What is Urban Agriculture?

Space and efforts allocated to urban agriculture have decreased in recent years due to rapidly burgeoning populations restricting available spaces. Studies have therefore focused on the benefits associated with urban farming in an attempt to urge urban planners to reimplement areas for urban farming without displacing disadvantaged communities.  

Urban Agriculture

Image Credit: Jose L Vilchez/Shutterstock.com

The transformation of agricultural practices to accommodate for a growing world population

For the first time in human history, 2007 marked the year over half the world population lived in cities. The rapid growth of urbanized areas in the last century has led to many drastic and unforeseen changes across all facets of human life, from socioeconomic dynamics to healthcare and food production.

However, the shift to mass urbanization has also generated a number of detrimental impacts including increased urban poverty and pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, as well as unemployment, all of which particularly affect developing nations. 

To address the emerging issues of food insecurity, many countries have supported the growing demand for food by developing new agricultural strategies. These include the increase of import activities, the clearing of new agricultural land to promote extensive monocultures, as well as the development of vertical agriculture or hydroponics.

Another strategy involves urban agriculture, which allows agriculture to co-occur within or around burgeoning cities. Urban agriculture can be defined as the processing, production, or cultivation of food in or around urbanized areas. In recent years, the practice of urban agriculture has become increasingly popular, with beekeepers on the roofs of Paris, or vegetable gardens among the streets of London.

To date, data suggests there are between 100 and 200 million urban farmers around the world, providing city markets with produce and horticultural goods that were cultivated within cities themselves. This has considerable implications for urban living as well as for the future of human populations amid urbanized communities. 

Urban agriculture as an alternative to conventional agriculture

The benefits of green spaces within cities have been recognized for many years. In a paper published in 2000, authors Kate Brown and Andrew Jameton discussed how urban gardens promote food security, economic development, physical exercise, psychological and community well-being, and environmental stewardship.

A 2013 review by Francesco Orsinini and Italian researchers also presented further benefits of urban agriculture, demonstrating how urban agriculture represents an opportunity for improving food supply, social integration, and environmental sustainability. The review then goes into further detail, showing urban farmers most often have lower incomes and favors gender inequalities, as 65 % of urban farmers are women, but also reduces city waste and improves surrounding air quality.

Vegetables and fruit are the most common produce in urban agriculture, with a yield of up to 50 kg per square meter per year within certain cities. Horticulture systems are most common amid urban agriculture and incorporate family gardens, simplified extensive systems, shifting cultivation, and intensive systems. More recent innovations in horticulture also include organoponics and simplified soilless cultures, which focus primarily on minimizing carbon footprints and the use of fertilizers.

Urban agriculture has therefore become a source for social cohesion and environmental education, whilst providing locally sourced produce to communities with benefits observed on a socioeconomic level as well as environmental level.

However, despite such benefits, areas of urban agriculture have experienced a rapid decline in recent years around the world.

How urban agriculture is transforming Detroit | Devita Davison

A worrying trend - the decline of urban agriculture around the world

In a 2021 study by Spanish researchers led by Johannes Langemayer, authors describe why urban agriculture has lost priority in land-use planning on a global scale. Researchers discuss how urban planners have lacked the awareness of three main flaws, resulting in a decline in the priority of urban agriculture and the eventual loss of its associated benefits. 

Firstly, the decline in areas of urban agriculture is a result of a reprioritization among urban planners away from socioecological vulnerabilities and risk-related inequalities of urban inhabitants. Second, the decline in urban agriculture can also be explained by the increased reliance on distant agricultural production, shifting away from locally sourced produce. Third, the lack of accounting for the multifunctionality of urban agriculture and the benefits it provides has led to a lack of perceived importance relative to an increase in occupied urban space.

Authors argue that the loss of urban agriculture has reduced social and environmental resilience, sustainability, and multi-functionality, all of which urban agriculture provided. Losing areas dedicated to urban agriculture may therefore have unforeseen impacts, with researchers urging for the return of green spaces and locally cultivated produce to ensure a better future for social communities and ecological urban systems alike.

Limitations and implications for urban agriculture in a rapidly changing world

A 2017 review of existing literature by Megan Horst and colleagues analyzed the multidisciplinary benefits associated with urban agriculture, and how research can contribute to refining practices into a gradually more urbanized future.

The authors discuss the aforementioned benefits of urban agriculture as well as the limitations that urban agriculture may face. This includes the precariousness of land access for urban agriculture as well as the potential to deepen social inequalities by displacing lower-income communities for the sake of agricultural land.

The researchers then discuss the implications of developing unfavorable urban agriculture, and the solutions addressing potential issues by raising awareness and defining key objectives for urban agriculture policies and programs.

Specifically, the authors suggest strategies for urban planners to orient urban agriculture efforts to support food justice by prioritizing urban agriculture in long-term planning efforts, developing mutually respectful relationships with food justice organizations and urban agriculture participants from diverse backgrounds. Further strategies also involve targeting investments in urban agriculture to benefit historically disadvantaged communities, increasing the amount of land permanently available for urban agriculture, and confronting the threats of displacement from urban agriculture.

A resurgence of urban agriculture could therefore provide a number of benefits, yet urban plans must be aware of the implications associated with food injustice before arbitrarily assigning land use for agricultural practices in a rapidly urbanizing world.


  • Brown, K. H., & Jameton, A. L. (2000). Public Health Implications of Urban Agriculture. Journal of Public Health Policy, 21(1), 20. doi: 10.2307/3343472
  • Horst, M., McClintock, N., & Hoey, L. (2017). The Intersection of Planning, Urban Agriculture, and Food Justice: A Review of the Literature. Journal of the American Planning Association, 83(3), 277–295. doi: 10.1080/01944363.2017.1322914
  • Langemeyer, J., Madrid-Lopez, C., Mendoza Beltran, A., & Villalba Mendez, G. (2021). Urban agriculture — A necessary pathway towards urban resilience and global sustainability? Landscape and Urban Planning, 210, 104055. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104055
  • Orsini, F., Kahane, R., Nono-Womdim, R., & Gianquinto, G. (2013). Urban agriculture in the developing world: a review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 33(4), 695–720. doi: 10.1007/s13593-013-0143-z

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 25, 2022

James Ducker

Written by

James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  


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