Urban agriculture

Urban agriculture brings us closer to our sources.

Villa Augustus, Dordrecht, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa


Urban agriculture is gaining more attention in the Netherlands. Residents of the densely-populated Randstad (the cities of western Holland) and outlying areas visit petting zoos, which are popular both in the Netherlands and abroad, with their children; but there is a need for more. The organic farm near Zoetermeer, ‘t Geertje’, having a public function, can barely handle the number of visitors in the spring and summer. In most cities worldwide there is more demand for land for vegetable gardens than is available. In Berlin 80,000 households have a vegetable garden and there are 16,000 on the waiting list Deelstra et al., 2008. The children’s gardens in Delft, for example, are usually over-subscribed. These are just a few examples that demonstrate this growing need. The initiative ‘Eetbaar Rotterdam’ (Edible Rotterdam) is investigating the possibilities of food production in a metropolis.

Rotterdam is part of an international movement. In New York, London and Berlin urban gardening or farming has been a common phenomenon in various forms for many years.  There have been community gardens in New York since the 1970s; in other cities this is a recent development. What’s different in the development of new urban agriculture is that the gardens are no longer oases for individuals in search of peace and quiet, but that the production-based urban gardens have often become a place to meet and to share common activities. The newest urban gardens in New York, London and Berlin are just as colourful and varied as the cities themselves. They open themselves up to the city and invite participation. Müller, 2011

Urban farm Caetshage, Culemborg, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa

The motives of the participants in this new movement are diverse: from the desire to grow at least part of their own food, preferably organic, to bring more nature to the city, to making a concrete contribution to reducing further destruction of the rainforests for food production. There is also an almost politically motivated interest in starting a discussion with local government about how to use city land. The new urban garden broadens the perspective on the world and is not a declining movement. The new garden offers room for self-expression and autonomy within a community and offers some independence from the consumption society Müller, 2011. By planting an organic garden at the White House, Michelle Obama has made issues such as health, community and local food production socially acceptable.

In a colourful way Western metropolises follow a worldwide trend toward more urban food production through the realisation of urban gardens and the accompanying culture of do-it-yourself and the re-establishing of local relationships between food production and consumption. This is possibly a reaction to the ever-increasing connections in the digital world. The new urban gardens in Western metropolises touch upon new forms of democracy in addition to the themes of local food production and urban ecology.

An interesting initiative is the internet platform, which indicates where one can harvest for free. In this way orphaned cherries, apple trees and berries again have a purpose. Müller, 2011

Roof vegetable garden © Walter Kolb


Urban agriculture is not a new development. In the past urban agriculture was a given and in many metropolises in the world that is still the case. Cities develop where there is fertile ground. Many city dwellers were small farmers who sold their produce right in the city. When the cities grew during the industrialisation at the beginning of the 20th century and illness, malnutrition and lack of good food became a problem, urban planners such as Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner and the landscape designer Leberecht Migge designed many labourers’ housing in a way that people could live in a largely self-supporting manner with a closed nutrient cycle. In times of recession and crisis, for example between the first and second world wars, this helped many people in Berlin and Frankfurt survive. The designs of so-called garden cities by Ebenezer Howard were based on far-reaching self-sufficiency.

‘In Europe urban agriculture was an important part of life in the city until the turn of the last century. In 1890 one-sixth of the surface area of Paris (1600 ha Les Marais) was used for the production of more than 100,000 tonnes of vegetables per year. Every year one million tonnes of horse manure was used here, a by-product of the Paris transport system. Waste water was used for irrigation. Three to six crops per year were possible thanks to the urban climate and the cultivation techniques adapted to it:

  • the construction of two-metre-high walls surrounding the plots;
  • the use of glass covers to protect from frost;
  • the use of the warmth and methane during the fermentation process from the horse manure; and
  • straw mats to protect the crop from poor weather conditions.’

Urban agriculture is still an essential part of food production in many cities in Asia, Africa and South America. See Tables below.

Hermy, 2005

Place % Proportion of households in Urban agriculture
Berlin, Germany 20% ( with 4% on a waiting list for community gardens)
Kampala, Uganda 33%
London, UK 14%
Maputo, Mozambique 37%
Moscow, Russia 65% in 1991, relative to 20% in 1970
Nairobi, Kenia 20%
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso 65%
Suva, Fiji 40%
United States 25%
Yaounde, Cameroon 35%
City % of food needs covered by urban agriculture
Dakar, 1994 70% vegetables
65 – 70% chicken
Dar es Salaam, 1999 60% milk
90% vegetables
Jakarta, 1999 10% vegetables
16% fruit
2% rice
La Paz,1999 30% vegetables
Shanghai, 1999 60% vegetables
100% milk
90% eggs
50% pigs, poultry
Sofia,1999 48% milk
53% potatoes
50% vegetables


Current situation

Even today 15% of the world’s food is produced in cities. This percentage will probably double in the next 20 years, largely as a result of the increase in urban agriculture in developing countries. But the percentage of urban agriculture is also growing in Russia and North America. The produce varies: vegetables, dairy and meat UN, 2010.

‘t Geertje, Zoeterwoude, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa

The United Nations and international agricultural organisations indicate that due to the depletion of petroleum necessary for the production of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, the transport of resources for food production (for example soy from South America for stock breeding in Europe) and the transport of the food itself around the world, our form of agriculture is not equipped to feed Western countries and developing countries in the future. International agricultural and food organisations assume that countries such as China and India will need to maintain a smaller-scale and regional agricultural production. In the 14 largest cities in China more than 85% of the vegetables are produced in the city UN, 2010. Years ago Cuba partly converted to organic agriculture in or near cities and to establishing local markets. This development was motivated by the lack of petroleum. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires but also in New York, community gardens give poor communities in particular more independence, more social cohesion and therefore support the emancipation process. On the other hand, there is pressure on the land for urban agriculture and therefore on urban food production. In China and India people are eating more meat and grains and the population is increasing, which increases the need for agricultural land, while at the same time in China 20% of the best agricultural land is being sacrificed to the construction and expansion of new cities. Müller, 2011

Kitchen gardens at Wippolder, Delft, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa

The 2010 world agricultural report commissioned by the United Nations and the World Bank and prepared by 500 scientists concluded that industrial agriculture is not capable of feeding humanity, partly because of the enormous use of natural resources and the dependence on petroleum. The world agricultural report recommends the restoration of small-scale agriculture, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Weltagrarbericht, 2011

What is urban agriculture?

We offer here no exact definition of what urban agriculture is. We consider aspects of urban agriculture to be everything that contributes to part of the food supply of a city being produced in the city and everything that once more brings city residents into contact with the food production. Children’s gardens, city farms as a workplace for the disabled, gardens near restaurants, vegetable gardens on roofs, vegetable gardens as meeting places, and of course commercial production farms in or near the city, are all aspects of returning food production to the city.

The Research Center on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF) describes eight categories of urban agriculture.

Non-commercial urban agriculture:

    1. Micro-farming on balconies, roof-top terraces, gardens and window sills; the yield is mostly for own consumption or is shared with friends and family. Crops include vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, sometimes combined with the keeping of chickens and rabbits.
    2. Garden plots on specially-assigned land; gardening here is also generally to meet own needs and shared with friends and family and there are no commercial objectives.
    3. Institutional gardens which serve mostly an educational, therapeutic or social purposes within hospitals, schools, prisons, etc.

Market-oriented urban agriculture:

  1. Small-scale commercial or semi-commercial agricultural and horticultural businesses that grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and plants and are usually situated on the edge of the city. These businesses produce for their own use and for the market.
  2. Small-scale commercial or semi-commercial stock-breading businesses or aqua-culture businesses keep poultry, have a number of cows and pigs or cultivate fish and shellfish.  They produce for their own use and for the market.
  3. Specialised businesses grow products such as mushrooms, potted plants, flowers, etc. They grow primarily for the market and can grow to larger businesses.
  4. Large-scale agro-businesses that are usually situated on the edge of the city, are extremely specialised, are equipped with advanced technology, use fertilizer and concentrates. They produce for the market. Greenhouse farming in the Netherlands close to the city is included in this category.
  5. Multi-functional urban agricultural businesses also provide, in addition to agricultural products, farm tourism, education, recreation, agrarian nature conservation, pick-your-own farms, etc. They are usually located on the edge of the city but sometimes also in the city (for example petting zoos).

Danckaert, 2010

In addition to these, there are also other forms of urban agriculture in Western metropolises, such as:

  • Guerilla gardening. Vacant lots or roofs in the city are transformed into gardens, usually accompanied by fun or playful activities.
  • Multi-cultural gardens or community vegetable gardens are established to offer gardeners of different nationalities a place to meet. In Germany such gardens have existed on a large scale since the 1990s. It is also not unheard of in The Netherlands.
Guerilla gardening in Berlin © Rosa Rose


More urban agriculture makes material flows more efficient, organic household waste can again be used as compost for food production, and transport distances are shorter and therefore more energy-efficient. Urban agriculture increases the absorption capacity of the city and alleviates heat stress. Small-scale and organic agriculture goes well together with increasing biodiversity. In general, cities have developed at fertile locations, because in the past a direct source of food was essential. Transport and storage was limited. Urban farms and agriculture have educational and, when they are publicly accessible, recreational value. The integration of urban agriculture can even be economically interesting because it reduces a city’s cost of green space management. Urban agriculture can also contribute to the energy supply with the production and fermentation of biomass and by processing organic waste from the city. Vacant property in cities is often contaminated. This requires study and clean-up before it can be used for gardening. The soil quality often needs to be improved as well.

Diagram of household waste streams to compost © Krusche et al. 1982

A few possibilities to break down organic matter in a de-centralised cycle include:
a) using composting toilets to process organic household waste into compost;
b) composting kitchen and garden waste, treating blackwater in a de-centralised installation for the extraction of biogas and further composting the liquid waste so that it can be used as fertilizer in gardens;
c) using a common bio-gas installation to process waste from a number of households, gardens and agriculture; and
d) collectively transporting urban organic waste to a biogas installation; the resulting compost can be used again for urban gardens and agriculture.

Healthier food

In general less artificial fertilizers and pesticides are used in city gardens and vegetable gardens. From the point of view of health, less use of pesticides in urban agriculture and the shorter transport distances that result in fresher products are an extra argument for more urban agriculture. The small-scale production methods also make possible again the planting of lesser known types, the ‘forgotten vegetables’.

Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, Germany © Marco Clausen

Dependence on large-schale food production and food prices

In many places around the world being able to produce your own food is an instrument against hunger and poverty. This can even apply in developed countries, given the increasing number of people who make use of food banks.


Small-scale agriculture and the many small food producers are important for maintaining the diversity of seeds. A few large agricultural companies are currently trying to apply for patents for seeds and in doing so could gain control of the entire food chain. Together, the many small producers counter-balance these monopolies. Within the large production companies far fewer varieties are developed than in small vegetable gardens and organic businesses. Here there is room for smaller cucumbers, more varieties of tomatoes and for the ‘forgotten vegetables’, which are less interesting for commercial purposes.

Due to the absence of pesticides in organic businesses there are more ‘weeds’ and therefore more biodiversity.

Raw materials and minerals

The separation of food production from the processing of organic waste that occurred during the period of urbanisation and industrialisation has resulted in a system that is hard on the environment and ecologically very inefficient. Food production extracts many substances, such as phosphorus, from the ground. In the past these minerals were returned to the ground through the spreading of manure, and the cycle was closed. Breaking this cycle made the use of fertilizers necessary and our rivers and surface water is laden with nutrients. Storage or incineration of sediment from wastewater treatment plants has become necessary.

Urban agriculture could be a link in the processing of treated urban waste water and fertilizer from used urban and organic waste.

Urban agriculture can be significant for rainwater buffering. The pervious ground allows rainwater to infiltrate and evaporate. Rainwater can be buffered and used for irrigation of farmland in dry periods, as is now the case with many greenhouse businesses.

It is important for the quality of the ground water in urban areas that as little fertilizer as possible is used.

Central and decentral cycles in a city - Source: atelier GROENBLAUW, based on Lohrberg, 2001

Land, fertile earth

Fertile ground for urban agriculture is generally not a problem in the city. Cities usually develop on fertile ground because people settle where they can produce food. But the ground in cities can be contaminated; certainly if former industrial zones are converted to urban agricultural areas the quality of the soil must be tested and possibly improved.

The organic green waste from the cities can be used again after composting to provide the soil with nutrients; then less fertilizer needs to be added to the soil. In many developing countries wastewater is used for urban agriculture. This is not without problems for hygienic reasons. Wastewater first needs to be purified, for example with biological treatment methods. The effluent from a treatment plant can be used for the irrigation of gardens and fields. Wastewater from neighbourhoods can be processed in a biogas installation. Collected rainwater can always be used for irrigation.

Vegetable garden at Villa Augustus, Dordrecht, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa
Villa Augustus, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: hotel, restaurant, bakery and store © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa

Heat stress and air quality

Of course the non-impervious and planted surfaces used for urban agriculture contribute to the reduction of urban surface temperature and therefore to the air temperature. This is true for gardens close to homes, on roofs, facades with fruit climbers, as well as for the larger urban farms. Urban farms can be part of a city’s green lungs and ventilation networks.  More green has a positive effect on air quality. Urban agriculture in areas near contamination sources, such as busy roads or contaminated industry, is problematic because contamination such as heavy metals will also be in the food.

Because of urban agriculture less transport movement is necessary to provide the city-dweller with food because of the sale at farmers’ markets or by selling directly.

Perception, participation and meaning

Many agricultural businesses near cities have several functions. If they are accessible, they also have an educational or recreational function. Agricultural environmental management, opportunities to pick your own fruit and flowers or a farm shop complement the opportunities for the city dweller and enrich the city.

The desire of city dwellers to once again have contact with the earth is of course for many a reason to plant an urban garden. It has now been scientifically proven that contact with nature and green is relaxing, reduces stress and even accelerates the healing process. Urban gardens and growing your own fruits and vegetables helps many become more grounded and find peace, and is also a place for a certain degree of spirituality.

For some, gardening is a form of contemplation, away from the business to the slow process of planting, growing, nurturing and harvesting. It is a process where the care of the garden and the plant is central, patience, surrender and stability are important, in contrast to our over-active life in the city. Working with our hands in the earth uses all of our senses – feeling, smelling and tasting – and pulls us away from our mental existence and an all-too-often alienated life. Müller, 2011

In addition to returning a certain amount of autonomy to the city, food production in and around the city also has the advantage of creating awareness among the producers and the visitors to the farms or gardens. The author has seen first-hand in the Delft children’s gardens how parents saw for the first time how spinach grows and what it looks like; they knew only the frozen variety. Children who were not used to eating vegetables at home learned to appreciate vegetables by growing and harvesting them themselves. It is amazing how so many vegetables can be harvested from a child’s garden plot of not more than four square metres in the summer months. Participating in the children’s gardens as an after-school activity is very affordable, even for children from less affluent families.

The biological store at ’t Geertje, Zoeterwoude, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa
The biological store at ’t Geertje, Zoeterwoude, The Netherlands © atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa

The situation in The Netherlands

A familiar form of urban agriculture is a farm in or near the city that is open for a number of public functions. Such farms often include a shop for the direct sale of products produced on the farm and related products.  The farm can also be toured, and sometimes there are opportunities to help harvest or there are refreshments for sale. Urban residents value this opportunity and make use of it in droves. It is therefore important that urban farms are accessible in an easy and attractive way by bicycle or public transport to prevent traffic congestion.

Urban farms offer the visitor relaxation and space and teach them about how their food grows and comes about and thus has an educational function. The needs of the population with regard to city farms depend on the community. Families with young children prefer a child-friendly environment with opportunities to pet small animals. Other city-dwellers consider the direct sale of fresh products, whether or not organic, the most important and/or want to harvest and work on the farm. For children from schools and child-care programmes the play facilities and educational services are the most important. Still others value the extra opportunities in the form of a combination of the arts and room for courses and/or meetings. In the Netherlands it is common to use farms for patient care; there were 500 such farms in 2005 WUR, 2006.

Currently the combination of farm and child care is also increasing.

EVA-Lanxmeer community garden © atelier GROENBLAUW, Madeleine d’Ersu

Urban farmers can also fulfil the task of managing public green space and possibly water.

Not only do city dwellers have a desire to visit a city farm, but more and more farmers want to expand their activities to increase their income. This is not always easy, as most farms are in rural areas; and thus if they were to have a public function, the accompanying traffic would require changes to zoning plans and the issuance of permits. The Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality specifically mentions this expansion as an option for the farms in or near urban areas: ‘It connects urban residents with what happens in the country: their food comes from there.’ WUR, 2006

Aspects that stand in the way of the expansion of urban agriculture in the Netherlands place great pressure on land in and near cities. Municipalities do not want to relinquish land to the farmer for fear that if the municipal planning changes, the land used for agriculture will not be able to be returned to land for building on; and vice versa, farmers are reluctant to purchase land near a city for fear of being evicted and driven out.

Urban farm ‘Hoeve Biesland’ near Delft, The Netherlands - Source: atelier GROENBLAUW, Amar Sjauw En Wa

The role of urban agriculture in a green-blue city

The reasons for urban agriculture and the manifestation of urban agriculture vary. While urban agriculture is a growing  necessity in developing countries and policy is focussed on maintaining and expanding urban agriculture, for example to feed large cities, in Western countries it is sometimes an expression of a new lifestyle or a necessity to reduce decline and unemployment.

In the cities of Detroit and New York in the United States, gardens have been given to or taken over by the less fortunate and unemployed. In Germany and Austria urban agriculture is supported in many cities in the framework of sustainable development, but also to counteract decline. Cities in Great Britain have had programmes for city farming for many years.

Urban farm ‘Hoeve Biesland’ near Delft, The Netherlands © Mark Kras

In the current discussion about urban planning there are new developments that make the preservation of the city and urban agriculture possible. Cities should be built more like cell structures, whereby green structures provide, as a kind of plasma, the delivery of raw materials and the processing and removal of waste. In addition, the connecting green spaces play a role in the structure and identity of the city. These green spaces can be responsible for water treatment, urban agriculture, reducing heat stress, oxygen production but also biodiversity, recreation, etc. These areas are extremely suitable for organic urban agricultural businesses and citizen farming, children’s farms, etc.

Cercles jardinés - temporary community garden in Paris © Rahel Hegnauer

Agricultural over-production, which occurred even up to a few years ago, is no longer an issue. With rising food prices, food shortages and the demand for land for the production of biodiesel crops, there is no more over-production. Attractive integrated agricultural businesses can be profitable with the direct sale of quality products, offering extra services, and the costs for the municipal green management can be reduced.

In Dessau (Germany) vacant lots have been transformed into community gardens with fruit trees where everyone can pick the fruit, into vegetable gardens and into forests, which also serve a purpose for water retention. The city of Dessau has had such a policy for years and guides the residents who manage the land in an ‘Allmende’ system. Allmende is an old German system for municipal land with, for example, fruit trees and berries which is managed and used by the citizens. Müller, 2011

Greenhouses at city farm Caetshage, Culemborg, The Netherlands - Source: atelier GROENBLAUW