Urban gardening is becoming increasingly popular in northern metropoles. People who consider themselves part of a green movement are establishing productive gardens in the city, for example on rooftops or in vacant lots. In severely impoverished regions of the global South, urban agriculture is a component of the food strategy.
In Africa an estimated 130 million urban dwellers engage in urban agriculture while in Latin America the figure stands at 230 million. They grow fruit and vegetables and keep livestock for self-consumption. Urban chicken keeping is widespread, while goats and cows are kept for self-sufficiency and in part also for sale. Livestock is kept not only on holdings in the vicinity of dwellings but also on vacant public land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 800 million people are engaged in urban livestock-keeping and a quarter of these are considered to be market producers.
In megacities such as Rio de Janeiro, urban agriculture has come to play an important role in the overall urban food supply. Due to ongoing urbanisation processes the major cities are expanding in a way that former agricultural land is becoming part of the urban area. There are more than 2,000 community gardens in Buenos Aires, i.e. home gardens, family gardens, neighbourhood gardens and gardens run by initiatives for the unemployed. Small agriculturally used plots are also widespread in South African townships.
Do urban gardens hold the potential to feed a growing number of future urban dwellers? Urban agriculture plays a prominent role in times of systemic crises or war when the supply lines from the rural areas to the cities fail or are cut off. The following examples highlight cases in which urban dwellers have taken initiative due to supply shortages, have developed subsistence economies, and are producing their own food.
Detroit - a network of urban gardens
Just how significant urban gardening can be for the urban food supply has been demonstrated by the economic decline of Detroit, the world’s automotive capital. Here the capitalist American dream came to an abrupt halt due to the collapse of the automotive industry, leaving behind an increasingly de-industrialised metropolitan area. These developments also had a marked effect on the food supply. Some foods were offered at unaffordable prices or were even no longer offered at all, as due to the Detroiters’ lack of purchasing power the supply network consisting of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants swiftly withdrew from the city.
Inhabitants of Detroit therefore decided to take initiative and began to produce food crops on former industrial sites. As a result, there is now an impressive network of well over a thousand urban gardens. Growers first offered their products on informal markets which have expanded into farmers’ markets. Detroit’s urban farming movement has since been emulated all over the United States. Due to its seed needs the urban gardening movement is also playing a role in the establishment and maintenance of communal seed banks, the ‘seed libraries’. Both these community endeavours are integral components of the growing resistance within the US against industrial agriculture and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) produced by large corporations.
Havana’s agro-ecological revolution
Cuba is one of the best-known examples of urban agriculture. The agricultural division of labour between and within the socialist countries fell victim to the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s. Imports of food, goods and crude oil from the Soviet states, on which Cuba was highly dependent, came to a sudden halt and the existing food supply system became dysfunctional. As a result, the food situation in Cuba drastically deteriorated especially for urban dwellers. They began to establish gardens and grow crops in vacant city lots. Within a remarkably short period they increased the proportion of food produced on urban land, especially in Havana. By the mid-1990s there were already almost 30,000 garden lots in the city with its 2 million inhabitants. The urban farmers use very minor amounts of fertilisers and pesticides, produce in the smallest of areas, and also adapt their livestock population to the mostly small available areas.
Thanks to the ‘Revolución Verde’, Havana alone produces more than two thirds of its fruit and vegetable needs within the city limits. The Cuban government actively supported ‘agricultura urbana’ with its generous allocation of vacant lots to producers and by providing scientific back-stopping. A particular focus has been on the development of agro-ecological production. A total of approximately 35,000 ha of land in Havana is used for urban agriculture, primarily under organic management. The success of urban farming in Cuba has inspired many people around the world. For example, the founders of the Prinzessinnengärten in Berlin-Kreuzberg, one of Germany’s most well-known urban gardening projects, took their inspiration from several stays in Cuba.
Kolumbien, Bogota: "Urban Gardening", ein Projekt der Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe. (c) Thomas Lohnes/Brot für die Welt
Kolumbien, Bogota: "Urban Gardening", ein Projekt der Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe. (c) Thomas Lohnes/Brot für die Welt
Kuba: Mutter Ivist bei der Gartenarbeit auf dem Dach ihres Hauses. (c) Uta Wagner/Brot für die Welt
Kuba: Waldo Rodriguiz Alfonso in seinem Hausgarten. Das Projekt „Urban Gardening“ fördert den Anbau von Obst und Gemüse in den Hinterhöfen der Häuser. (c) Uta Wagner/Brot für die Welt
Brasilien: Joyce Luiciana da Silva arbeitet auf dem Feld der Kooperative Univerde. Jede Familie hat 1000 Quadratmeter Land bekommen. (c) Thomas Lohnes/Brot für die Welt
Kuba: Felicia Valdez mit ihrer Mutter Ivist auf dem Dach ihres Hauses. Das Projekt „Urban Gardening“ fördert den Anbau von Obst und Gemüse auf den Dächern der Häuser. (c) Uta Wagner/Brot für die Welt
15th Garden – a matter of survival in Syria
The 15th Garden network is a current example of the interlinkages between urban agriculture and political resistance. For many years now its activists have been advocating Syrian democratisation; they establish urban gardens for food production in Syria’s occupied and starved cities and enclaves. The network consists of urban gardens, regionally networked family gardens, communal organisation and production on family farms in rural regions, and agricultural initiatives by refugees in refugee camps in the countries bordering Syria.
The activists involved see their role as working towards the democratisation of the food system and re-establishing food availability. They propagate and exchange seeds and pass on sustainable agriculture and horticulture skills in workshops and courses.
Food councils in Berlin and Brazil
No doubt the establishment of one of the first food councils in Germany can be ascribed to the grassroots urban gardening movement in Berlin. Given the presence of a highly industrialised rural area in the immediate vicinity of the city, the food council’s aim is to exchange views with rural producer groups in order to reconcile interests and strengthen rural producers. Brazil has provided an impressive example of just how successful such a dialogue can be: Its national food council CONSEA (Conselho Nacional de Segurança Alimentar e Nutricional), which brings together representatives of public authorities and a variety of civil society groups, has contributed to democratising the food system, curbing hunger and undernourishment, and reconciling at the same time the interests of the urban and rural populations.
All these movements have one thing in common: They alter – albeit for different reasons – the existing food system from within the city, drawing on traditional agricultural production systems. Some of the movements focus on rural biodiversity with a view to breaking out of the urban monotony and eating habits prevailing in the cities. Others establish new relationships between producers and consumers, for example with the help of the urban food councils, thus fostering an improved understanding between urban and rural people as well as more diverse food production and consumption patterns.
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