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Feeding Cities - The Opportunities and Challenges of Urban Agriculture

What if it were more appropriate to define urban agriculture in the plural? This is what Christine Aubry, a researcher at INRA-AgroParisTech, is proposing. She prefers to talk about multiple kinds of urban agriculture, given the diversity of practices, issues and trajectories at hand.


The earliest cities of human civilization already practiced urban agriculture. But it was more recently, during the period of industrialization in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when millions of people left the countryside in the hope of making their fortune in the city, that the first concepts of garden cities and allotments emerged, offering city dwellers the opportunity to provide for their own nutrition needs.


According to Christine Aubry, urban agriculture is "a type of agriculture practiced in or near the city and closely linked to it”. The “exchange” dynamic, or the products or services given to the city in return for labor, is even more important than location to define, in a word, what urban agriculture is.


Containing as many practices as it does concepts, this form of agriculture is first pluralized by its interdisciplinarity. Despite the lack of support for and integration of urban agriculture projects in city policies, they have been gaining momentum for several years now. To support this movement, there is a now growing trend among researchers to establish a link between justice and sovereignty related to food and urban and agrarian movements. Today, the city is still too often seen as a container - a place to provide and store food. We need to look at the bigger question of our "urbanity", which determines our specific consumption patterns and lifestyles that put pressure on the current food system.


The awareness of city dwellers regarding these forms of local agriculture is due to a combination of several concerns: climate, food insecurity, the economic crisis, the desire to change channels in the face of the excesses of our consumption and production of food, the health crisis, and so on.


It is true that there are many benefits of urban agriculture. Cities act as an abundant research laboratory for these types of projects. For example, the Associations pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne (AMAPs) create a link between farmers and city dwellers, while promoting the local production and consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in cities. Restoring a food sovereignty that is concerned about small producers, consumers and the urban context is essential to reduce our ecological footprint, preserve soil biodiversity, and face market volatility.


The different types of urban agriculture are diverse and can meet many needs. Examples include:


- urban farms, which can be located on rooftops or rehabilitated areas (such as former factories), and which may turn to market gardening or specialize in unique productions of honey, mushrooms, etc...

- community gardens, which are smaller in size and exist in residential areas for local residents

- associative gardens, which are managed by one or more associations and which generally target a minority audience

- educational gardens as a tool for raising ecological awareness

- therapeutic gardens that are located within medical institutions and provide a source of wellness for those who are there for physical and mental health care

- squatters' gardens that use wasteland for food production


The major challenge of this century, characterized by unprecedented urbanization, is to feed cities sustainably. Local agriculture and short circuits are a major response to this challenge. However, this is not a "miracle solution", an illusion that seems to have gained momentum in these times of crisis, in the absence of a vision of urban resilience over the longer term. Several elements must be taken into account in these policies: the size of the cities, the importance of maintaining the link with farmers who practice so-called "conventional" agriculture, the coherence of the projects with the realities on the ground, etc.



The major challenge of this century, characterized by unprecedented urbanization, is to feed cities sustainably. Local agriculture and short circuits are a major response to this challenge. However, this is not a "miracle solution", an illusion that seems to have gained momentum in these times of crisis, in the absence of a vision of urban resilience over the longer term. Several elements must be taken into account in these policies: the size of the cities, the importance of maintaining the link with farmers who practice so-called "conventional" agriculture, the coherence of the projects with the realities on the ground, etc.


Farmers are unanimous: it is not, at present, conceivable to provide for every inhabitant relying mainly on urban agriculture in large cities like Paris. Moreover, for Christine Aubry, cities are still far from being able to move towards food self-sufficiency. That said, efforts should not stop here. Indeed, the lack of inclusion of urban gardens and farms in policy and planning makes them the most threatened category of green spaces.


So, what is the way forward? Compatibility of agricultural production forms provides one of the keys. The mistake in large cities would be to abandon conventional agriculture and market gardening belts located on the outskirts of large cities for urban agriculture projects that are often more appropriate for ultra-specialization of production, due to lack of space.


In most northern cities, as in France, there is too little space on the ground and not all rooftops are suitable for cultivation: slope, limited bearing capacity, limited access to water, etc. In Paris, for example, if we cultivated on all the "agriculturable" rooftops, we could not even produce 10% of the fresh food consumed by Parisians!


Other abuses linked to this craze must also be avoided. Some projects, under the aegis of the concept of urban agriculture, take advantage of this legitimization to build farms that are harmful and contrary to the definition of a local, small-scale and, above all, reasoned agriculture. For example, we can refer to the recent legal challenge to the EuropaCity project, a gigantic complex that plans to set up a seven-hectare urban farm on the land of the Gonesse triangle, one of the richest in France, while at the same time destroying 80 hectares of land. Another underlying challenge of urban and peri-urban agriculture projects is pollution.


Indeed, developing agriculture in the city can pose health risks related to the presence of pollutants, particularly trace metals (TMEs), in levels higher than those usually found in agricultural soils, warns Christine Aubry. It is therefore important to insist on regular operational monitoring to avoid this type of problem.



And in the cities of the South? Trajectories differ. In some Maghreb countries, for example, agriculture disappeared from cities as populations grew. However, it has recently returned to certain cities and their outskirts. This is the case in Morocco, where flat roofs lend themselves to crops, or in Algiers, which is creating agriparks to protect the surrounding farmland from urban sprawl and promoting crops in the city. In Madagascar, Senegal and Burkina Faso, urban agriculture has not disappeared with the growth of the urban population. On the contrary, it has grown with the population. In Antananarivo, for example, fish farming has developed, and watercress cultivation, which was on the verge of extinction at the time, has been maintained. As another example, in Senegal, lettuce production in the city has gone from being an informal crop, grown on rooftops or in the courtyards of buildings, to commercial production in 20 years.


In 2050, two thirds of the world's population will live in cities. The question arises: how do we feed the cities of the future? It is difficult to answer, but one thing is certain: large cities and capitals are already congested and facing challenges that they are trying to overcome. Fostering food sovereignty in intermediate cities through local agriculture, on the other hand, is, with political will and support, entirely feasible. Small and medium-sized cities are therefore the real cities of the future.


Sources :


- Reporterre - Bio et local : Quand les villes cultivent elles-même leurs fruits et légumes. https://reporterre.net/Bio-et-local-quand-les-villes-cultivent-elles-memes-leurs-fruits-et-legumes

- Reporterre - Des fermes urbaines pour remplacer l’agriculture francilienne ? https://reporterre.net/Des-fermes-urbaines-pour-remplacer-l-agriculture-francilienne

- Reporterre - Les Amap, bien vivantes pour soutenir les paysans

- The prefigurative power of urban political agroecology: rethinking the urbanisms of agroecological transitions for food system transformation (Chiaria Tornaghi & Michiele Dehaene) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epub/10.1080/21683565.2019.1680593?needAccess=true

- INRAE - Agriculture urbaine et contamination : une démarche pour évaluer et gérer les risques sanitaires. https://www.inrae.fr/actualites/agriculture-urbaine-contamination-demarche-evaluer-gerer-risques-sanitaires

- iD4D - Agriculture urbaine : les villes du futur seront nourricières. https://ideas4development.org/agriculture-urbaine-villes/




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