Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Community-Based Urban Agriculture As History And Future:

© Jac Smit, President,
Presented at CAST, 2002

Urban Agriculture Network,
4701 Connecticut AV. NW,
Washington DC 20008-5617


Urban agriculture is a new and ancient aspect of urban landscapes, economies and lifestyles. This paper presents a brief history of urban agriculture with focus on the late-industrial revolution and post-Vietnam War periods. There is an optimistic view expressed of the relative prospects for urban agriculture in North America.

Three aspects a given special emphasis:

  1. the role of government policy,
  2. the role of the professional organizations, and
  3. the prospective participation of agribusiness corporations.

A case study is presented as are a selected bibliography from 1867 to 2002 and a listing of urban agriculture related conferences worldwide from April to September 2002.

I Urbanization and Modernization and Farming in the City:

1600 to 1970:

The history of urban agriculture can be told beginning at any time and place in human history. Let me just grab two that are particularly well known,

Machu Picchu was an important mountain town in the Andes. The Spanish conquerors of Peru did not discover its existence for over a century. Machu Pacchu was self-reliant in food within its mountain site. Recent studies document rather precise irrigation, terracing, waste management, microclimate management and storage systems. The crops and their production systems are now being studied and in some cases being revived.

As post-industrial revolution Paris generated explosive growth in the 19th century, the wetlands community or Marais reinvented agriculture to feed the city. French biointensive agriculture is still spreading around the world. I recently found in the West African Ivory Coast that Asian immigrants, who had escaped the war in Vietnam, were improving the model left by the colonial regime. Unsurprisingly California has improved on the Marais. The author was part of introducing California biointensive to Tanzania in the 1980s. In places like Havana one can find an integration of Chinese and French biointensive, with improvements.

The planned or ideal communities of 18th and 19th century America all included community-based agriculture. A good living example is Salem North Carolina. And the 1990s Ecoville movement is reinventing this ideal. Auroville in South India is a leading example and there are several in North America and Europe.

1970 to 2000

There is some evidence that urban agriculture has had a resurgence since the 1970s. The first well known global study is "The Food-Energy Nexus" [FEN] by Ignacy Sachs at the United Nations University. This study reported on a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. It surprised urban planners, agriculturists and sociologists with the prevalence and similarity of community-based agriculture in many disparate cultures, climates and economies. Several of the FEN investigators are still working in the urban agriculture field.

It is clear reviewing 25 years of studies of urban agriculture that urban farming is expanding more rapidly than rural agriculture or agriculture as a whole. No surprise, it's happening in an urbanizing world. Agriculture is reinventing itself to fit the new reality of human settlement on the earth. There was a time, not so long distant that steel came from Pittsburgh, automobiles from Detroit and wine from France. The agriculture industry is following in the path of other industries.

Aquaculture was identified by Peter Drucker as the fastest growing industry in the world in the 1990s, and most of it is at the [wet or dry] urban fringe. Next in line is ornamental horticulture. Hydroponics and the use of plastic tunnels and soil covers are in close pursuit. All are typical of urban intensive production.

The century-old transportation revolution, which invented railroads and refrigerated ships, boxcars, trucks and warehouses, acted as a force to separate the food consumer from the producer. The information revolution of the 1980s and 90s has reconnected the farmer and the eater. Today the chef and produce buyer are in daily contact with the locally-based farmer or farmers' coop by Internet or intranet to supply the next days' menu and display shelf.

Recent data suggests that sixty percent of the American population lives in a place we still refer to as 'the suburb'. The second city of my college days, metropolitan Chicago, grew four percent in population and 40 percent in land area in the 1990s [ten times as much space per person]. Everywhere [globally] towns and cities are occupying more land per person. This demographic and land use fact has three significant causalities for urban agriculture:

  1. The market is moving to the farmer,
  2. There is more space for agriculture, mixed with other uses, at the growing edge,
  3. There is more idle land at the city-center and in the first-ring suburbs, for five to 20-year periods,

There is an abundance of data illustrating that agriculture is doing very well in very large cities [Cairo, Mexico City, Paris], in suburban counties with rapid population expansion [Loudon VA, Orange NY, Orange CA] and in Center Cities [Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco]

I believe we can argue successfully that the agriculture of the 16th century Machu Picchu, 19th century Paris and 21st century Singapore and Austin was and is modern. Agriculture in the city is a response to both quality of life and economic opportunity. Those who can afford it demand a] low density and b] good quality food and the up-and-coming are seizing the possibility presented by a] idle land and b] proximate markets.

The rapid rate of urbanization in the post WW II period is undoubtedly the major cause of the expansion of urban agriculture. And rather well reported for Boston and Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s [see bibliography]. It seems to me to be useful to consider other possible causes prior to considering the possible current and future benefits of farming in the city and subsequently development strategies.

II Policy Drives Urban Agriculture in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s:

One cause driving the renaissance, that is particularly interesting and too little studied, is government policy. In 1968 Mao Tse Sung proclaimed a policy shift that required all Chinese provinces to be nutritionally self-reliant, including the urban provinces. Boundaries were redrawn and public corporations were created and reorganized. This thirty-year old program has had a great deal of success.

Several years later President Gorbachev announced a policy that encouraged urban families in Russia to return to tilling the soil. The impact was eye-opening, from an early 1970s participation of one-in-three Moscow families in food production there was a jump to three-in-five by the mid-90s. In 1982 President Nyere issued a similar policy in Tanzania East Africa, with similar results, from one-sixth to two-thirds of the families in the Capital Dar es Salaam from 1970 to 1990. That covers Asia, Africa and Europe. No surprise then that in 1992 when Premiere Castro in Latin America issued a similar policy shift, with an even greater net impact.

In other countries the policy change has been equally great but either not as well documented or the beginning situation was not as negative. Urban and wealthy Singapore arrived at a pro-agriculture policy in the early 1980s and today is neck-and-neck in competition with the Dutch for the most advanced urban agriculture technology. The democratic regime of Nelson Mandela in South Africa brought a pro-urban agriculture policy with them when they assumed power in the 1990s, and the results have been very positive.

The policy changes in individual cities since the 1970s have been at least as effective and offer a wealth of opportunity for Master's Theses: Toronto, Calcutta, Mexico City, Burlington Vermont, Belo Horizonte Brazil, Dar es Salaam Tanzania, Ho Chi Minth City Vietnam, Philadelphia, Saint Petersburg Russia, Virginia City Virginia and many, many more.

In a few cases disaster sparked a policy change and urban agriculture was a major humanitarian intervention. Sarajevo is perhaps best known. The 1990s-2000-2002 farming in Baghdad has probably had a beneficial effect on more people than in Bosnia. Kinshasa Zaire during the crises of the 1990s has been particularly well documented compared to the two above.

Policy changes favoring urban agriculture are being documented by the RUAF partnership [Resource Center for Urban Agriculture and Forestry]. At the State or Provincial level, we are getting interesting findings from Brazil [Belo Horizonte], Egypt [Ismalia], Great Britain [Wales], USA [Massachusetts], Vietnam [Hanoi], Mexico [Federal District], Uganda [Kampala] and others. Post Nine-Eleven 2001, and the threat of agro-food terrorism, further attention is warranted in monitoring Food Sovereignty policy and its urban agriculture component.

III Benefits of Farming in the City and the Urban Fringe:


The benefits of urban agriculture over the past 400 [since early colonialism] and the past 30 years can be summarized, as a guide to the future:

16th Century
- Machu Picchu conserved a culture, despite colonialization,
19th Century
- Paris had a healthier population, less traffic congestion, and co-invented the world famous 'French Cuisine',
- The FEN [Food-Energy Nexus] cities all reported improved food security and energy savings,
- Russia's household food security improved and idle land in the cities was put to use,
- In Tanzania the economy was stabilized, and urbanization accelerated,
- Cuba became nutritionally self-reliant in a world that did not favor such locally-based food security for a small island nation, tens of thousands of jobs were generated, and thousands of small businesses,
- In Singapore low-income families have access to fresh food at lower cost, and the economy is stabilized.
- In many communities in RSA [Republic of South Africa] food production is the most stable economic activity,
- Belo Horizonte Brazil reports lower-cost better food and improved land use and sanitation,
- Sarajevo survived, Baghdad is surviving and Kinshasa is "coming back"
- Virginia City VA has a more stable economic base and is greener,

This history may offer but small clues as to the cause of urban agriculture's comeback in North America and Europe from its 1960s/70s low. We have not had economic reasons, policy shifts nor suffered disasters similar to the cases cited. And I am convinced that it is useful for us to consider this background as we ponder the future of metropolitan agriculture in this country.

Prospective Benefits an urban community in America can anticipate from agricultural production, processing and marketing in the 21st Century.

The introductory paper to the CAST symposium on urban agriculture concludes that urban agriculture makes twelve contributions to an enhanced quality of urban life.

Each and every one of these twelve can be generated from a single school garden. Each of these diverse contributions requires a complex set of actions to be brought up to a scale of citywide, metro-wide impact.

One important consideration, to avoid later misunderstandings, is that the benefits of UA to a wealthy place are different than they will be to a poor place, and they may be linked.

The Well-to-do Community:

The prime benefit for a well-to-do American community of incorporating urban agriculture may be an enhanced quality of life. Life is better for everyone, and especially the younger and older members of the community, in the following specifics:

  1. A greener and cleaner community,
  2. A higher level of locally owned and managed businesses, and an improved tax base,
  3. Improved health and nutrition,
  4. Reduced traffic [less food in and less waste out]

The not-so-well-off community:

The prime benefit for a not-so-well-off community in the United States is enhanced social and economic stability. Reintroducing agriculture to the community:

  1. Improves nutrition and health
  2. Increases the stability of the economic base, with recession-proof micro-enterprises and jobs
  3. A greener, healthier environment for living,
  4. Increased social interaction.

Agriculture as a neighbor, a land use and a business has easy-to-get-along-with characteristics as compared to industry, commerce, transportation, and in some situations housing. It has an overall green surface. This may be contrasted to the macadam/bricks of shopping, and the concrete and windows of industry. Agriculture can be incorporated into an urban community as a green-belt or commons. In-so-far as it is fitted or designed into the landscape it will put to economic use flood plains and steep slopes that are diseconomic in the long-term for community maintenance.

Agriculture costs less to develop than other urban land uses. Therefore it is an easy to manage temporary or interim use. Since WW II the average time of community decay to renewal in major American cities has been thirty years. It is reasonable to plan for agriculture as a fifteen to twenty year interim economic and open space activity. Idle or vacant urban land in a changing inner city or first ring suburb can be conceived as an opportunity for revitalization.

III Some Possible Advantages of Urban Agriculture [UA] over Rural Agriculture [RA] in the 21st Century

I do not intend to suggest here that UA can aspire to replace RA nor that UA is competing with RA. The two branches of the industry are natural partners. At its simplest, grains and large livestock are well suited to rural environs and microlivestock and produce are well suited to urban settings. Other less obvious suitabilites are familiar to us all; a dozen roses can fly a long way more efficiently than a pin oak with an earthen ball around its roots.

IV. The Role of the Professions in Urban Agriculture:

A prime focus of the UA advocate may be the professions. Most professions, were born in the 20th century and can hinder or advance UA. A continuing application of the current professional tenets can in some cases hinder the achievement of UA's benefits; for instance:

The reeducation and retrofitting of the professions can begin in the universities but must clearly include the leaders of the professions and their connections to the rule setters and regulation adopters and enforcers. The CAST Symposium prima facie is a good place to begin. There are 'Sustainable City', 'EcoCity' conferences scheduled around the globe, more or less monthly for the current six months that provide other venues and agendas [see refs.]

V. Agri-business Support for Urban Agriculture:

Urban Agriculture can benefit from the support of agribusiness and other members of the chamber of commerce, locally and nationally. Agribusiness may not, without help from us, recognize the benefits inherent in UA to its customers and clients and for itself, because UA is and will be the cause of change from 'business-as-usual.

I assert that because UA is better able to focus on market niches and market changes that it is essential for agribusiness to be active in UA. I assert that because UA is more efficient in some lines of production that UA will be good for the bottom line of agribusiness. After some years of learning and adjustment agribusiness will be better able to serve its customers in food and other product distribution and will gain new customers in agricultural production by including UA.

It is possible that these changes will include the conversion of top-down corporations to dispersed corporations. It may well include closer partnerships between agribusiness and local government and institutions, consider slogans such as: 'farm to campus', 'farming the defense facility', 'productive landscape', and 'waste is food'.

Urban agriculture to some extent is rooted in the gourmet restaurant, the community garden, the organic food coop, the CSA and the farmers market and the garden center. It will all-too-soon go 'mainstream', supermarket and home depot. There is a lot of 'heavy lifting' to be done with mayors, bankers, environmentalists, school principles and with the professions and the vertically integrated food industry.

Case in point:


Loudoun, a third tier suburban county in the Bal-Wash metropolis, has the honor to have been the third fastest population growth county in the USA in the first half of the 1990s and the second fastest in the latter half. In every agricultural census period since the mid-70s Loudoun has increased, a] the number of farms, b] the number of farm employees, and c] the gross agricultural product.

The county planning commission recognizes these opportunities for agriculture:

[Ref.] Loudon County Board of supervisors, 2000

Selected bibliography:

Nico Bakker et al, editors 1999, Growing Cities Growing Food, Urban Agriculture on the Policy Agenda, 16 city case studies in 16 countries, photos, tables, references, DSE publishers, ISBN 3-934068-25-1

Katherine Brown principal author, Peter Mann editor & UA Committee 2002, "Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security: from the city center to the urban fringe" Community Food Security Coalition,

Mary Lee Coe, 1978 Growing with Community Gardening, The Countryman Press, 11 appendices, illustrations, 1970s bibliography, ISBN 0-914378-36-8

Community Environmental Council Inc. 1976, Agriculture in the City, Santa Barbara California

Tom Daniels, 1999, Managing Growth in the Fringe Countryside, Chapter ten, pages 211-238, in When City & Country Collide, tables and boxes, Island Press, ISBN 1-55963-597-5

Peter Henderson, 1867 Gardening for Profit, Orange Judd Company, New York, Reprinted with editing by George DeVault by The American Botanist 1991, ISBN 0-929332-03-2 [Front piece "The successful farm of the future will be the farm of the past - a large market garden" Robert Rodale ]

Edward Higbee, 1960, Farms on the Urban Fringe, Chapter 6, in The Squeeze: Cities Without Space, William Morrow, pages 139 to 166

Ignacy Sachs editor, 1992 Food Energy Nexus, United Nations University

Jac Smit, 1980, Urban and Metropolitan Agricultural Prospects, in 'Habitat International Vol. 5 No. 34 pages 499-506, Pergamon Press, ISBN 0 08 028146 X

Jac Smit, 2002 Urban Agriculture a Powerful Engine for Sustainable Cities, in 'Just and Lasting Change: When Communities Own Their Futures, pages 189 to 1000, John's Hopkins Press, ISBN 0-8018-6825-4

Jac Smit, Annu Ratta, Joe Nasr 1996,Urban Agriculture, Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities, UNDP, 300 pages, 50 cases, photos, tables, references, 8 appendices: NB the second is edition due for release in 2002

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Revised Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture