In Paris, post office workers have successfully raised chickens and grown vegetables on the rooftop of a mail-sorting center. In Chattanooga, the city council just loosened zoning rules to allow urban dwellers to keep livestock. And in Ekurhuleni, South Africa, an urban resident is successfully growing vegetables including chilies, spinach, and onions to supply restaurants.

These urban farmers are part of a global revival. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 800 million people around the globe grow their own fruits or vegetables, or raise animals in cities, accounting for 15-20 percent of world’s food production. And while people have grown food in cities for a long time, urban farming has recently gained renewed attention for its social, health, environmental, and economic benefits. It can help farmers and consumers save money, increase year-round fresh food access, and promote healthy lifestyles in urban settings. It also gives people more control over the production of the food they eat, which has benefits like reducing the use of harmful pesticides.

Onions and greens on the Siyakhana Urban Farm in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Esther Ngumbi)

Some urban farms and farmers are pushing the limits of innovation, using technology and controlled environments that allow them grow food all year-round while avoiding challenges like erratic weather patterns, pests, and disease. Some of these enterprises are sustainably meeting year-round food needs for people living in cities. In Detroit, for instance, urban farms have the potential to supply 31 percent of the fresh vegetables that Detroiters eat each year. Urban farming can be productive, sustainable, lucrative, and profitable. 

So how do we tap into this renewed attention and help further expand the urban farming movement to feed our growing population? We can do more to promote its growth and success through better tracking, incentives, land use, and support systems.

Create inventory

To keep moving in the right direction, we must have firm grasp on the state of the current landscape. In Chicago, for example, a group of individuals, organizations, businesses, and educational institutions have collaborated to map urban agriculture initiatives across the metropolitan area. Their database identifies more than 890 farms. More areas need to create this kind of information, which can help connect urban farmers with each other and with other stakeholders including potential funders. Such databases can also be used to inform governments, urban city planners, and policy makers.

The United Nations has previously published reports detailing the state of urban and peri-urban farming across the African Continent and in Latin America and The Caribbean. These resources and broader global inventories are valuable and updating them would be useful to all stakeholders interested in seeing urban agriculture continue to scale in cities around the world.

Lobby for more land

Many cities have zoning regulations that exclude agriculture or related activities in urban areas. Until June 2010, the City of Los Angeles, for example, prohibited residents from growing crops in residential zoning districts. And until June 2012, Portland, Oregon, also banned agriculture as primary use in some zoning districts. Thus, to allow urban farming to happen in urban areas, we need more municipal governments to set aside land for urban agriculture. Depending on how cities prioritize land for food over other development initiatives, advocacy groups and local citizens can step in. Making the case to governments requires that these groups present compelling narratives that describe the benefits of supporting urban farming. Agriculture Advocates Work Group in Detroit and the Urban Agriculture Working group in Los Angeles are examples of coalitions that have successfully convinced city governments to pass ordinances allowing people living in urban areas to farm. In Motherwell, South Africa, farmers are lobbying their municipal officials to allocate more land to allow them to expand their urban pig farms.

Increase support systems

Urban farmers need up-to-date knowledge about growing methods, innovative business models, and indoor farming best practices to thrive and remain sustainable. As urban farming continues to grow around the world, universities, colleges, nonprofit organizations, and funding agencies need to step up to support urban farmers’ needs. For example, through its Purdue Extension urban agriculture programs, Purdue University provides technical expertise, education resources, networking, and business development programs for people wanting to venture into urban farming. In 2016, 35 urban agriculture entrepreneurs participated in their urban farm business planning course. Established and successful private urban farms can also serve as mentors, sharing best practices and business models with new farmers. Growing Power is a nonprofit that offers training, as well as educational and technical support to urban farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has a website dedicated to urban farming, which offers several resources to support dedicated to urban farming, and in 2016, it supported and funded dozens of urban farms. These efforts should continue.

Create incentives for farming

Increasing financial incentives could encourage urban farming to grow. Some public schools, hospitals, and other public institutions like universities receive tax breaks for obtaining a certain percentage of their food from urban farms. Such arrangements can create guaranteed markets for produce from urban farms. Some states and municipalities have programs to help such institutions redesign their procurement policies to increase the percentage of locally grown produce. Food retailers could also get tax incentives from the government for carrying products from urban farms. In addition, urban farms could receive tax breaks for donating excess produce to food banks and pantries. Most importantly, government could provide tax incentives to urban farms that work with food pantries and food banks in an effort to ensure that people receiving public assistance can buy fresh food from urban farms using food stamps.

Efforts to promote urban farming around our world must be intensified. African Development Bank President and 2017 World Food Prize laureate Akinwumi Adesina has for years emphasized that making agriculture modern, profitable, and appealing to young Africans could be the key to lifting millions out of poverty. Other countries, including those in Africa, can learn from some of the incentives and advocacy efforts happening in the United States. With the right supports, urban farming offers a promising approach to help feed the world’s growing population.