why local and why urban?

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Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council sees urban agriculture as the “new frontier in public health,” benefiting health twice: first, by supplying urbanites with more foods and, second, by affording them the exercise involved in raising food

Farming the Cities:

By Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg,Heifer International

A farmer tends to a field on the outskirts of Kaili in Guizhou province, one of the poorest in China. Photo by A.J. Howard

As cities continue their rapid growth, many are beginning to grow more of their own food. But does farming belong in the city? Can we afford to do anything elOn the surface, Accra in Ghana, Beijing in China and Vancouver in Canada seem to have little in common. They range in population from roughly 2 million in the metropolitan region of Vancouver to more than 14.5 million in Beijing. The per capita incomes are vastly different: about $700 a year in most of Ghana, about $2,200 in Beijing and more than $32,000 in Vancouver. But take a closer look, digging a little deeper into the backyard and rooftop gardens, and you’ll realize that these city folk share a preoccupation that has thrived since the first cities — raising food.

Accra has a population of 6 million, including a steady supply of migrants from rural areas and immigrants who seek work in its factories. Because food is expensive, people farm anywhere they can: in backyard plots, in empty lots, along roadsides and in abandoned dumps. These farmers grow a variety of crops for home use and sale, including exotic varieties like green peppers, spring onions and cauliflower, as well as more traditional crops like okra, hot peppers and leafy greens such as alefi and suwule.

There are more than 1,000 such farmers in Accra. Their plots vary from just a quarter of an acre to nearly 50 acres in the city outskirts. Among the biggest challenges they face is keeping their crops irrigated, since clean, affordable sources of water are not easy to find. Backyard farmers often use greywater — the waste water from bathrooms and kitchens. While sewage water can be a health hazard, farmers in Accra — and in cities all over the world — are finding that human waste can be a valuable fertilizer.

In Beijing, city planners in the 1990s decided that urban agriculture was an important way to meet the city’s food needs, preserve green spaces and conserve the region’s water and land resources more efficiently. They began offering courses and assistance for aspiring farmers, they surveyed existing land use to better understand the extent of urban farming and they tried to incorporate urban farming into longterm city planning decisions.

Today, urban and peri-urban agriculture (farming in, around and near cities) in Beijing not only provides residents with safer, healthier food, it also keeps farmers in business. Between 1995 and 2003, the income for farmers living just outside of Beijing doubled. The city includes tens of thousands of household farms and more than 1,900 agritourism gardens for Beijing residents craving some rural experience. Although the share of the city’s population involved in farming is currently very small — just about 1 percent — the municipal government plans to cultivate gardens on nearly 10 million square feet of roof space over the next 10 years.

Vancouver is known for being a popular destination for tourists. But what most visitors do not realize is that the city is a leader in encouraging its inhabitants to grow and buy fruits, vegetables and other items produced in the city. According to a recent survey, an impressive 44 percent of Vancouverites grow vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts or herbs in their yards, on their balconies or in one of the 17 community gardens located on city property. Vancouver’s mild temperatures and ice-free winters make it the ideal city to grow food nearly year-round. There, farming the city is part of a much larger movement that includes restaurants buying from local farms, buying clubs in which neighbors subscribe to weekly deliveries of produce and the heavily attended Feast of Fields harvest festival twice a year on a farm outside the city that exposes city folk to rural life. Read more.

Farming in Cities could help feed the world.