements to establish a claim upon their patch of land (by fencing it with bushes that produce berries), to access medicine or to beautify their environment. However, such practices have been looked down upon, because they were associated with poor people and rural migrants.

For Eva Schwab, the paper’s lead author, this has political implications. In Colombia, importing Western and fashionable examples to justify practices that were already there is a subtle way to disregard existing knowledge and references. In Vienna, the “right to the city” frame prevents from seeing that only a fraction of the population, the more educated, actually takes part in the new forms of urban agriculture.

Not all urban agriculture is about the community

Another limit of these “off-the shelf” ways of legitimizing urban agriculture is that they contain assumptions that should be crosschecked against people’s actual practices in each context. One of these assumptions is that people want to do things in common. Indeed, the idea that urban agriculture fosters community and collective action is very pregnant. It is seen as a means to achieve food security in the subsistence model, and as a political aim in the right-to-the-city model.

However, a more careful look at what is going on the grounds greatly qualifies such collective dimension. Indeed, this collective stance does not align with people’s actual motivations in the cities that the researchers analyzed. For instance, in Vienna, because waiting lists for allotments are so long, people have started doing urban agriculture on public land in parks. But the overall discourse about “doing something together” does not fit well with the reality of fenced plots only accessible to the ones that have the key. In other words, with a privatization of open space.

In the same vein, in Colombia, the researchers document a project where residents debated with city officials about fencing a garden. Was the garden a place for individual households to grow food or the heart of the community? Could it be both in a city where gangs make claims on public spaces?

What if cities shared more about their failures than their successes?

What are the policy implications of such analysis? First, it is important to recall that researchers are not saying that cities should not get inspired by examples from other countries. Indeed, it can be a great way to be innovative. However, they should always ask themselves: does it really correspond to my situation? What is it that we are not seeing? Because they have references in mind that have been forged by ideas coming from international examples, you may misread your local situation.

Such models should therefore never replace a careful study of the local context. What are the existing urban agriculture practices? Why are people engaged in them? How can we build on these? Otherwise, projects might just fail.

This has far-reaching implications for policy cooperation: there is a lot to learn from projects that have failed. It is not how experience between cities sharing usually goes. Indeed, cities are more eager to share best practices that cast a positive light on them than their failures. However, in exchanging about the reasons why urban agriculture projects fail, there could be a great scope to ensure that local contexts are appropriately taken on board.


Albane GASPARD – June 2018

Urban Food Futures would like to thank Eva Schwab for her inputs and comments.

Source: Eva Schwab, Silvio Caputo, Jaime Hernández-García, Urban Agriculture: Models-in-Circulation from a Critical Transnational Perspective, Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 170, 2018, Pages 15-23

Picture credits: Photo by Viktor Hanacek



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