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How Cities Across the World Are Promoting Urban Agriculture

Key issues and courses of action for municipal policy making on urban agriculture –Part 1

de Zeeuw, H., M. Dubbeling, R. van Veenhuizen and J. Wilbers, 2007. Courses of action for municipal policy making on urban agriculture. Adapted from an earlier article published under this title in: “Urban Agriculture Magazine 16: Formulating effective policies on urban agriculture”. RUAF Foundation. Leusden, the Netherlands.

This paper will present the first two of the main key issues for effective policy making on urban agriculture as well as possible courses of action for each of these issues. The five key issues include the following:

  • Creating a conducive policy environment for urban agriculture and its formal acceptance as an urban land use,
  • Enhancing access to vacant urban land and land tenure security,
  • Delivering adequate support services to enhance the productivity and economic viability of urban agriculture,
  • Promoting gender equity and social inclusion, and
  • Taking measures to reduce the health and environmental risks associated with urban agriculture.

The suggested courses of action have been identified and applied in the past decade by policy makers and practitioners in the field of urban agriculture and presented during various international and regional conferences and issue-based workshops[1].

Creating a conducive policy environment

Revision of existing policies and regulations

Formal acceptance of urban agriculture as a legitimate use of urban land is a crucial first step towards effective regulation and facilitation of the development of urban agriculture. Existing policies and bye-laws regarding urban agriculture, as well as sector policies that include norms and regulations on issues related to health, the environment, etc. will need to be reviewed in order to identify and subsequently remove (unsubstantiated) legal restrictions that may exist.

Another essential step is to include urban agriculture as a separate land use category in land use plans and change existing zoning categories to include urban agriculture.

"Urban agriculture is mainly an informal activity in Maranguape, introduced to the city by migrant workers. Urban agriculture, however, has to be integrated into the municipal planning as part of the Main Urban Development Plan." Raimundo Marcelo Carvalho da Silva, Mayor of Maranguape, Brazil (IPES/UMP-LAC, 2003).

Kampala (Uganda), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Havana (Cuba) and Harare (Zimbabwe) all recently revised or are revising their bye-laws and regulations in order to replace colonial bye-laws and international sanitation standards that were seen as excessive, unenforceable or inappropriate to local conditions.

Adequate institutional arrangements

A second important step is the creation of an institutional home for urban agriculture. Conventionally, sector policies have been defined under the assumption that agriculture refers to the rural sphere and will be attended to by institutions other than the urban ones. However, most agricultural organisations do not operate in the urban sphere. As a consequence, urban agriculture still receives little policy and planning attention and development support or it suffers from conflicting jurisdictions. At the same time, urban farmers are often uncertain as to which department, organisation or programme is responsible for them.

Municipal authorities can play a key role in filling this gap by:

  • Selecting a leading department or institute in the field of urban agriculture; often a change in the institutional mandate of that organisation will be needed and often a special urban agriculture department, unit or office will have to be created within the leading institute. Several cities, like Nairobi (Kenya) and Accra (Ghana), have created a municipal agricultural department. In Villa María del Triunfo, Lima (Peru), an urban agriculture unit was created under the Department of Economic Development (with a yearly budget of US$ 35,000), while at the same time urban agriculture was included as a priority area in the Concerted Economic Development Plan (2001-2010).
  • Establishing an interdepartmental ore inter-institutional committee on urban food production and consumption to enhance coordination and institutional commitment. In Cape Town (South Africa), an inter-departmental working group was established in 2002 to coordinate the urban agriculture activities of various municipal and provincial departments and facilitate integrated policy development. In Toronto (Canada), the Toronto Food Policy Council ( was set up in 1991 to involve business and community groups in the development of policies and programmes that promote urban food security and the creation of an equitable urban food system. A similar council can be found in Vancouver (Canada).

Measures to enhance access to vacant urban land and land tenure security

Land is a very important resource for urban agriculture[2] and its availability, accessibility and suitability for agriculture should be of particular concern to those who want to promote urban farming as a strategy for social inclusion, enhanced food security, poverty reduction and local economic development. City governments can facilitate access of urban farmers to available urban open spaces in the following ways (for more information, see also the proceedings of the RUAF-UN Habitat E-conference “Optimising Agricultural Land Use in the City Area”, 2003, at

Mapping of vacant land

Contrary to common belief, even in highly urbanised areas a surprisingly high number of vacant spaces can be found that could be used for agriculture on a temporary or permanent basis. In the city of Chicago (USA), for example, researchers identified 70,000 vacant lots. Various other cities, like Cienfuegos (Cuba), Piura (Peru), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Rosario (Argentina) and Cagayan de Oro (Philippines), have made an inventory of the available vacant open land in the city (using methods like community mapping and/or Geographic Information Systems) and analysed its suitability for agricultural use, which creates a good starting point for enhancing access of urban farmers to land.

Temporary leasing of vacant municipal land

The cities of Havana (Cuba), Cagayan de Oro (the Philippines), Lima (Peru), Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and Governador Valadares (Brazil), amongst others, have formulated a city ordinance that regulates the (temporary) use of vacant municipal land by organised groups of urban farmers.

"Considering the alarming rate of unemployment in the city of Rosario and the need to promote productive activities, the Municipality is committed to assigning land under contracts with farmer groups for farming purposes. Lots should have the minimal services for carrying out the proposed tasks." Pablo Javkin, Councillor Rosario Municipality, Argentina.(IPES/UMP-LAC, 2003)

Vacant municipal land might be land earmarked for future other uses (residential areas, industrial areas, hospital or school), or could be located in zones that are not fit for construction (flood zones, buffer zones, land under power lines, etc.), but may be given in short or medium term temporal lease to (groups of) urban poor for gardening purposes. In the city of Cape Town (South Africa), underutilised land around public facilities, road verges, etc., are leased out to groups of urban poor households. NeighborSpace in Chicago (USA), an organisation which is independent from but works in close collaboration with the City Council, liaises between the city (as land owner) and community gardeners who want to use the land. However, often those in need of land are not aware of such opportunities and information campaigns are an important accompanying measure.

Promoting use of vacant private lands

In order to enhance access of urban farmers to privately owned (vacant) land the Municipality of Rosario (Argentina) created a Municipal Agricultural Land Bank (a cadastral-based land registry) and brings those in need of agricultural land in contact with the owners of vacant land. It also hires vacant land from private landowners to lease it out to community groups interested in using this land productively.

Another effective instrument used in Rosario to encourage private or institutional landowners to make vacant land available to poor urban groups interested in farming is the increase of municipal taxes on idle urban land and reduction of taxes for landowners who make idle land available for (temporary) farming.

The city of Cagayan d’Oro (the Philippines), assists associations of the urban poor in establishing (allotment) gardens on privately owned land, which has proved to be a successful strategy. The organisers have learned that it is necessary to define clear land management conditions (e.g. type of crops that can be grown, no building of structures on the land, methods of waste management) and to help the allotment gardeners learn about the required practices and how to apply them.

Municipalities or NGO’s mediating between landowners and poor urban farmers should promote the provision of longer-term leases, which allow producers to invest in the soil and farm infrastructure. Such leases should be for at least five years, but preferably longer. Landowners however might be more willing to agree to a longer-term lease with an association of farmers (that leases the plots to their members on the basis of annually renewable contracts), instead of with individual farmers out of fear that the latter might start seeing the land as property and will refuse to leave the plot once the lease contract ends.

Demarcation of zones for urban agriculture

Dar es Salaam and Dodoma (Tanzania), Dakar (Senegal), Maputo (Mozambique), Bissau (Guinee Bissau), Pretoria (South Africa), Kathmandu (Nepal), Accra (Ghana) and Harare (Zimbabwe) are examples of the many cities that have demarcated zones for urban agriculture as a form of permanent land use. These zones are intended to support agriculture and/or to protect open green areas from being built upon, to create buffer zones between conflicting land uses (e.g. between residential and industrial areas) or to reserve inner city space for future uses. In Beijing (China), specific urban agricultural types and activities are promoted in the different peri-urban zones of the city. In Ho Chi Minh City and to a lesser extent in Hanoi (Vietnam), areas in and on the periphery of the city are also set aside for aquaculture. Such urban agricultural zones are more sustainable if located in areas that are not well suited for construction or where construction is not desirable, such as flood plains, under power lines, in parks or in nature conservation areas. The City Master Plan of Setif (Algeria), includes the creation of a green strip west of the city on the flood-prone fields of the Boussellam wadi valley.

Promotion of multifunctional land use

Under certain conditions urban farming can be combined with other compatible land uses. Farmers may provide recreational services to urban citizens, receive youth groups to provide ecological education, act as co-managers of parks, and their land may also be used as water storage areas, nature reserves, fire break zones, flood zones, etc. Aquaculture in urban or peri-urban lakes or ponds may be combined with other (water and fish related) recreational activities like angling, boating, a fish restaurant, etcetera, which proved successful model in Bangkok (Thailand). Agriculture and aquaculture may be linked to wastewater treatment and reuse e.g. in constructed wetlands like is practiced in Calcutta (India) at a massive scale and what could become an integral part of management of (peri-)urban green open spaces. By doing so the management costs of such areas may be reduced, and protection against unofficial uses and informal re-zoning may be enhanced.

The Municipality of Beijing (China) is promoting the development of peri-urban agro-tourism both in the form of larger agro-recreational parks as well as family-based agro-tourism: farmers diversifying their activities by offering services to urban tourists (food, accommodation, sales of fresh and processed products, functioning as tourist guide, horse riding, etc.). The local government made agro-tourism part of municipal and district level planning; established an agro-tourism association and information dissemination service; assists interested farmers with business planning, tax exemptions and funding of infrastructure development, and provides subsidised water and electricity.

Relocation of urban farmers

Farmers who are located in areas where their activities may cause serious health and/or environmental impacts may have to be relocated. In the case of planned conversion of agricultural areas for other land uses, the urban farmers could be supplied with alternative land areas and be assisted with basic infrastructure development (water, fence) in their new locations. In Jakarta (Indonesia), 275 dairy cattle farmers with over 5,500 cows have been relocated from the inner city area (where intensive cattle breeding caused disease and waste problems) to a peri-urban area. In Amsterdam (the Netherlands), a community garden was relocated after the municipality decided to start constructing houses in the area. During the period 1986-1989 Montreal (Canada) relocated 12 gardens.

Integration in social housing projects

Cities like Vancouver (Canada) Colombo (Sri Lanka), Kampala (Uganda), Rosario (Argentina) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) are experimenting with the inclusion of space for home and/or community gardening in new public housing projects and slum-upgrading schemes. Some cities also promote the recycling of grey household wastewater for use in home gardens and educate farmers regarding prevention of health risks.

[1] Havana 1999 (DSE/CTA/GTZ/ETC-UA), Stellenbosch 2001 (FAO), Quito 2001 (IPES/UMP-LAC/IDRC/FAO) Nairobi 2002 (FAO/IDRC/Habitat/ETC-RUAF/SIUPA), Ouagadougou 2002 (CREPA/ETC-RUAF), Nairobi 2003 (NRI/MI/ETC-RUAF), E-conference 2000 (FAO/ETC-RUAF), E-conference 2001 (CGIAR-UH/ETC-RUAF), E-conference 2002 (IWMI/ETC-RUAF), E-conference 2003 (HABITAT/ETC-RUAF), Johannesburg/Cape Town 2005 (Abalimi/CTA/ETC-UA).

[2] Although not all urban agriculture is soil bound: some examples that do not involve open land are mushrooms in sheds, guinea pigs in the kitchen, hydroponics, container agriculture, roof-top farming, etc.

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