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


Agroecological Aspects of The Peri-urban Process

Copyright 1996
by Raanan Katzir (M.Sc.Agr.)
E-mail Raanan Katzir
Specialist in Agrotechnology
Director for Projects and Technologies and Latin American Affairs
State of Israel
Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development
Centre for International Agricultural Development Cooperation (CINADCO)

From a Workshop titled:
Market Gardening, Farm Associations, and Food Provision in Urban and Peri-Urban Africa
at The Green Beach Hotel, Netanya
June 23-28, 1996
Under the auspices of
Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel
Netherlands-Israel Development Research Programme (NIRP)
Centre for International Cooperation Ministry of Foreign Affairs "MASHAV", Israel


The continuing urbanization process and its confrontation with the nearby surrounding periurban area causes many social, economical and environmental changes, which to a large extent reflect an adaptation to the new arising reality.

Such changes are specialized farms to meet the growing needs of the city for agricultural products, agroindustry, agrotourism, export crops, handcrafts by local artisans, roadside businesses and services and others.

Intensive urbanization is also creating extreme ecological disturbances, caused by sewage water, city garbage, industrial wastes, etc.

Proper agroecological solutions can offer mutual benefit both to farmers and to the city population such as, recycling sewage water for irrigation or changing garbage into compost and industrial wastes into animal feeds.

In developed countries with strong economic resources, agroecological solutions are being applied, whereas in developing countries with less economical resources, the ecological disturbances in the periurban areas are not dealt with sufficiently. Quite frequently they are neglected completely thus creating hazardous conditions for both population and the environment.

I. Introduction

The process of urbanization has become a worldwide phenomena.

In developed countries the urbanization process usually has resulted in a large number of urban centers spread more or less widely throughout the country, whereas in developing countries there are less urban centers, many times only one large city which quite often is the capital of the country. Most of the immigrants to the urban centers in the developing countries will concentrate and settle in the neighborhoods of this large, capital city, converting it into a "megalopolis". The quarters and neighborhoods where these immigrants settle are usually poor and of a low economic level. Consequently, living conditions are harsh and the infrastructure and sanitary facilities are not sufficient for the masses of people pouring in.

Contrary to such conditions, in the developed countries, we can find people that buy or acquire property on the outskirts of the big cities and live on small plots of land in better housing, improving their standard of living. By the end of the 20th century half of the population in developing countries will be living in urban areas. This will create a unique situation in the socio-economic relationship between the people living in the urban area and those in the nearby rural one.

This urban-rural relationship will be influenced by restrictions and limitations in food production, income opportunities and the general well being of the population. Ecological and agroecological disturbances, which may occur in the large cities and in the nearby rural areas, will project on and influence the populations of the area, leaving the people of both societies, the urban and the rural, to confront their not-so-abiding surroundings.

In the following presentation I will concentrate on the socio-economic relationship existing between the city societies and the ones in the adjacent rural areas, list some of the existing problems, their causes, and indicate some practical solutions which could be applied for the benefit of the populations on both sides of the border.

II. Changes In The Periurban Rural Sector

The Family Farm - producing in the neighborhood of a big city.

In the city people are engaged mainly in industry, commerce, services, construction, administration, education and transportation. All of them are looking for food, especially for fresh food, which has to be delivered continuously on a daily basis. The big city will look especially attractive to the capable young generation of farmers, who in order to find work and to complement and improve their income, either on a part-time or permanent basis, will leave their farms in the morning, returning back home only in the evening. In such a case, the role of the woman who stays at home becomes a unique and important one, as she continues to work and to derive the income from the farm.

Farms for Specialized Crops

Small farms tend to produce specialized crops for the city, due to the marketing advantages adherent in the proximity to the urban centers. These specialized crops are basically for direct consumption and include such crops as vegetables, fruits, chickens, eggs, milk, flowers, ornamentals, pot plants, etc. On these small farms located close to the city the production process becomes capital intensive and orientated, based on advanced technologies. These specialized crops produced at the small farms for direct consumption in the city, will be delivered directly to the stores or to the homes of the consumers, in order to obtain better prices. However, they might also be sold to the wholesale markets and commercial centers. Sometimes farm products will be sold directly on the farm, with the consumer coming to the rural area in order to buy fresh and cheaper produce while saving the expenses of middlemen, dealers, transportation and packing.


This is a further step in the development process and one step ahead of specialized farming. We will find that these farms are engaged in the processing of agricultural products, by the establishment of mini-dairies for milk processing or milk products, conservation of fruits, processing of vegetables and other agricultural products, such as meat and chicken processing.

Further specialization can also be found in the preparation of certain fine foods (delicacies) intended for specialized stores or hotels.

In the process of agroindustrialization, the farmer is becoming an entrepreneur, establishing an industrialized business based on his agricultural farm products. What we have here is the beginnings of small-scale industrial development, with high value products destined for the population of the nearby city. In some cases this type of agricultural farming has become highly sophisticated.

Agricultural Products for Export

There are advantages to the farm being near the big city: labor can be found relatively easy; the close proximity to an international airport where sensitive agricultural products such as flowers of different kinds, vegetables such as peas, asparagus, beans, tomatoes and melons can be shipped directly for export, thus reducing the risk and hazard of damage during transportation and bringing the products nearer to the export markets of the richer countries of the North.


The dense population of the large city is looking for green and open spaces, the so-called green lungs, where they can leave the city behind and get out into nature, enjoy the scenery and panoramic views and feel what life on a farm is like. They will be looking for restaurants and roadside food stands, camp sites and recreation areas where they can spend a good time with their families in a healthy rural environment.

The next step would be to build hotels and centers for special events, such as weddings, conference centers, family-oriented entertainment, etc. Occasionally, we will find these open areas enhanced by beautiful views of forests, sea shores, deserts, which will further justify the investment of the much needed infrastructure in order to develop the recreation centers. Road building, available parking and the closeness to the big city are all part of the needed infrastructure for agrotourism.

Handicrafts, Artisan works and Craft Centers

This is another area which could be developed on small farms which are close to the big cities, based particularly on the contribution of the farmer's wife, but also of the entire family.

These family industries include carpet and rug weaving, making different kinds of bags, wood carving, metal works, special artisanship for jewelry making, wood furniture, etc. Sometimes we can find that a whole village specializes in a certain craft, such as carpet knotting, furniture manufacturing, paintings, etc. In villages dedicated to handicrafts, it is quite common to find special stores along the main street or on selected side streets, where the local products are displayed and sold. Thus the whole town becomes a popular market, sometimes a Sunday market, which attracts the tourists and people from the nearby cities.

Transportation and Highway Services

The fast development of the urban areas brings with it the need to construct roads and highways coming into and going out of the city. Such roads will reduce on the one hand the lands needed for agricultural production, however they will also change the needs and uses of these lands. There will also be opportunities of establishing centers where road services can be offered to travelers and commuters, such as gas stations, garage and mechanical services, restaurants and stores.

III. Agroecological Aspects

Agriculture, taking into account agroecological aspects, is defined as the sustainable management of natural resources for food production, based on resources such as water, soil, plants, animals and microorganisms, climatic conditions and the human factor. The accumulated use or management of these natural resources for agricultural production is resulting in the gradual deterioration of these vital resources and their value, subsequently producing agroecological disturbances, which eventually, if better care and better management practices are not taken might result in the inability to use a particular resource for a long period of time or causing it to become scarce and unavailable for any agricultural activity at all.

The sustainable approach discussed here, based on knowledge and technology, is intended to avoid such agroecological disturbances of the basic natural resources and to conserve them over extended time periods so that they can be used for continual agricultural production without causing deterioration and limiting ecological damage to the environment. In continuation we will mention some of the major agroecological problems and indicate some possible solutions.


The need for water is widespread, for domestic and industrial uses, for irrigation, etc. Water is an essential element, becoming more scarce and in short supply due to contamination and other circumstances and is not always easy to conserve. The water system is composed of the water resources, conveying and distribution systems and the sewage systems and can be a cause of contamination itself. A large urban center including industrial areas and nearby intensive agricultural production systems, as was described earlier, may cause contamination of the aquifer by nitrates coming from cow sheds, poultry houses, city garbage, from excess nitrogen fertilizers and from products derived from the decomposing process of plant residues. Contamination may also come from chemical solubles used in industry and from heavy metals found in industrial sewage.

If the resource is underground water, it will be distributed by pumping from wells. Intensive pumping of water can lower the groundwater levels and, if the aquifer is close to the sea, allow the intrusion of saline water. These factors will eventually cause salinization of the aquifer and reduce the quality of the water for drinking, industrial or farming purposes.

The intensive use of water has led to water shortages in many areas. As a result large water supply projects have had to be constructed, carrying water over great distances, tens and even hundreds of kilometers, and also making water more expensive. Other water resources, such as lakes and rivers, are also facing deterioration due to the common occurrence of drought years. The main problem, however, remains contamination caused by sewage water produced by the population and by industrial activities.

Normally, the sewage from cities and industry reaches the lakes and rivers, located in low areas, by flowing towards and discharging into them. As a result of the sewage water reaching surface aquifers and rivers and lakes, a process of eutrophication (the intensive growth of algae) is produced. Later, with the decomposition of the algae, oxygen is absorbed from the water, destroying microorganisms and other living agents in the water, causing it to become sterile. Such a situation will prohibit the use of this water for human consumption. Sewage water also contains detergents and salts, due to human use, and usually the salinity rate is higher than the original water.


The Economic Value of Water.

Taking into account that water has an economic value, there is a need to set the price of water and simultaneously to establish a mechanism for controlling and limiting its use by the creation of consumption quotas. Another solution is to direct sewage water to purification plants, where they will be recycled and then diverted to irrigation purposes. When the recycling is primary or secondary, at low levels, the use of these waters is limited to field crops or industrial crops only and not for edible vegetables or fruits.

Sometimes the farmer will have good reasons, and perhaps no other choice, than to use recycled water. In such cases, the price of the water will be divided among the producers (the farmers), the urban population and the authorities. This is a case where mutual benefits can be derived from the periurban neighborhood, where local farmers can make use of recycled water for irrigation, which otherwise would have been diverted into rivers, lakes or the open sea. If recycled water is disposed of without any further uses, it has only an ecological value. By using the recycled water for agricultural production its value increases and it replaces potable, pure water to be used by the urban population.

Another solution for saving water is more efficient management of the water conveying installations and to avoid water losses from deteriorating water-supply systems. In certain cases, water losses of 30% to 50% occur from outdated and inefficient conveying systems.

Differential water prices for consumers is another solution. The higher marginal cost of water for agricultural use will determine its economic value and the importance for using recycled sewage water.

The process of desalination of sea water for drinking purposes is very expensive, mainly because of the cost of building the desalination plant and also the cost of electric energy which is needed to run it. Today the cost of desalination is almost US$ 1 for 1 cubic meter water. This means that this system can only be used when no other alternative exists and that only rich countries can allow themselves this solution.

The need to conserve lakes, river banks and rivers must also be stressed as a vital measure to avoid contamination of these important water resources, which is also an extremely important agroecological factor.


Urban development, which is extending steadily into the peripheral zones of the city and encroaching more and more on the surrounding rural areas, will result in an increased value of lands and soils. Subsequently, the agricultural use of the available soils will become more intensified, as was described at the beginning, as in specialized agriculture, agriculture for export, agroindustry, tourism, etc. Urban development also requires the construction of roads into and out of the city, again reducing the available lands, while at the same time creating opportunities to establish service centers along these roads. Ecologically, we are facing increasing air pollution and contamination as a result of the increased transportation and industry, as well as problems of noise. Solutions for these problems are both of a mechanical and judicial (juridic) nature.

Development for Recreational Areas

As a result of the high cost of lands, there is a need for well planned development of industries and transportation facilities. At the same time, however, we also need to plan and reserve areas for the social and recreational needs of the urban population, the so called "green lungs" of the city, the public gardens and parks, etc. Such development, which may also lead to forest conservation, will provide the needed recreation areas. In developing countries, where poor people live at the marginal section of the urban area, they also need firewood for cooking. The extensive use of trees for firewood is one of the main reasons for deforestation.

There is a need to supply alternative energy sources and establish laws which will prevent the extensive cutting of firewood.

City Garbage

In developed countries, the daily average per capita production of garbage is around 3 to 5 kilos. In developing countries the amounts are smaller, about 1 to 1 1/2 kilos daily, however still we are speaking about large amounts, almost mountains of garbage, which must be considered as a main source of contamination and other ecological disturbances, requiring an ecological solution.

Such ecological disturbances could be bad smells, flies, sources of nitrates which can penetrate and contaminate ground water, heavy metals and bacteriological contamination which could also penetrate into the underground aquifer.

Possible solutions could be the arrangement or assigning of special areas where garbage should be collected. These areas should be far away from population centers. The bottom of these areas should be sealed completely by plastics or other means in order to avoid the penetration of contaminated water into the underground aquifer. The daily amounts of garbage should be covered by soil to avoid flies and bad odors.

Another solution which is not practiced in Israel, but is quite common in the United States, is to burn the garbage as fuel for the production of steam for power stations. Separating the various components of the garbage for subsequent recycling of the different materials, such as plastics, paper, metals, glass, etc., is becoming more popular, particularly in developed countries and evolving from this is the beginning of small industries of recycled products. The garbage material contains a high amount of organic material, about 80%. This could be used for compost production which could then be sold to farmers as fertilizers.

This can be seen as another example of the mutual benefit between the urban and the rural populations. By creating compost we are getting rid of the greater part of the city garbage and at the same time the farmer is benefitting from the use of compost as a fertilizer for his crops. The weak point, however, is the economic resources needed in order to produce the compost and also the rather large surface area needed for the compost production process, two rather large constraints in many countries.

The Use of Industrial Residues

Industries, mainly the food industry, create large amounts of residues which, with proper planning and the necessary budgetary elements, could be used for agricultural inputs, for example the use of cheese water, a byproduct from the milk processing industry. This liquid contains minerals, vitamins and proteins and can be given as food supplements to calves in cattle production. A similar use could be made from the residues of oil crops, such as maize, soya, and olives. After extracting the cakes which are rich in vitamins and minerals, the residual sediments could be used for animal feeding. Another example is the use of peels, such as orange and other citrus fruit peels in the juice extraction industry. The peels could be used for feeding animals, either directly or as silage. Another example is the use of molasses, an outcome of the sugar industry, either from sugar cane or sugar beets. The molasses is rich in nutrients and could be used for feeding animals.

Botanical Garden and Conserving Biodiversity

Quite often we will find botanical gardens located in the vicinity of urban centers. These gardens are usually managed and directed by universities or other related institutes and in them we can see the richness of bio-diversity. Because of the danger of extinction of certain botanical species in nature, it is very important and essential to preserve the bio-diversity in such botanical gardens for scientific, educational, and extension purposes.

Animal Husbandry

Nearby urban centers we can often find a large number of dairies, of various sizes, whose purpose is to supply fresh milk to the city population. Again, as we saw before, the beneficial elements of the specialized agricultural entrepreneurship, the mini-dairy, can be outweighed by the ecological damage that is caused, in this case the contamination from the cowsheds. The manure and urine produced will release under certain conditions nitrates, that subsequently penetrate the underground water aquifer. The cowsheds are also a source of odors and flies and bother the nearby population.


There should be very strict regulations like those existing in Israel, which require the farmer to collect all the urine and manure from the cowshed in order to prevent nitrate penetration into the underground water aquifer. Manure and the other organic residues could be used for a high quality compost production to be applied as fertilizer. By using certain treatments, cowshed manure could be used directly in the field.

Poultry production, supplying meat and eggs to the city population, can also be found near urban centers. However, poultry farming results in even more ecological disturbances, since the amount of manure is great and contains a very high nitrate content. Poultry farming is also responsible for air contamination from dust, odors and flies.


The chicken manure can be collected and used directly for manuring fields, or for the production of compost. Chicken manure could also be treated and used for fish feeding. Since chicken manure is characterized by a high protein content, heat treatment of poultry manure will enable its use for cattle feeding.


The meaning of micro-organisms is in reference to plant diseases and pests. Around urban centers we can find a very intensive process of agriculture, as we have already mentioned in this lecture, whose aim is to supply fresh vegetables, flowers and other plant products to the urban population. This intensive agriculture is very sensitive to diseases and pests, controlled by the conventional use of pesticides. However, many of these pesticides, such as chloro-organic pesticides or the phosphoroganic, pyretroids, and of the fumigants like methylbromide, are very toxic and dangerous to human beings living in their vicinity.

Pesticides are very hazardous to the workers who produce them at the chemical plants, to those who transport them from the plant to the stores and to those who use them in the field. These pesticides are also dangerous to the people who live near the fields and to the consumers, who eat the fumigated fruit and vegetables. It should also be mentioned that these pesticides are a hazard to the natural living agents, especially to the predatory birds, to fishes and rodents. The residues of these fumigates could kill these positive agents, sometimes directly or indirectly, by penetrating into the nutrient chain and by destroying the natural fauna, which is very important and positive from the ecological point of view.

The main solution for this form of ecological disturbance is the approach to pest control called the Integrated Pest Management System (IPM). The meaning of IPM is the integration of agrotechnical methods, resistant varieties and biological controls replacing chemical control. Another important point is to carry out field monitoring, in order to determine the exact biological conditions of pest and disease levels in the field. This will enable the use of proper amounts and applications of the different control systems against pest and diseases, and in that way to reduce the level of toxic residues on the plant products to a minimum.

Climatic Factors

There are many aspects to be taken into consideration when dealing with climatic factors, but we will deal here only with the wind factor. In the agricultural sector we find that the burning of organic material is a common phenomena, for instance the burning of different plant residues and plant debris such as the burning of wheat fields after harvesting. The smoke can be blown by the wind and reach the nearby towns, depending on its direction, and thereby create air pollution. The wind can also blow the odors produced in the garbage dumps into the urban areas, stressing again the need to place the dumps as far away as is feasibly possible from the urban centers.

Finally, a few words concerning the different situations and conditions existing in developed countries and developing countries.

There has been no intention to try and compare the procedures in developing and developed countries, rather the aim was to stress the principles existing in the periurban reality. In actuality there are very big differences in the periurban areas of developed as versus developing countries. The main differences are the ability to attain economical resources, being able to organize and manage socio-economic activities, and to enforce laws and regulations. Developed countries have more economic resources which can be used for research and for finding solutions to ecological problems, whereas the developing countries are often lacking these economic resources and the trained personnel who would have the ability to fight against the ecological disturbances. Also, when it comes to management, organization and enforcement of laws and regulations, there are differences.

Due to these reasons, it is difficult at present to try and apply general or global solutions for ecological disturbances in the developing countries. Unfortunately, however, unless we do we will find an accelerated process of urbanization together with rapid deterioration of ecological conditions, both in the periurban as well as in the rural environment, endangering actual population existence and future development.

And now "Looking Forward", we in the western world should conclude and look carefully at what happened to the southern plains of Japan, which became a big urban region, integrated with industries, without paying attention to the sustainability of the natural resources in the area.

Another example is Staten Island near New York, which at the end of the Second World War was still an agricultural area and today has become completely integrated into New York City.

In Israel we are familiar with what is happening in the moshav settlements near the big cities, loosing their agricultural characteristics and becoming very much integrated into the economic life of the nearby city. We are also familiar with what is happening on the kibbutzim that are near the cities and how they are also loosing their agricultural characteristics. Today, on may of these kibbutzim, the agricultural income is only 20% and the rest is derived from industry, such as tourism, agroindustries, etc.

We are facing the same processes that have happened in the agricultural neighborhoods of the large cities in the United States, that over the years have become big shopping centers where people come from the cities and towns to do their shopping. And then we ask ourselves, what will happen to the suburbs of Lagos, San Paolo, Mexico City, Manila, Bangkok and many other cities? It is not hard to guess, but the solutions are still far from being applied and implemented.

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Revised September 28, 1997

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture