What could urban farming contribute to self sustaining city development?

As the name implies, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in urban areas. It encompasses a complex and diverse mix of food production activities, from growing crops to urban beekeeping. A living and self sustaining city.


A painting showing a colorful self sustaining city map, with a lot of green spaces and veggie farms.

We are far from self sustaining cities.
The current situation: the City - Countryside gap

When we look at how industrial agriculture feeds most of the world and its cheap but environmentally damaging products that dominate markets, it can be hard to be hopeful for the future. It is highly concentrated, with a handful of people, corporations and organizations owning the land food is grown on, while others own entire seed lines and animal breeds.

Food production is undemocratic, with most customers having no say in how or where their food is produced and are thus unable to control the social or environmental impacts. Even imagining alternatives is a challenge: how can you feed billions of people, without emitting high amounts of greenhouse gasses, generating huge waste, destroying natural ecosystems and relying on finite resources such as fossil fuels?

It’s important to remember that industrial agriculture is a system designed and enforced by humans. Like all human systems, it can be changed, reformed or done away with. And no matter how difficult this sounds, the alternative is even worse, as the impact on climate and biodiversity will without a doubt make humanity’s future a lot darker.

But we know this is not a trivial problem, and the implication of modern societies is just the beginning. China, developing countries… also have other principles and the right to embrace their own productive system. So here, scale matters.

When looking for alternatives, it’s important to understand that different methods of producing food will be possible at different scales. We might not be able to design a single way of producing food that allows us to get rid of factory farms and intensive monocultures everywhere at once, but a network of interlinked, sustainable models adapted to the local environment is still possible. We need to look both at our history and the present alternatives and use our logic and imagination to create a fair and environmentally sustainable future for food.

Urban Farming at rescue

There is a form of agriculture that could tackle all the above mentioned issues, from lack of democratic participation to disconnection from food systems to agricultural pollution. That is urban agriculture. As the name implies, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in urban areas. It encompasses a complex and diverse mix of food production activities, from growing crops to urban beekeeping.

Its long, diverse and fascinating history shows that cities and their citizens do not have to be passive consumers. There are countless historical and modern examples of urban farming.

Depending on context, they are born either out of necessity, for the sake of food security, nutrition, and income generation, or out of a shared desire for nature and community holism. In both scenarios, the initiatives grant easier access to healthy and fresh fruit and vegetables, improving food security and safety. Moreover, growing food requires cooperation, which gives rise to united and friendly communities. This has a myriad of benefits, from improved mental health to reducing crime. 

Can urban farming actually change the path of humanity? The answer is a resounding yes! The food production potential within cities is much greater than you might think, and this has been used throughout history and around the world. Urban farming is perhaps as old as cities themselves.

Archaeological evidence reveals that in Persian desert towns, natural oases were fed through complex aqueducts carrying mountain water to support local food production. To further improve sustainability, waste from the communities was used to produce compost and fuel food production. Thousands of miles away, in Machu Picchu, archaeologists found urban vegetable beds. Even more impressive is that water conservation and reuse seems to have been a big part of the city’s stepped structure.

In Europe (UK, Germany, Spain among others), many urban farming experiments go back hundreds of years. The system of allotment gardens in Germany, for example, was born out of the wave of people migrating from rural areas to urban ones due to industrialization during the 19th century. These families were often exploited by employers, if they could find any, resulting in inappropriate housing, malnutrition and other forms of social neglect. Seeing this, actors such as the city administrations or local churches considered that allowing them to grow their own food would help, and thus provided open spaces for gardening purposes. These were initially called the “gardens of the poor” and were later termed as “allotment gardens”.

Self sustaining city and Self sufficient cities

The idea of organized allotment gardening reached its first peak after 1864, when the so-called “Schreber Movement” started in the city of Leipzig in Saxony. A public initiative decided to lease areas within the city, which included actual gardens, with the purpose of making it possible for children to play in a healthy environment, and in harmony with nature. Soon, adults were attracted to them too by the prospect of fresh vegetables and community spirit. This shows that the aforementioned economic, social and environmental benefits have more than 150 years of history to back them up.

As history teaches us, by encouraging urban agriculture through providing adequate spaces, materials and expertise, local governments and other key players can make their cities and towns more environmentally friendly and self-sufficient. Some towns throughout the world go even further and integrate these networks of local food producers in their planning, such as the Transition Towns found all over the globe. Also some CSA started their activity   with those plans in mind.

The use of urban farming is not limited to the past. One study of Cleveland case shows that the city could meet up to 100% of its fresh produce needs by using vacant land alone. So it could be considered then a self sufficient city. Urban space could be even better optimized through the usage of roof space and indoor production of food, and technologies such as hydro- and aeroponics. While using this space would require high initial investments, the increased standard of living for citizens and growing spare income would bolster the local economy. Moreover, the ecological and social benefits are priceless. It’s fair to share that some other studies are also investigating its possible negative effects.

What city is self sufficient?

Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, is considered the fist self-sufficient cities in the world. It is mainly due to their energy and transport solutions, but also for its bets on Bustani smart home farming, incubator of smart solutions for sustainable farming, agritech incubators like Dana  in line with the country’s National Food Security Strategy 2051. Also on the vertical farming field, trying to feed the population with systems that consume less than 40 liters of water per day, addressing the arable field and water scarcity problems.

How the future of self sustaining cities looks like?

If this is what the past shows us and what the present promises us, what can the future look like? Picture a city where park paths are lined with fruit trees and everyone is free to pick them, with local communities collecting them and making large amounts of jams and jellies. Schools have their own allotments where they grow veggies, with prizes for the students with the greenest thumbs. Neighbors meet on rooftop gardens to have their morning coffee and admire last weekend’s work. In almost every household there is a small aeroponic farm, where children plant their favorite herbs and watch them grow. Now picture an entire world where this is the rule, not the exception: as the plants are grown efficiently with drip irrigation technology, dependence on artificial fertilizers and pesticides is lower than ever. Culturally, people treasure food, lowering food waste and creating a culture of recycling and composting. As people enter the ever-growing public spaces, they form new friendships and support systems, lowering stress and mental health issues. This is a world that we could live in if we embraced sustainable organic farming.

Read more and keep updated in our organic farming Blog!