Readjusting to reality: Urban and peri-urban agriculture to ease the downward passage

Excerpt from Adrian Atkinson

As we pass peak oil we will have to make, in the midst of social confusion and conflict, the uncharted move away from a fossil fuel society. How are our great urban populations clustered in unsustainable cities going to produce food, cycle waste and create energy? Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture, explored in this article, will have be a key part of this process.

'Abandoned city' or 'Forest city' by Sterling Red

'Abandoned city' or 'Forest city' by Sterling Red;

The phenomena I look at in this article is the beginning of the path back to where agriculture (or eventually hunting and gathering) is the chief occupation of populations everywhere. It is about the first steps in re-adjustment to the reality where most of humanity is engaged in farming – which does not preclude also being artists and artisans and philosophers, in Marx’s famous words “…to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”. But it does mean a return to hard labour in the fields.

At present urbanisation continues.  But in a relatively short time, contrary to conventional wisdom, cities will start to decline (elsewhere I have dealt with the coming impacts of peak oil).  The process of decline is likely to differ greatly between places in the world and even particular cities in particular countries. Initially we see people continuing to live in cities, trading directly with peri-urban farmers and thence trying to find places to grow things in the urban interstices and increasingly on the peri-urban fringe.  However, in time, as modern economies fall apart, people will leave the cities altogether in search of secure food supplies, setting in motion incipient – and eventually precipitate – decline in populations and within a few decades abandonment of whole urban quarters.

We must not abandon the notion that human societies could achieve – and have indeed occasionally achieved – the good life for all in a sustainable relationship with the particular environment in which they have found themselves and that produced beautiful things, engaging rituals and events, and interesting ideas. And if we do succeed in re-establishing modest post-fossil energy cultures, for them to be congenial, then we must also triumph in the struggle against the concentration of power and the subjugation of the majority that has in practice been the characteristic more or less of all ‘civilised’ peoples.

I want here to look more closely at the most essential aspect of the downward passage from the bizarre civilisation we have created for ourselves over the past decades to something which is more reasonable in terms of how we gain sustenance from nature – that is through reforming our agricultural practices to synergise with nature whilst feeding ourselves well, without the prop of fossil fuel.

Of course there are ‘food movements’ that are attempting to raise public awareness of multiple and growing problems of ‘the system’ being able to continue to deliver ‘safe’ food now and into the future. Whilst there have been periodic crises – such as ‘salmonella scares’ and serious incidents of poisoning through contaminated food – the vast bulk of the food supplies to the populations in the ‘industrialised countries’, and increasingly also the ‘developing countries’ as these urbanise, are being organised by the transnational food industry whose main goal is to make profits, regardless of any health or environmental consequences that are not controlled by governments and social movements. We can identify various dimensions of ‘problem’ with respect to the global food supply chain, which are elaborated in my full paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of CITY. (See also on our website Cities after oil: what future is this, fast approaching?,  Contemplating the post-fossil fuel world and The Urbal Fix: creating truly sustainable cities). See also the documentary film Food Inc, which looks in particular at the problems with the industrial food system in the United States.

Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture (UPA)

The story of ‘urban and peri-urban agriculture’ (UPA for short) starts in Africa where, in spite of continuing urbanisation, growing amounts of food are being produced in interstices in the urban fabric and on its immediate edge (1). Some quite large cities in the South still remain predominantly agricultural. Ibadan in Nigeria is a good example, where, in spite of having a population of over a million, the majority of the workforce is still engaged in farming, reaching their fields in the surrounding countryside and bringing in the produce with fleets of Asian-built mini-buses and vans.

UPA in Ibidan, Nigeria

UPA in Ibidan, Nigeria. Photo:

UPA was first focused on by academics and ‘development agencies’ in African cities in the 1980s as the ‘modern sector’ levelled off and began to decline such that even the middle classes in African cities turned to cultivating vacant plots to feed themselves and supplement incomes. Furthermore, it has been noted that much urban farming everywhere is not done so much by urbanised peasants as by the long-standing urban poor and even middle classes in a combination of self-provisioning and small enterprise with, in a few cases (but rapidly increasing), local authorities actively promoting UPA.

In the Former Soviet Union – Russia and Georgia

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us what could be our first view into the agricultural future of the OECD countries. The disruption of energy supplies and even wages for significant numbers of the workforce, all of whom had been employed by government but where a new private sector had yet to emerge to provide employment, were thrown back on their own resources. Increasing numbers of people started to grow their own food. In St Petersburg this involved even growing on the roofs of housing blocks with mushrooms and chicory grown in basements even in winter. But the main thrust involved the so-called ‘dacha movement’.

‘Dacha’ is the name Russians give to the country houses and cottages of urban populations. Proliferation of dachas started already in the late 18th century with the growing urban rich building themselves sometimes palatial country houses for summer recreation. Accumulating across the 19th century, these were taken over by the state after the Revolution and allocated to favoured party members, intellectuals and so on with some used as workers’ resorts. From the mid-1950s legislation allowed workers to obtain dachas with the help of their enterprises and whilst the emphasis remained on leisure, some of these were used for growing food. The movement accelerated with a boom in the 1980s with local authorities allocating land on urban peripheries and up to 100 Km along the railways out of the cities.

Local market, Irkutsk, Russia

Local market, Irkutsk, Russia

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, dachas were transformed en masse to grow food such that where populations once spent vacations from work, with incipiently high unemployment much of the urban population, whilst still possessing urban apartments, spent – and continues to spend – the summer on the dacha growing food that includes provisions to take to the city for the winter. Whilst this had no national and usually little local government support, by 1999 some 35 million families in 22.5 million dachas were producing 40 percent of Russia’s food on 80 million hectares of land. In other words, whilst after the catastrophic economic collapse of the early 1990s and a repeat in 1998, in spite of apparent growth in the Russian economy, self-provisioning remains a very significant part of the national food economy – and we might expect this to grow rather than decline in the future.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, agriculture disappeared off the map as a coherent policy area. It is well-enough known that agricultural policies during the Soviet era managed to foment many disasters ranging from the hated and often catastrophically disastrous collectivisation that created for many almost slave conditions worse that had been experienced under feudalism, to such massive misadventures as the ‘New Land’ programme in Kazakhstan. Yet, over the past 18 months, a new focus is being placed on agriculture by the Russian government in the light of looming world food security problems where millions of hectares of once productive land that have lain idle over the past two decades are to be re-invested in.  The issue, however, will become: what kind of investment? Will this be a repeat of the New Land programme where a few years of spectacular success ended in soil depletion and with a lack of fertilizer resulting in a retreat to more modest production?

Here in Georgia – that, as local people say, once fed Leningrad – following the privatisation of about half the agricultural land as peasant holdings, about a third of once productive agricultural land is now lying fallow and even reverting to wilderness. Production is stagnant or declining, irrigation systems are silted up and there is a serious lack of investment in means of production and neither any policy or advice to producers on what they might profitably produce nor assistance in marketing. Meanwhile as much as 80% of the capital, Tbilisi’s, food is imported from – or rather via – Turkey with multinational logos on much of what is offered in the supermarkets. Some five years ago the city government opened up suburban land to anyone who wanted to claim a plot, aimed at recreation (dacha) use rather than for food production and hence with no analysis of whether this land might be appropriate for production or not and so far there has been little attempt to use the land with owners speculating that one day someone will buy it from them and make them rich.

Tbilisi, Georgia.

Tbilisi, Georgia.

Here, as in Russia, agriculture is, however, again suddenly on the policy agenda and an important dimension of the discussions I am involved in with the local government on the development of metropolitan policies and municipal initiatives. This includes a focus on how to revive agriculture in the Tbilisi sub-region (e.g. via UPA) to obviate the need for high levels of food imports and with a view to securing food supply to the citizenry in the future.  The fact is that, unlike many of the over-crowded western European countries that have been over-producing food under the CAP thanks to substantial investments without regard to future sustainability beyond the availability of substantial agrochemical and energy inputs, Georgia could feed its largest city from relatively local production even as energy-supplies and other agricultural inputs dwindle. But there has to be an appropriate policy framework, mechanisms and information to encourage investment and organisation of the means of distribution. And in the case of Tbilisi the inadequate sewage system, suitable for separating human from industrial waste, could be harnessed to the defunct irrigation systems of Gardabani to the south of the city to provide water and nutrient to the revived agricultural system.


Looking elsewhere, the case of Cuba is amongst the best known success stories of UPA (2). The island suffered catastrophically with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90 both from a loss of its sugar export market and imports of fuel and agrochemicals. For the two or three years that followed, food intake per capita was close to malnutrition levels. As in Russia, citizens took spontaneously to growing their own food. Here there were no traditions of urban agriculture, not did anyone possess dachas. It meant finding vacant land wherever it might be in the urban interstices and on the peri-urban fringe.

‘Organopónicos’ in Cuba. Photo:

‘Organopónicos’ in Cuba. Photo:

The agriculture ministry had, however, already been experimenting with small-plot intensive horticulture by various means including what have become known as ‘organopónicos’ – growing organic produce in hydroponic containers. In recent years, some 90% of fruit and vegetables consumed in Havana are being gown on various kinds of urban and peri-urban plots by the population of the city. It should, however, be noted that this does not include either meat or staples where Cuba still imports a significant amount of its grain. Nevertheless, the richness of the diet resulting from the spread of UPA has improved in recent years and Cuba is the only country in Latin America to have entirely eliminated child malnutrition.

Whilst continuing as primarily a food security policy, this includes involvement of the urban population in peri-urban farming as recreation (‘agro-tourism’) and to encourage peri-urban farmers to invest in forest gardens and in ecological and social services alongside conventional agriculture. Meanwhile, however, the cities have expanded enormously and so whether the far-sighted policies of the past can be re-applied as agriculture returns to traditional practices and the need again to rely on more local sources of food remains to be seen.

Community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) in the OECD countries

Throughout the OECD countries, small UPA initiatives have come to life under various names and often connected to national organic farming movements. In the United States, one can now find ‘farmer’s markets’ in many cities where farmers on the margins of cities can bring their produce into the city and sell this directly to consumers. Signposts to these are in clear evidence in many cities and suburbs with something over 4,000 now operating – albeit, it must be admitted, serving and used by as yet a tiny percent of the population. These are generally organised by NGOs and some of these are also developing ‘community-supported agriculture’ (CSA) initiatives with a strong educational dimension including running courses in ‘permaculture’ (3) and other methods of organic self-provisioning and community self-organisation to grow and distribute food.

Some more extensive city-wide systems are being run in a few cities in the North America, where consumers become members of supply networks with peri-urban farmers supplying boxes of produce in season that are ordered by members and received through collection centres on a weekly or otherwise regular basis.  Such arrangements are developing also right across Europe with, most recently, a rapidly growing network of initiatives in France that is leading the formation of an international CSA association under the title of URGENCI (Urban-Rural network Generation new forms of Exchange between Citizens).

The Teikai movement in Japan

A major inspiration for all these initiatives in North America and Europe has been a system that has become significant in Japan, known as ‘teikei’ – or ‘co-partnership between producers and consumers’. This started spontaneously in the 1960s amongst housewives suspicious of the quality of food offered in supermarkets and determined to forge direct relations with farmers. This insistence on ‘safe food’ led to its insisting on organically-grown produce even though the certification system was slow to develop with the Ministry of Agriculture setting standards only in the year 2000. However, the movement developed fast and a major actor has been the Japanese cooperative movement that has helped consumers – mainly women – to form groups known as ‘Hans’, who organise the purchasing, using the box system, in direct contract with peri-urban farmers. One estimate puts the total involvement at 11 million households.

The Seikatsu Club Consumers Cooperative Union is an interesting actor here involving 25 cooperatives distributed across 15 prefectures with some 260,000 members. The thrust here is not only direct buying of food, claimed to satisfy 60% of members’ food requirements, but also self-education in healthy consumption and Hans may be involved in buying products other than food, with their coops consulting them on product development; some Hans are even involved in local social work. Whilst the movement appears rather diffuse, surely with not all members consistently and directly involved (apparently organisations come and go and the whole movement is thought by some to have been in decline recently).  But clearly there are the makings here of what could be a deepening movement for quasi-self-provisioning of urban populations as the sinews of modernity fall apart. The major problem in Japan will be to be able to continue to feed the huge urban populations also with staples (carbohydrate), given the very small amount of arable land in the country and hence the massive import of staples needed to feed the population. The self-sufficiency ratio on a calorie basis of Japan is just 40%.

At present UPA predominantly supplies fruit and vegetables with, in some cities, small amounts of eggs, milk and meat (although chicken and swine flu scares have put a halt to this in some cities – notably Cairo) and even fish from fish tanks. But we need to remember that over half of a ‘balanced diet’ comes from carbohydrate – grain and tubers – and the poor rely on this to an even greater degree than the more affluent to stay alive. Thus whilst Havana gets 90% of its fruit and vegetables from UPA, only 50% of the calorific intake of the population is locally grown. This is what today comprises the bulk of the global food trade and as this declines, few cities – and very, very few large ones – will have the land resources within or in their immediate vicinity to satisfy demands of their populations for carbohydrate. Thus the drying up of this trade in the coming decades will trigger a more rapid decline of cities as populations go out in search of somewhere where they will be able to find food, which will be too far to commute as is present practice in Russian cities.

Of course it is not only food that will no longer arrive in cities. The global concentration of manufactures, particularly in Asia and above all China, will also fade away as energy for long-distance transport and the energy and resources we waste on so much ‘stuff’ become more expensive and thence unavailable. Furthermore, as almost the whole cornucopia of stuff produced and circulating today is in part or whole made from petrochemical feedstock and/or processed using large amounts of energy, most of the industrial production system will simply evaporate over a relatively short time span, requiring a return to modest, local production processes using materials near at hand (including, initially the detritus of modern civilisation). Thus thought might already start on how we can produce not only more food but also more essential manufactures closer to home again. But that is the next part of our analysis of future cities with regard to what we can expect to happen as energy declines and thence what we might usefully do about it!

The full version of this article will be published in a forthcoming issue of CITY.

Adrian Atkinson retired from Berlin’s Technical University in 2008 where he was Professor in development planning.  Previously he was for many years staff at London University’s Development Planning Unit. However, all his professional life and still continuing, he has spent much time in consultancy with international and bilateral development agencies around the world and also time working with civil society organisations including his own NGO, New Synergies in Development, based in  Geneva, where he lives. He was alerted to environmental and particularly energy issues from the 1973 oil crisis on and has since mixed work in academia with international consultancy and work with civil society organisations.

The phenomena we are looking at in this paper is the beginning of the path back to where agriculture (or eventually hunting and gathering) is the chief occupation of populations everywhere. At present urbanisation continues. But in a relatively short time, contrary to conventional wisdom, cities will start to decline. The process of decline is likely to differ greatly between places in the world and even particular cities in particular countries

  1. One name, Jac Smit, stands out as having initiated serious study of UPA across the globe. Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security (RUAF) is today a large NGO that disseminates information and supports initiatives in UPA and both UNDP and FAO have substantial programmes. There is now a substantial literature on the issue and as first call, the 800 page Annotated Bibliography on Urban Agriculture (ETC, 2003) downloadable from the internet is an excellent place to start.
  2. The case has been well-researched. See: Murphy, C. (1999) Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis. Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland.and Koont, S. (2009) The Urban Agriculture of Havana. Monthly Review, Vol.11, No.9.
  3. There are various methods of what is loosely called organic farming – starting already with a method widely used in Germany under the title of ‘biodynamic’ farming invented by Rudolph Steiner and disseminated through the anthroposophical movement which he founded at the turn of the 20th Century. Permaculture, invented by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s when working for Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, is concerned to synergise with local economical systems and is gaining a wide following. See Mollison (1997) Mollison, B. (1997 , 1988) Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, New South Wales.

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