Big Cities, Little Farms: A Look at Urban Agriculture

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History of Urban Agriculture

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, urban areas were bound by food; cities could only grow as big as the supplies that could be brought into, or grown within, their limits. This constraint began to dissipate as transportation networks improved (roads became higher quality, as did trucking and rail systems) and as refrigeration technology grew more sophisticated.

Cities in industrial countries expanded and blossomed thanks to the productivity of distant farms. And these farms changed shape too,growing larger and more consolidated, a trend mainly driven by profit and efficiency but also by the fact that there were fewer and fewer people left in rural areas to work them. The only times that this urban/consumer rural/producer dichotomy was really challenged in the twentieth century was during times of hardship and war.

During World War I and II, for example, the governments of several participating countries—including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom—encouraged their citizens, both urban and peri-urban (areas close to urban areas, on the outskirts of suburbs) to plant “Victory Gardens,” or small plots of fruits and vegetables. These food gardens, which were planted in backyards, empty lots, rooftops and parks, were designed to encourage self-sufficiency, and help keep food shortages at bay. The initiative was a resounding success: during WWII, nearly 20 million Americans participated, and produced 9-10 million tonnes of food. Indeed, the output from these micro-plots was so substantial that in the spring of 1946 after the war ended, and urbanites in places like the US and UK stopped planting fruits and vegetables, there were actually food shortages.

Even following the 1946 food shortages, most urbanites did not go back to urban farming. The economic boom of the subsequent decades, as well as further advancements in the efficiency and affordability of refrigeration, gave more consumers the option to not have to buy and immediately consume fresh food. In the US, it was not until the 1970s, when the economy began to plummet on account of the protracted war in Vietnam and the 1973 oil crisis, that urban farming began to enjoy a small revival. Financial hardships forced several manufacturers to relocate out of major cities like Detroit and New York—and as the companies fled, so did people, leaving behind numerous empty plots of land.

In 1974, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced the launch of the “Farm-a-Lot” initiative, designed to support residents of the city that wanted to cultivate small food plots—allowing them to use public land, and even offering them free fertilizer and seeds. A few years later, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its urban gardening extension service, a shift which highlighted the broad rise of urban agriculture throughout the US, while also indicating that the practice was on the radar of not just local officials, but federal ones too.

The 1970s upsurge of US urban farming, although important, was not sustained, nor did the practice spread as far and wide as its leaders had hoped. But now, several decades later, urban farming is finally enjoying a more widespread and convincing revival. This revival, like the last one, has been in part spurred by economic recession, but it has also been driven by two phenomena affecting drastically different groups: low-income consumers who are struggling to afford nutritious food; and wealthier consumers who are increasingly preoccupied about knowing, in detail, the provenance of their food. 

Several companies are taking the lead in developing agri-technologies to meet the demand for urban-farmed goods. Farmedhere has been at the forefront of pioneering relatively large-scale aquaponics—which refers to a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics (tilapia are raised in tanks, and water from these tanks, which is rich in the nutritious byproducts of fish, feeds a hydroponic system, in which plants are grown in water). Farmedhere got its start through funding from individual investors and venture capital, and is now selling its locally grown, certified organic foods throughout its region. Other major companies in the space include Aerofarms (which uses aeroponics, or the practice of growing crops without soil by using a nutritious spray on roots suspended in air), and FreightFarms (which re-purposes shipping containers into micro-farms that use hydroponics). Each has garnered significant investment interest and capital, and these three represent only a handful of the companies active in the space.

The evolution of urban farming in developing countries is a shorter story to tell; in most of these countries’ cities, farming never really left in the first place. And so in developing countries, the current rise of urban farming is less about a new trend, and more about the need to legitimize a fringe activity whose benefits will only increase over time.

Urban Agriculture in Developing Countries

In the developing world, the urban/consumer rural/producer dichotomy tends to be much more blurred: cows graze freely in busy urban areas, live chickens are a garden staple, and backyard produce plots are not at all unusual. 

Additionally, industrial urbanization (in which people move to cities to work in industries, especially manufacturing) is only a recent phenomenon in developing countries, so citizens living in cities often have ties to farms—having lived in rural areas themselves, or having family that still resides in such areas. So unlike Western cities, in which urban farms have been an anomaly for the past century and are becoming less so now, urban farming in many parts of the developing world has not yet had the chance to totally disappear.

The main issue with urban agriculture in developing countries is not getting people interested in the practice but rather ensuring that those who are indeed interested in small-scale city farming have the regulatory and official support they need to survive. But before lamenting its lack of support, it is important to stress why urban farms are so important in the first place.

Urban farming in developing countries has not been a fad so much as a necessity and a fundamental part of life: Accra, the capital city of Ghana, has 90 percent of its fresh vegetables being produced from within the city. Similar trends are seen elsewhere in the world, for example in Hanoi, Vietnam, 80 percent of fresh vegetables and 40 percent of eggs are produced in urban and peri-urban areas. As much as 80 percent of Asian urbanites and 40 percent of their African counterparts are involved in agriculture as the primary source of income or employment. In many cities, if the ability of urban farmers to operate is threatened—so is the food security of their cities. 

All urban areas, but particularly urban areas in developing countries, are vulnerable to food insecurity. Disrupted trade routes, natural disasters, or political instability can quickly wreak havoc on a city’s food supply. Also, in regions like subSaharan Africa, the quality of road transport networks tends to be weak—which drives up delays (contributing to the problem of post-harvest losses), and therefore prices. Furthermore, city dwellers everywhere are increasingly having to grapple with the threat posed by malnutrition and obesity. While cheap food may be plentiful in urban areas, cheap and nutritious food is not.

The urban poor spend 50-70 percent of their income on food, leaving them extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in food prices. When money is tight, or prices rise, families are often forced to switch to affordable food with high calorie content and low nutritional value. For those living in South African cities, for example, a healthy diet would nearly cost the average household its entire income. Urban farming, however, has the ability to provide poor families with direct, affordable and consistent access to nutritious fruits and vegetables. According to at least one (Kampala, Uganda-based) study, poor households that practice urban farming tend to have greater food security and eat more frequent and balanced meals, leading to an overall healthier family. 

Outside the very-much industrialized South Africa, residents of cities in the rest of the continent actually have access to relatively affordable nutritious foods. Agreeable climates, relatively nearby farms, and underdeveloped local food processing capabilities have kept fresh produce prices low. As urbanization and industrialization continue to increase, so too will domestic processing and packaging operations. These simultaneous phenomena will undoubtedly place upward pressure on fresh produce prices, a trend that urban farming can help curtail.


For all the benefits that urban agriculture can offer, it nevertheless poses its own unique risks and challenges.

The pollution associated with cities, particularly in poorer and less sanitized urban areas, can reduce crop yields. Urban soils can sometimes contain lead, arsenic, and other compounds—which not only reduce nutritional value and yields, but can also pose a threat to consumers. Some New York City farmers have reported disturbingly high lead levels in their soil, likely the result of outdated paint and other old construction materials. While lead laden soil in itself does not mean that all attempts to farm in an area should be abandoned, the discovery does mean that farming practices need to be substantially altered in order to produce safe food—choice of crops would need to be changed, and crops may need to be planted in raised beds separated from the ground soil. In the US, urban farmers have easy access to soil testing services at a low cost, or even sometimes for free. As ground pollutants are a reality in cities everywhere, the awareness of this risk, as well as the availability of affordable testing services, is extremely important both in developing and developed countries.

Air pollution can also be a destructive reality: in polluted areas of China, for example, crop yields have decreased by 25%. Additionally, although the idea of using wastewater as a form of irrigation may be environmentally romantic—given that the practice offers fertilization and removes dirty water from streets—wastewater can also store disease-causing pathogens. Building a common understanding, standards and practice when it comes to wastewater use will be essential in ensuring the safety of crops produced.

Another major set of challenges that urban farmers must grapple with are around land use limitations, both those that are legal in nature and those that are economic. Urban land is expensive, and it can be difficult to financially justify its conversion to garden plots over commercial development. Also, many cities have zoning laws ordaining which areas can be used for urban farms and which cannot. Clarity and consistency around these regulations is essential.

Fortunately, technological advancements have meant that urban farms require less and less space over time. Some of these technologies—namely hydroponics and aeroponics—were discussed earlier in this piece, and it is important to note that those technologies in particular are mainly indoor in nature. They are incorporated in a practice known as vertical farming, in which greenhouses are housed in skyscraper-like structures—meaning they smartly take up vertical space, rather than horizontal space. 

In recent years, Singapore has built vertical farms in an attempt to combat the food security risks associated with having almost no available land, a rising population, and a dependence on food imports. Sky Greens in Singapore is the first lowcarbon urban vertical farm—the three-story greenhouse grows lettuce and cabbage year-round with 5-10 times higher yields than a traditional farm and even uses less water (because of their enclosed nature, vertical gardens make it easier to capture and reuse water). Crops grown in vertical farms have the advantage of existing in a controlled environment in which weather conditions are always optimized thereby providing a reliable return year after year. Thus far, however, the high startup costs make vertical farms only viable in affluent settings where companies have access to the requisite capital necessary to build such facilities. But as vertical farms proliferate and their technology becomes easier to reproduce, the startup costs should be driven down, making the technology accessible in a wider range of cities.

The increasing value of land and competition with commercial developments are issues that are as relevant in the developing world as they are in the developed world. In many developing countries, cities are actively trying to shed their rural ties and urbanize wholly—so much so that in places like Zambia and Zimbabwe, urban farming is actually illegal (although on paper, its outlawing was apparently out of concern for potential contamination risks). These laws are often ignored, but the illegal status of urban agriculture can actually increase the risk of contamination: urban farmers, afraid of the legal repercussions, may attempt to maximize production for immediate gain by overusing pesticides and wastewater. 

In other places, like the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, urban farming may not be illegal—groups supporting the practice like the Mazingira Institute have been operating since 1978—but urban farmers sometimes struggle with the tenuousness of their land rights, if they have any at all. Sub-Saharan Africa has a particularly significant set of challenges when it comes to land rights (an issue which we wrote about here), but the precariousness of a landowner or dweller’s situation becomes all the worse when he or she is living in an urban area, where land tends to be worth more.

One proposed solution has been for governments to establish an official “green belt” zone around cities that would protect land rights, contain urban sprawl, and ensure the proximity of food sources. Other solutions include improving and increasing the transparency of land tenure systems, encouraging the development of low-cost urban agricultural practices that require less space (like rooftop gardens) and encouraging the formation of urban farming cooperatives. Of course in order for any of these to occur, urban farming will have to first be considered legal and legitimate.

Furthermore, officials will have to make greater efforts to understand the nature of urban farming—something that is very much lacking in Africa, even where urban farming is legal; currently, not a single country in Africa gathers consistent data regarding the practice.

Urban farming may also have extensive, intangible social impacts such as providing urban dwellers with easy access to natural recreational areas which improve community development. Studies have shown that urban farms can reduce rates of crime and depression, while others point to the fact that it also serves as a source of healthy physical activity. One of the first deliberate, mandated instances of urban farming, during the Great Depression in the US, not only bolstered food security, but also fostered social cohesion by giving unemployed Americans a sense of productive purpose.


The connection between farm and consumer has fluctuated across time and place, often weakening as populations urbanize. And while in some situations urban farming is more of a luxury rooted in the desire to know more about one’s food, in others it is a promising means of making nutritious food affordable. In either scenario, urban farming represents an exciting and potentially lucrative opportunity—and one that is only just getting started.

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