What Works: Urban Agriculture

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By Mara Schechter

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

The world food crisis is far from over, as David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World, explained during Nourishing the Planet’s State of the World 2011 Symposium on January 19, 2011. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, where food prices are usually higher than in rural areas. This is especially true in Africa, where some countries have higher urbanization rates than anywhere else in the world. African cities also face inadequate infrastructure and services.

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“Vertical gardens” helped Nairobi families survive when unrest after the 2008 elections shut down roads and prevented food from coming into the cities. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Increasing urban agriculture could help solve these problems. As Nourishing the Planet co-Project Director Brian Halweil explains at the State of the World 2011 Press Launch, “It’s estimated that by 2020, some 40 million Africans living in cities will depend on urban agriculture to meet their food requirements.” Many innovative projects demonstrate how this may be possible, and seem particularly promising as models for cities worldwide. These projects increase awareness and support for urban farmers, who often lack basic resources, such as land tenure and access to agricultural extension or credit.

Small urban gardens can help women, who compose the majority of urban farmers. Urban Harvest, an initiative to enhance urban agriculture’s potential and food security, supports community farms and projects in Kenya. These help women improve their income and networks of information and skills. In Kibera, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, located in Nairobi, over 1,000, mainly female, farmers now grow food quickly and in small spaces by filling tall sacks with soil and poking holes on different levels to plant seeds.  These “vertical gardens” helped Nairobi families survive when unrest after the 2008 elections shut down roads and prevented food from coming into the cities. Growing food for their families and selling the surplus also helps people improve their diets and livelihoods.

Urban agriculture can also raise living standards by reducing pollution and minimizing waste disposal issues. Urban farmers, for example, often use wastewater to irrigate and fertilize their crops. To help farmers avoid health hazards, the International Water Management Institute has helped them build simple filtration systems, like waste sedimentation ponds, in places like Accra, Ghana.

And urban farmers are finding innovative ways of growing food when they don’t have access to soil and other natural resources. With help from the Education Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) farmers are taking advantage of trash by creating gardens from old tires, which they cut in half to use as gardening containers. Chapter 10 in State of the World 2011 explains how farmers can use old cans, plastic bags, and other garbage, along with organic waste, to grow food in these planters, which can be used on rooftops and moved around easily when space is tight.

And these are just the beginning. Do you know of any other innovative projects that are working to help urban farmers?

Tell Nourishing the Planet what works and have your answers featured on the blog. Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @WorldWatchAg.


Mara Schechter is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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