The practice of cultivating food and raising animals in an urban environment is referred to variously as urban farming or urban agriculture. Whilst small-scale and localised food production has a long history, including individual allotments which have been popular in Europe since the late C18, it is the integration of such farming practices within the economic and ecological system of towns and cities that is a newer development. This means that urban resources such as compost from food waste and waste water from urban drainage is made use of, whilst urban problems such as the pressure on land and development also have to be negotiated.
The recent of example of Cuba has proven the effectiveness of urban agriculture, where it played a critical role in ensuring food security after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Cuba relied on chemical imports for fertiliser and pesticides from the Soviet Union; combined with a dramatic drop in oil availability, the country, and in particular Havana its capital city of 2.5 million people, became vulnerable to food shortages. In response, the Cuban government promoted urban agriculture at various scales, including food grown in private gardens, state-owned research gardens, and the most successful model, the popular gardens on state-owned land open to the public. Begun in 1991, the huertos populares, can range in size from a few square meters to three hectares and can be cultivated individually or as part of a community group. Land is provided for free as long as it is used for cultivation; the farming is organic as chemicals are expensive and difficult to get hold of. The scheme has been very successful, with an estimated 50% of national food production now being urban based, rising in some cities to 80% of all food being cultivated within the city boundary.
In Europe and the US, urban farming is becoming increasingly popular as environmental concern grows, since it reduces the carbon footprint of food production, as well as leading to greater bio-diversity and local employment. Architects, Bohn and Viljoen based in London, have taken the Cuban model and adapted it to suit landscaping proposals in European cities. Their 'Continuous Productive Urban Landscape' envisages an urban agriculture that takes the form of continuous green fingers running through cities to the countryside, strategically connecting allotment gardens with parks, which become more than mere ornamental landscapes. Bohn and Viljoen acknowledge that the Cuban model is dependent on its context of food shortage and a communal culture and if it were to be applied to the consumerist context of Europe, a change in attitude would also be needed. They call on ordinary people to appropriate left-over spaces such as grass verges, as do guerrilla gardeners, but with the specific intent to cultivate food. The architects' aim is to act as agents or facilitators of a change in attitudes and habits as much as in the physical environment. As such, they have organised events such as 'The Continuous Picnic' in central London, as well designing tools and objects to facilitate such actions, for example the 'Urban Agriculture Curtain', which allows allotment style food production to be carried out in a very limited space by growing plants vertically.
In the UK city farms are also popular, where the emphasis is not on growing crops but also on raising animals, to ensure that inner city children who may never come into contact with farm animals can learn about food production. One of the earliest of these is Mudchute Park and Farm on the Isle of Dogs in London, established in 1977 and still operating. A piece of derelict land made from the spoil of dredging of Millwall Dock in the 1860s, it became a wilderness cherished by the local community. Plans to build a high-rise housing estate in 1974 met with local opposition and residents led by the architect Katharine Heron campaigned for a 'People's Park'. In 1977 the Mudchute Association was formed to preserve and develop the area. Farm animals and horses were introduced, trees and plants were planted by volunteers and corporate teams. Mudchute also has a clear educational mission, with local schools encouraged to use the farm.
The desire for local food production in urban areas is also reaching a global scale with the Transition Town movement that originated in a student project at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland in 2006, under the supervision of Rob Hopkins, a permaculture expert. The Transition Town concept was developed to equip towns and later also villages, neighbourhoods etc. to deal with the changes that peak oil would bring. The idea was to establish a creative and holistic solution to our dependency on oil, changing energy consumption habits, food production, health, education and economy. In all these schemes local food production plays a large role in creating self-sufficient communities that are not dependent on food imports or on food that has travelled by road across the country. The Transition Town concept has already spread to many other countries, including UK, Canada, US, Australia, Chile and Italy, helped also through the emphasis on social networking, using the internet to spread the message.
Andre Viljoen (ed.), Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes: Designing Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Cities (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2005).
Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen, 'Everything is Continuous', in Actions: What you can do with the City (Montreal: CCA Publications, SUN Amsterdam, 2008).
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Scott Chaplowe, 'Havana's Popular Gardens: Sustainable Urban Agriculture', City Farmer, http://www.cityfarmer.org/cuba.html [accessed 24 May 2010].
William Wiles, 'Urban Farming', Icon, 2009, http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4040:urban-farming.
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'What is Urban Agriculture?', Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security, http://www.ruaf.org/node/512 [accessed 24 May 2010].
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