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Urban agriculture: diversity of types and production systems

Agriculture, as a reminder of the country, has in fact formed part of the periphery, or even the centre, of towns for a very long time.  Throughout the world, it is now diversifying and taking on new impetus to fulfil a variety of functions. INRA researchers have revealed the different faces of this type of farming.

France – Toit d’AgroparisTech, source Nicolas Bell Extrait du PP : La fonction alimentaire des jardins associatifs ubains de Daniel Anne-Cécile, Paris 15 février 2013. © inra, Nicolas Bell
Updated on 05/29/2013
Published on 05/28/2013

Urban agriculture, which may be of many types and involve a variety of production systems, refers to a broad range of activities.  However, it can be defined as farming that is based near or within a town.  This definition can be refined in terms of the opportunities (outlets) or constraints (access to land and productive resources, urban pollution of air, water and soil) generated by this proximity.

The diversity of urban agriculture can be classified using a system that is valid for all countries and takes account of the technical and economic orientation of urban farming families: the production and commercial exploitation of products (type A), supplementary income to support non-agricultural income earned by family members working in the town (type B) or completely double activities by the farmer himself (type C).

In both southern and northern countries, the different forms of this agriculture illustrate the imaginative use made by urban producers of every possible space: crops grown on roofs using different substrates (old tyres, bags, etc.), crops grown in community gardens (rehabilitated urban wasteland, empty industrial sites, public parks, etc.), or crops grown in periurban areas involving a wide diversity of short distribution channels.

Although there is considerable pressure regarding access to land in urban areas, how does urban agriculture manage to develop within the urban landscape?  Above all, the space allocated to it is closely linked to political decisions to introduce agriculture plots into the centre, or or at the periphery, of towns.  The principal advantage of urban agriculture resides in the multifunctionality of its roles, which vary in importance in different countries.  Although the food production function is primordial in many southern countries, and even becomes strategic during crisis situations (civil war, economic crisis, etc.), urban agriculture also fulfils other functions: economic (creation of employment), environmental (protection of towns against flooding, provision of drainage), a landscape in the same way as other open spaces (parks, public gardens) and recreational and social functions (maintenance of links, teaching, etc.).  For example, although for many years ignored by urban planners in the Ile-de-France region around Paris, local agriculture is today looked upon more benignly for its food, economic and ecological functions.  During the past ten years, the development of short distribution channels, and more generally those of an innovative type, has illustrated attempts to reconquer local food production.  But this remains very marginal, depending on the area; it is thus estimated that apple production in the Ile-de-France only covers 5% of local needs.
Nevertheless, urban agriculture plays an undeniable role in urban metabolism.  The decision-makers have clearly realised this, even though at present there is a dearth of data because of the complexity of the functions it fulfils.