Urban Agriculture: A Beautiful Reality

March 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

Imagine a city where streets are lined with citrus trees, strawberries abound in the centre of roundabouts, window boxes are laden with fresh herbs and roof tops are heavy with food-producing gardens. Continue imaging compact residential and business areas broken up with community gardens and small farms where all organic household waste gets recycled. An environment fostering a sense of place and belonging where people linger together in the green of their parks munching apples that they foraged from their urban surrounds. This is the dream of Urban Agriculture, an agricultural method that sustains and enhances as well as nourishes urban life.

Food growing in urban environments has a long history all over the world. In Australia for example, the first half of the 20th century saw the food industry very much producer driven and backyard ‘veggie’ gardens and fruit trees were a common part of the Australian urban environment. What people could not produce themselves they obtained from the local dairy and corner store (Mason & Knowd 2010). Indeed, before refrigerators and refrigerated transport, agricultural production was required to be near the area of consumption meaning that farms and farmers markets were an important part of the urban and peri urban environment. At this time, the urban boundary gave way to small highly productive farms on 1-10 acre blocks. They received a high return for their produce taking advantage of the city market and infrastructure. Land use beyond this was mainly large acre agriculture (Waterhouse 2005).

With refrigeration and transport technology, food production moved further and further away from cities (Budge 2009). At the same time food became more and more processed, subject to globalised food arrangements, dominated by large agricultural businesses and multinational corporations, and heavily dependent on fossil fuels for transportation and chemical fertiliser and pesticides (Myers 2008).

Over this period our world has also continued to become more and more urban. For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. As a result, cities have huge and unsustainable demands on the world’s recourses with their social and environmental impacts reaching far beyond their boundaries. It is increasingly apparent that cities need to change rapidly in order to respond to forces such as population growth, climate change and resource depletion.

As cities become bigger, food and transport chains become more and more complex and costly, outsourcing their produce from far and wide. More than ever, we need a food system that protects land-based assets and the whole life system that depends on it (Pearson 2010).

But urbanisation does not have to be a bad thing. As Condon et al. (2010, p. 117) notes, urbanisation has the potential to promote ‘interactivity, education, social advances, and global human awareness and equity’ if applied appropriately. However, he goes on to say that without serious innovation it has tended to do the opposite providing significant environmental and social challenges (Condon et al. 2010).

Today we see the re-emergence of Urban Agriculture as a worldwide community initiated, social values based phenomenon.  This is largely in recognition of its benefits socially, environmentally and economically and because people have become disillusioned with the current food system. People increasingly want direct contact with the food they eat (Christensen 2007) and there is a growing demand for local and regional food (Mason & Knowd 2010). The re-emergence of farmers markets, backyard gardens and community gardens is testimony to this.

Urban Agriculture does much more than just feed cities and is increasingly recognised as a possible solution to many of the problems associated with urbanisation and current agricultural practices. Growing food in urban areas entrenches food production into the community and in so doing tackles a number of societal needs including ‘healthy food, healthy land and healthy social relationships’ (Kakaliouras 1995 cited in Sumner et al. 2010, p. 58).  Environmentally it benefits, air, water, land and aesthetics (Pearson 2010), especially if organic growing techniques are applied.  Socially it builds community and a sense of belonging, serves an educational purpose, improves health and increases food security (Sumner et al. 2010). Economically it creates jobs, affordable food, builds local small-scale economies, and cushions fiscal markets from potential future challenges such as climate change, recourse depletion and economic downturns (Pearson 2010).

Unfortunately, within Australia there is a lack of political will in policy and planning strategies that promote Urban Agriculture  and it largely remains community initiated and implemented (Merson et al. 2010). Perhaps this is a result of land use conflict, economic driven urban development, the urban rural divide, policy barriers, profit driven food industries, neoliberal reforms, privatisation, globalisation, and societal misconceptions. And what about society, do people care enough about these issues to resist the convenience of the supermarket or indeed to make them a political issue (Merson et al. 2010)?

If the challenge is to come up with an urban paradigm that is healthy, protects land-based assets provides secure access to fresh food and builds equality, community and sense of belonging, than urban agriculture, if applied appropriately, may very well provide the solution as it promotes both ecological and social sustainability. In this way, streets and boulevards lined with fruit trees could provide food corridors that link larger intensive neighbourhood food hubs at the same time recycling water and organic waste.

Oh wouldn’t that be lovely.


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