Urban Agriculture

By: Angela Lee

Urban agriculture refers to a wide range of food production initiatives—from growing plants to raising animals—that can occur within cities, whether in backyards, rooftops, community gardens, or public spaces. Although urban agriculture is often small-scale and diffused throughout a city, it also includes larger, commercial operations (for example, producing food in greenhouses).

The concept and practice of urban agriculture is not new, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 800 million people practice urban agriculture worldwide. However, it is important to note that trends and practices in urban agriculture are very different in wealthy, developed countries than they are in lower-income, food-scarce countries, as they are often driven by different concerns. Although the impetus for urban agriculture is often economic, the contemporary popularity of urban agriculture in wealthy countries has surged in recent years, informed in part by the burgeoning food movement, with its emphasis on healthy, local, minimally processed fare. Many cities in both Canada and the United States have either already adopted or are in the process of adopting measures to encourage the growth of this trend. In Canada alone, examples include urban farms in Halifax and Montreal, community gardens in Ottawa and Calgary, the keeping of backyard chickens in Vancouver, and urban apiaries in Toronto.

Certainly, in terms of food security and food justice, urban agriculture can enhance the nutritional health of a community by acting as a source of both food supply and income. Urban agriculture also offers a number of benefits over and above simply contributing to the food supply, including creating jobs, enriching education, promoting environmental sustainability, community-building, and neighbourhood beautification. Even though much of the rhetoric surrounding urban agriculture from within the food movement has been positive, there are also other theoretical and practical issues associated with urban agriculture from a food and environmental justice standpoint that must be considered.

From an environmental justice perspective, the public health and environmental hazards of urban agriculture—and the distribution of such impacts—are of particular concern. For example, even while urban agriculture can reverse the environmental decline of urban areas by creating green spaces and adding organic content to the urban environment, there are a range of problems that can also arise, including nuisance from unpleasant smells or sounds, various sanitation concerns, and threats to biodiversity. Because urban farms and gardens may be located in proximity to industrial or commercial areas, there are also contamination concerns in relation to the food produced, as well as for the workers. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides poses especially acute health and environmental threats in densely populated urban environments, where they can easily carry to contaminate the surrounding neighbourhood. The location of urban agriculture sites and the associated risks therefore raises important questions about environmental justice.

Further, the connection between urban agriculture and increased food security is not an uncomplicated given. This is especially the case in relation to urban commercial gardens operating in impoverished, already marginalized urban neighborhoods. Nathan McClintock has argued that urban agriculture can actually function as a form of neoliberalism, by shifting the burden of food production and provisioning healthy food in low-income areas from the state to non-profits and community-based organizations. Other scholars have raised similar concerns about urban agriculture potentially functioning as a form of “ecological gentrification”.

The practice of urban agriculture also raises gendered concerns, especially since women are a traditionally vulnerable, food-insecure group. Although urban agriculture may afford women valuable opportunities, women may also experience challenges and barriers in accessing the land, capital, and other resources they need to be successful. Consequently, in the context of developing countries, Alice Hovorka argues that in order to benefit, rather than burden women, the promotion and support of urban agriculture must take on a specifically emancipatory agenda that challenges structural inequities.

In order to be a viable food strategy, urban agriculture requires ongoing nurturing. As a result, law and policy is highly significant in the context of urban agriculture, because law works directly to help or hinder urban agriculture initiatives, most specifically in the context of zoning and land use policies at the municipal or local level. While the risks associated with urban agriculture undoubtedly require careful regulation, the legalities of urban agriculture practices in Canada can be described as being in a state of confused disarray. It is important that as questions and concerns relating to our food practices become more pressing, our laws and policies keep step. Notably, best practices for urban agriculture should be attentive to the local environment and context, and take into account all nodes of the food system, including production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste.  

As the interest and importance of urban agriculture increases, multiple avenues for further scholarly inquiry appear, including the intersections between urban agriculture, food security and food justice, and environmental justice. By applying a critical lens to the ongoing and emerging issues related to urban agriculture and other related initiatives, better laws and policies can be crafted to move us closer towards a more just and sustainable food system in Canada.