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Urban Agriculture And Politics Of Space: Potential for Collaboration

Urban agriculture as one of the oldest activities in human history, has experienced a renaissance in the past two decades.  Predictions made only a decade ago that UA will become a global reality as much as global necessity have proved to be accurate.  Those predictions are reflected in the groundswell of interest in this kind of activity that has proved to be valuable across economic, social and environmental areas of urban life.

A general overview of UA trends globally suggests a complex process whereby the motivations, approaches, benefits, challenges, impacts, attitudes, policies and practices vary.  The complex web of factors that impacts on the way UA is managed in different parts of the world suggests inevitably a politics of space and confusion in respect to the way urban agriculture can be managed in a balanced way. 

Perhaps nowhere has this been better demonstrated then in discussions on the benefits and challenges of urban agriculture.  More specifically, it has been noted that factors that have been considered as problematic relied on inaccurate comparisons between urban agriculture and commercial agriculture practices.  In some cases, concerns were raised regarding negative impacts of urban agriculture in urban settings mostly based on data and observations related to conventional commercial food production systems.  While not an isolated case, this kind of dichotomy places renewed emphasis on the research and analysis of urban agriculture in an appropriate context as the foundation for effective policy that local authorities can use to steer this fast-evolving movement. 

“Urban food production methods are diversifying and have been increasingly been viewed through enhanced prism of economy of modern cities along with the long touted benefits to social wellbeing of community. “

Jelenko Dragisic, Co-Founder, Gleanr Pty Ltd

Secondly, but equally important, is the fact that drivers of urban agriculture are not uniform globally.  In some regions urban food plays a much larger role in respect to food supply and access to quality produce as opposed to other drivers such as human health, environmental concerns and social cohesion and culture.  In other words, in some parts of the world (such as the Global South) urban agriculture forms part of ‘livelihood activity’ (e.g., the City of Johannesburg identifies UA as its main intervention to address food security within the city), while in other parts of the world (e.g., the Global North) urban agriculture is more strongly linked with socio-environmental sustainability.  A combination of these two (although not exclusive) factors has been taken into consideration in researching this essay.

It is necessary and strategically critical to acknowledge that UA development has been occurring ahead of policy development.  This means that, given growing evidence of urban agriculture interest and a near certainty about its presence in urban life, now is the time for elevation of focus on the way forward that is based on smart strategy, supportive and balanced policy and forward-looking community engagement.  These elements can, in the first instance, mitigate risks that could emerge from development of urban farming projects in city at an ad hoc basis with inadequate regard for a balanced approach that large scale UA in any city needs in order to be sustainable.  Policy and strategy driven growth of UA is also a matter or prudent risk mitigation. 

This explains some trends in recent years that attracted technology supported companies to create scalable urban farming enterprises capable of competing with large scale conventional farming conglomerates.  Here it is worth noting that urban farming is more associated with purely commercial enterprises whose business model is built on using vacant spaces in urban environments, such as abandoned factories or even underground air raid shelters, for highly intensive production of specific produces which can be delivered to the market instantly and with next to nothing needs for storage and transport. 

Urban farming at scale then differs critically from other forms of urban agriculture whereby food production may not be conducted with a single purpose in mind but acts as a catalyst for improvements of quality of life in neighbourhoods, reduce land degradation, creating communities, education, improving city resilience to natural disasters, improving biodiversity and so on. 

One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity by which urban agriculture is growing.  The idea that people want food produced locally and, in many cases, differently is only a part of the story.

Urban agriculture is proving to be one of the most impactful social capital creators.  Social capital is what every urban community needs in order to thrive and respond when things are challenging or when going through periods of change and disruption.

In my countless conversations about urban agriculture and its benefits over the years, without fail, every single discussion tended to focus on profit.  Understandably, so it should.  Not much point in developing a food production enterprise unless it can be financially independent.  However, what is often left out of these discussions, or at very best touched upon slightly, is that UA is more often falsely compared to conventional agriculture.  While food production connects the two industries, it does not make them the part of the same ecosystem.  The key is to understand that UA is enabled by a different set of experiential drivers.  Community participation is one of those drivers.  As a unique and collaborative approach to building of a new vision of our urban landscape, community participation is a powerhouse motive that deserves much larger recognition in the overall story of urban agriculture.

Why is this important?  For a start, UA would not be possible if the only thing people were concerned about was the price of carrots or a bunch of spinach.  The food we eat every day is also a language by which we communicate.  There is way too much meaning packed in food to discuss it in this essay, however it should come as no surprise that food helps us not just maintain our life in a most literal sense, but also in a profound symbolic way.  As they say, humans are meaning-makers and that is where things come together: we grow food together in small urban farming lots and create meaning for ourselves.  And this meaning defines each local community in slightly different way.  A special way.

The economic benefit of social capital is where urban agriculture distinguishes itself markedly from conventional farming. 

Take a moment to listen to people that proudly identify themselves as urban food growers, and you will notice that conversations about quality of soil or a particular technique used to get a better yield, often evolve into discussions on values, community and vision of local life. Inevitably that ‘community connection’ part of UA is what creates social capital; the bedrock of a healthy society.  The value of social connectedness generated through urban ag should be taken very seriously.  The thriving field of social capital research identifies many and multifaced benefits stemming from social capital.  For instance, some studies have shown that, as a rule of thumb, when a person joins a group (in this case say a local urban farming collective), they halve their risk of dying during the next year.  The economic benefit of social capital is where urban agriculture distinguishes itself markedly from conventional farming.  This is not to say that social capital does not exist in conventional food farming; rather its business model is not necessarily driven by it as much as it is in urban ag.

With the risk of overreaching, it still warrants directing the conversation of UA towards policy settings that are distinctly different from conventional farming or traditional urban planning. Links to both are obvious.  Nonetheless, while there are links which must be integrated into UA strategy in the future, it would be a major mistake to confuse these links with exact measures by which urban ag should be guided.  Accounting for the immense role of human connectedness in the process of food production in dense living spaces releases a new approach to sustainability, and this certainly must be exciting for all.