Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 42, Fall/Winter 1997
Urban Agriculture in Drylands

Editor's note:
The newly recognized importance of urban agriculture

by Katherine Waser

Urban agriculture is hardly a new phenomenon; it has been practiced ever since the first cities came into existence. In some countries, like China, the importance of urban agriculture has long been recognized and its practice has even been fostered by official policies. In many other countries, particularly since the time of the industrial revolution and the colonial era, urban agriculture has been frowned upon and even discouraged by official policy. Yet, no matter what the official policy, urban residents across the globe persist in growing myriad crops and raising myriad kinds of livestock, for reasons ranging from food security to income production to taste and health concerns.

Until recently, such activities have tended to be ignored in the development of urban economic policies, perhaps in large part because they generally belong to the "informal" economic sector. As we reach the end of the 20th century, however, there is a clear resurgence of interest in urban agriculture, particularly in developing countries, for several reasons:

  • Urban populations throughout the world are growing more than twice as fast as rural populations; according to the UN Centre for Human Settlements, more than half of humanity will live in cities by the year 2015.
  • Factors such as wage cuts, inflation, job loss, civil strife, and natural disasters, that were formerly considered exceptional, are becoming more frequent, thus leading to greater food insecurity.
  • As interest in sustainable development grows, there is a growing realization that urban agriculture can potentially play a crucial role in making cities sustainable.

Urban agriculture is not a panacea. It is highly unlikely that backyard gardens will replace agribusinesses, and--for reasons of climate as well as of space--it is in many cases highly unlikely that all the food crops a city needs can be grown within or on the outskirts of that city. There are also legitimate health concerns surrounding urban agriculture, particularly in terms of recycling urban wastes into agricultural inputs. In arid lands especially, where water is scarce, policies and practices need to be developed that encourage the use of wastewater and other urban waste, while protecting against the spread of diseases.

There is strong and growing evidence, however, that these concerns are far outweighed by the current and potential benefits of urban agriculture. Particularly in developing countries and poorer inner-city neighborhoods throughout the world, urban agriculture can be a crucial element in a family's survival. It is perhaps this role--the ability of urban agriculture to enhance household food security --that is currently drawing the most attention. Urban agriculture can also play a very important role in the absorption of labor--particularly women and youth--so that urban households are better able to take full advantage of their own human resources. Finally, it is increasingly recognized that, properly managed, urban agriculture can play an important role in turning the urban waste stream and urban wastewater into resources, rather than sources of serious pollution.

This issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter merely scratches the surface in terms of examining urban agriculture in the context of drylands. I believe that this is a topic that will only grow in importance as the next century dawns, and I fully expect to revisit it in a future issue (or issues) of ALN. Therefore, I would particularly like to encourage you, our readers, to send me your reactions, comments, and suggestions on this topic. And, to all of you who are yourselves urban farmers--indeed, to urban farmers everywhere--I send my salutes. You are not only practitioners of an ancient tradition, but also pioneers, helping to create a new and more sustainable model for cities of the future.

bar denoting end of article text

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents