Thought for Food Blog

Urban Agriculture: A Key to Sustainable Cities or Just a Trend?

As the world grapples with a growing population, food scarcity, and waste, urban agriculture (UA) is gaining attention as a potential solution. Researchers have delved into the food production and resource use of urban farms and gardens in the UK, France, Germany, Poland, and the US, assessing their role in sustainable agriculture.

Meeting the United Nations' 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

The urgency for sustainable agriculture has never been greater. Achieving the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hinges on food system innovation, and some suggest developments like urban agriculture (UA) can be part of the solution.

UA has been touted as a possible solution that addresses food scarcity and waste, reduces environmental impacts, enhances urban biodiversity, and improves community well-being by producing fresh, local food efficiently and sustainably. It also creates economic opportunities and increases urban resilience by diversifying food sources and reducing dependency on external supplies.


However, UA's diversity and informal nature make it challenging to quantify its environmental impact and develop effective policies. Accurate data on UA yields and inputs — such as water, fertilizer, and compost — is essential for evaluating its sustainability and potential to support urban food systems.

To address this knowledge gap, researchers probed UA’s contribution to the SDGs in a study titled ‘Food Production and Resource Use of Urban Farms and Gardens: A Five-Country Study’.

The Role of Urban Agriculture in Sustainable Development

Urban agriculture involves growing food in and around cities, offering local, nutritious food while exchanging materials and values within urban areas. Soil-based gardens and farms are common forms of urban agriculture, but they require significant resources like water, energy, land, and fertilizers, which can impact the environment. Understanding these inputs is vital for ensuring UA supports sustainable urban food systems.

Vhari Russell, Founder of The Food Marketing Experts, highlights UA's potential: “Urban farms and gardens are vital food sources for many and offer great opportunities to improve biodiversity and the environment.”

Analysing Urban Agriculture Across Five Countries

To find out more, the researchers conducted a citizen science study, collecting data from 72 urban agriculture sites across five countries:

  • France: 16 sites in Nantes and Paris, including individual gardens and urban farms focused on food production and community cohesion.
  • Germany: 11 allotment plots in the Ruhr area, used for food production and leisure.
  • Poland: 35 sites in Gorzów Wielkopolski, primarily managed for personal food production and recreation.
  • The UK: Five sites in London, with social objectives and connections to local groups.
  • The US: Six urban farms in New York City, providing food and education within public housing developments.

The findings, published in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development, showed significant variations in resource use and yields among their samples. Even after analyzing climate and location, they could not statistically explain most of these differences.

However, the food scientists did find that the type of farm—collective garden, individual garden, or urban farm—could explain variations in resource use. For instance, the researchers noticed that collective gardens prioritize community gathering space, while individual gardens provide more space for private leisure and non-crop biodiversity.

But the type of farm didn’t explain differences between production output at the study’s sites. Instead, the researchers discovered that the most important factor influencing this is collective versus individual management. Approximately half of the individual gardens they studied are highly productive, which they attribute to the experience and training of the farmer or gardener.

Additionally, the researchers found that irrigation water use tends to be lower in individual gardens, which opens up avenues for future research, such as investigating the impact of raised beds on irrigation demands and exploring challenges associated with more advanced irrigation systems like drip lines.

Findings from the study revealed that UA made significant contributions to local biodiversity, with on average, 20 different crops per farm, excluding ornamental plants. In addition to providing insights into resource use at urban farms, this study also raises questions about how crop selection and growing practices impact the environmental impacts of urban food production.

Future Research Directions

The research lays the groundwork for a more advanced study of urban garden resource use. Future studies need to consider individual and collective gardens separately and develop larger samples of each type of garden to create a more robust analysis of the factors driving yield in urban gardens, as there might be other motivations.

The prevalence of urban farms and their potential impact on the food sector is yet to present itself fully, Russell says. Therefore, urban farms have a limited effect on the food industry’s trends, dietary guidance, product launches, and consumer behaviors. “This is going to be a slow burn, and consumers need to learn about this in more detail,” Russell says.

Hinting that regional vegetable boxes may be the starting point, Russell adds that these have seen growing popularity yet are still small in number. More retail stores are promoting increasing numbers of locally made products. “But the whole area has room for vast improvement as buying and sourcing more local products is much better for the environment,” adds Russell.

UA is rapidly expanding in cities across the global north, and researchers and decision-makers need to develop holistic perspectives on its impacts, according to the researchers. While UA offers social benefits and ecosystem services, these vary significantly across different types of UA, and the drivers of this variation need to be better understood. Therefore, a better understanding of sustainable urban food production conditions will enable academics to support policymakers and farmers in developing sustainable urban food systems, they add.

Future studies need to focus on farmer and gardener experience and training while developing new measures of garden/farm focus on food production. Further research on UA’s material and energy implications is necessary as UA grows.

Understanding the diverse forms of UA is essential for effective urban planning, especially considering the competition for urban land and the realization that not all forms of UA are environmentally beneficial. By collaborating closely with those implementing UA practices in cities, researchers can better understand the factors influencing its environmental performance. Ultimately, this research is crucial for informing policymakers and promoting UA that benefits cities, citizens, and sustainability.



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