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Urban agriculture: the potential and limitations of an urban self-reliance strategy
Pablo Gutman

Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, Buenos Aires, Argentina


After 30 years of focusing on generalized economic growth during the post-war period, the world's attention has turned, in the last decade, to a concern for poverty and the quality of life. It has come to be realized that the basic needs of vast numbers of human beings are poorly addressed. Moreover, economic growth has been unable to satisfy, on a significant scale, the needs of the poorest populations of developing countries.

According to the World Bank [1], eliminating malnutrition would require redirecting only about 2 per cent of the world's grain output to the mouths that need it. It is this combination of material capacity and social incapacity that makes poverty so dramatic and explains its persistent consideration in recent years. To leave general development strategies in favour of proposals that explicitly address people's needs is to associate productive programmes with social actors and social solutions.


Until recently, the majority of poor people, whatever criteria of measurement we adopt, lived in rural areas of developing countries. In Latin America, however, because of its advanced degree of urbanization, poverty is no longer solely a rural problem.

In 1970, 25 per cent of the poor population lived in urban areas, in 1980, 40 per cent, and in 1985, 50 per cent. In Argentina 58 per cent of poor families reside in urban areas, according to 1980 estimations 12]. Increasingly in the developing nations the poorest populations are living in urban areas, thus requiring that cities establish specific policies and programmes for reducing poverty different from those needed in rural areas.

Latin America's cities must now face this problem, and their experiences may be helpful for other emerging countries. The advanced degree of urbanization and metropolization of Latin America probably will be repeated in all developing nations in the near future. The future of their cities will be much more similar to the evolution of Latin America than to that of industrialized countries. Although the rates of urban growth in Africa and southern Asia have already surpassed those of Latin America, even by the year 2000 the two largest cities in the world will be in Latin America. The populations of Mexico City and Sao Paulo will be 26 million and 24 million respectively.

In addition, in terms of income and consumption levels, Latin America is the middle class of the underdeveloped nations. Thus it is probable that other emerging countries will face problems as their economies grow in which the experiences of this region, both successes and failures, may be relevant.


The treatment and management of the city as an ecosystem suggests an ecological interpretation that stresses the importance of mastering energy use and transforming the unidirectional flow of resources from farm to city to garbage into a circular flow by recycling and reducing waste. This approach would increase the complementary integration of resources, matching them to needs, and attempt to meet those needs with fewer materials and less energy.

TABLE 1. Urbanization trends in Latin America

  1950 1980 2025
Urban population in Latin America (millions) 67.7 236.5 662.1
Urban population as % of total population  
Latin America 41.1 65.3 84.2
temperate South Americaa 64.8 82.4 92.5
Europe 55.9 71.1 85.9
Asia 13.1 22.7 50.0
Cities of over 4 million population in Latin America  
number of cities 1 5 21
population (millions) 5.4 52 198
share of total urban population (%) 8 22 30

a. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay. Source Ref. 14.

Self-reliance strategies try to make a whole city or its various urban groups more self-sufficient by reducing dependence on their parties-on farmers for food, on banks for credit, and on imported raw materials and foreign technology for jobs and products. Such strategies imply a search for new links that place the initiative in the hands of the local community, that is, in the hands of the people to whom development must be addressed.

Proposals for self-production, despecialization, and partial delinking from commercial circuits often are associated with self-reliance strategies-that is, strategies for the promotion of direct initiatives by individuals, families, and communities. Productive initiatives, or those of any other type, are conducted only partially through commercial circuits. Self production of housing and collective provision of services are part of the non-formal, grey or hidden economy 13-7].

Urban and pert-urban food production fits perfectly in this framework. In fact, it has been presented as a central part of a strategy for food self-reliance for cities of developing countries and even for all cities [8, 9]. Published figures are impressive. Hong Kong is said to produce 40 per cent of its vegetable consumption, Singapore 80 per cent of its poultry demand, and Shanghai its entire vegetable consumption. In the United States the family production of food for self-consumption reached 12 billion of dollars in 1984. Similar experiences are reported in cities of emerging countries [8, 10].


During 1985 I participated in a research project on the potential of urban agriculture for self consumption as a strategy to improve the nutrition of the poor in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina, in which we analysed a dozen programmes and similar experiences in other countries [11].

Our first surprise was to realize that very little reliable information exists about costs, manpower requirements, output, and the importance of garden production with respect to the diet and income of the family. We found few data on which we could base a sound judgement about the potential of urban agriculture.

It was also a surprise to find that urban gardening for one's own consumption is a much more common in rich and well-nourished North America than in poor and undernourished South America. If we accept the numbers given by the American National Gardening Association, in 1984, 34 million American families cultivated vegetables for their own consumption on more than half a million hectares. In England there are a million gardens and in Germany 500,000 1121. These two unexpected findings acted as stimuli to our research.

Greater Buenos Aires encompasses the city itself and 19 adjacent districts. It is Argentina's main urban area and one of the biggest in the world: 3,880 km2 with 10 million inhabitants in 1980. Its most rapid growth was between 1940 and 1950. Currently, the population is increasing slowly, and in the city itself is diminishing slightly. Buenos Aires is located on a flat plain with abundant land and water, and enjoys a humid-temperate climate. The only natural restriction on its habitability is the risk of floods in some areas. Although it is the economic centre of a semi industrialized country (US$2,500 per capita GDPI, the living conditions of the lowest-income groups have worsened in the last fifteen years. In October 1985 almost 20 per cent of the families in the outlying districts of Greater Buenos Aires [excluding the city itself) received free food rations through the National Food Programme (PAN).

Within the many different experiences of urban agriculture, we focused on urban gardening for self consumption because it is the most widespread practice in Greater Buenos Aires. The following are our main findings [11].

Urban gardening for self-consumption requires few resources. A hundred square metres intensively cultivated can supply the vegetables needed for a family of five persons.

Costs are low because one can use materials that are already available to households, even garbage. The manpower required to maintain an urban garden ranges from 1 to 1.5 working days per week.

After considering current diets, adequate minimum diets, consumption habits, and income levels of different urban groups, we concluded that a successful garden can save between 10 and 30 per cent of the cost of an appropriate diet for a family (according to nutritional standards). For the two urban groups with the lowest incomes, this could represent between 5 and 20 per cent (or even more) of the total income of the family.

Garden products can supply calories (maize, root crops) and proteins (legumes), and are the main source of many vitamins and micro-nutrients. It is technically feasible to envisage a diet maximizing garden intake. In that case a garden could save as much as 40 per cent of family food expenses. But what family would like to eat such a limited diet? In industrialized countries, the average family expenditure on fruits and vegetables ranges between 10 per cent of total food and beverage expenditures in the United States and 14 per cent in France. For Latin America the figures are quite a bit higher. They show that a successful garden could replace between 20 and 25 per cent of the cost of an adequate family diet adjusted to local consumption patterns and nutritional standards alike.

Urban society in Argentina and many other developing countries does not encourage urban gardens. Their use on a large scale would require a major promotional effort that would have to anticipate a minimal response over the short term.

Good information and technical support seem to be very important, at least during the first year, to strengthen the chance of obtaining food crops to meet the needs of a family. Without such information and advice, output would fluctuate so widely that the garden as a food producer, and even as a project of interest to the family, would be in danger.

We analysed ten proposals meant to encourage the use of urban gardens in Greater Buenos Aires, dealing with promotion of the concept, land supply, topsoil production, seeds, tools and other materials, and the role of demonstration centres (table 21.


We evaluated urban gardens in relation to other urban food programmes (price subsidies, rations distribution, coupons) and concluded that, although urban gardens cannot replace other strategies, they surpass programmes of income redistribution because they generate independence rather than dependency. They make use of idle resources, improve the quality of the family's and the neighbourhood's environment, increase the amount of available resources, and establish new bonds between the urban and the natural environment that seem increasingly important for the city as a whole.

By their characteristics, urban gardens employ many of the principles of local development based on self reliance. They are based on initiatives that can be directly undertaken by the interested parties using resources already available in the community. They establish direct links between actions, outcomes, and the population in need, minimizing the risk of benefits being diverted in favour of other urban groups with more economic or social power. While they try to improve the food available for the urban poor, they do not harm commercial farming because their impact on the overall demand for vegetables and fruits is rather small.

TABLE 2. Ten programmes to support urban food gardens for self-consumption in Greater Buenos Aires

Area and programme Scale Possible participants
1. Enhancing gardens' potential public awareness of urban Greater Buenos Aires: some media on a national scale public and private media (television, newpapers, radio, magazines)
2. Information about how to garden,
available resources, where to go, etc.
non-government organizations and other institutions currently involved in urban agriculture (participation to define contents)
Land supply    
3. Enforcing local regulations to encourage
temporary use of idle urban plots for
community gardens
county (municipality) local authorities. public and private owners of large tracts of urban land (railroads. utilities. road authorities)
Soil supply    
4. Compost production one or more countries local authorities, solid-waste collectors, urban and pert-urban gardeners, non-government organizations
Seed supply    
5. Seed selection and distribution Greater Buenos Aires National Institute of Agriculture Technology (INTA). Secretary of Agriculture, private firms, local authorities, non-government organizations, urban gardeners
Tool supply    
6. Tool bank for the neighbourhood varies according to type of institution involved public and private institutions with resources to buy tools, advise users, and follow the results
Technical advice    
7. Technical materials adapted to family gardens distributed among main zones of Greater Buenos Aires public and private institutions and non government organizations with on the-spot experience
8. Short training courses  
9. Centres for technical advice
10. Demonstration centres


Family or community urban gardens are micro-scale initiatives with a high rate of failure. In practically all the case studies we monitored, the rate of growth in the number of gardens was slow and the levels of abandonment were high. We estimate that it would take a decade for the use of gardens to be widespread throughout Greater Buenos Aires-reaching, for example, 20 per cent of urban households. This was the percentage of persons reached by the PAN distribution of rations in six months. For these reasons, urban gardens do not constitute a short term solution for the nutritional problems of most of the urban poor in developing countries. They can complement, but they cannot replace, programmes of income redistribution.

Although we cannot be certain that it will be similar in all cases, the experience in Greater Buenos Aires showed that urban gardens do not benefit the poorest groups (unemployed, squatters) so much, but do assist the groups that are somewhat better off (working class, etc.).

Unless we think about drastic changes in the current diets of the urban population or envisage increasing diversification and complexity of the gardens (both possible only in the long run), the contribution of urban gardens, even the more successful ones, to family nourishment will be only partial. The poor families will still require an increased income to buy food that the gardens cannot produce, such as sugar, oils, flour and its derivatives, milk, and meat. Measures to improve income distribution, increase income levels, and create new employment opportunities remain essential.


Peri-urban commercial agriculture generally has been the source of most fresh food consumed in cities. This pattern has been changing over the last 200 years. Cities grew, occupying rural areas. Transport systems and food conservation techniques improved. New and highly productive natural regions were colonized far away from consumption centres. Finally, urban diets and consumption patterns became more varied, and consumers demanded exotic or traditional products all year round. All these factors made it necessary to depend on distant ecosystems.

The role of pert-urban agriculture has been reevaluated for several reasons: it requires little energy for transportation and conservation; it provides urban employment opportunities; it permits richer and more varied interaction between natural and urban spaces; and it can be used as a means to control urban growth.

It this a way toward food self-sufficiency? How does peri-urban agriculture affect the benefits of family gardens to the urban poor, as discussed in the preceding section? It is essential to increase the access of the poor to food and to other basic needs. Urban gardens for self-consumption, when combined with other actions, constitute a positive strategy for this purpose.

Commercial Costs or Opportunity Costs

Some authors stress the advantage of producing food near the cities so as to save transportation costs [13]. Lower costs of transport and conservation measures have, in fact, maintained the commercial production of fresh vegetables near the cities, but they cannot always offset the advantages of more distant rural areas with regard to land prices, greater chances for mechanization, and more suitable ecosystems. The advantages of producing food in or near the city lie in making use of resources without accruing the costs of idle land and unemployment in the rural areas.

Self-reliance: Dependence and Vulnerability

"If essential inputs (such as staples) come from far away, we become vulnerable. That is why it is better if we produce them ourselves." The truth of this kind of statement, which confuses dependence with interdependence, is highly questionable. Nevertheless, it has been widely accepted at the country level in opposing efforts to import food. Hunger and food scarcity in general have been and continue to be rural, not urban, phenomena. This is so because the affluent, who live in the city, have greater power and more resources to buy food than do those in the country.

From the City to the People: Self-reliance as a Social Issue

Relying on one's own efforts and abilities is more positive than depending on the help or benevolence of others. Independence is better than dependence.

But always to identify independence with self production and dependence with receiving from others is an over-simplification.

Despite all the recent attacks directed against the social services system, education, health, and many other goods are now supplied in this century by the state. This does not necessarily mean dependence for those of us who receive them. The difference consists in whether we participate in the administration and distribution of a service that constitutes a well-established right or are at the mercy of a gift, arbitrarily given or withdrawn without our participation.

Worked without the urgency of a pressing need, as a creative and productive way of using free time, the urban garden improves the natural and social environment, re-establishes relations between urban inhabitants and nature, and recycles resources and capacities that remain idle in the modern city. For the poor of the South American cities, however, there is a danger that an action motivated by a pressing need to obtain the staples that they cannot buy would be abandoned whenever possible. It may relevant that urban victory gardens were widespread in the United States during World War II but were largely abandoned when the need was no longer pressing.

Objectively, the garden as an urban food strategy is insufficient to improve the nutritional status of the urban poor significantly and in the short term. Other traditional and nontraditional methods of income redistribution are also needed. At the same time, urban agriculture helps to create and recreate links of communication and action, of self-organization and initiative, that are absent in the traditional systems of income redistribution.

Subjectively, need and freedom relate to the individual's motivations to action. Do urban gardens provide a creative way of using spare time or are they requirements imposed by unemployment or low wages? The garden programmes and the interviews with participant families in poor quarters showed that individuals and families have aesthetic needs, needs to enjoy as well as basic needs such as to eat. The urban garden, in its modest scale and with the limitations already underlined, is one way among many to face needs and pleasure simultaneously. This is more than can be said about many current development policies.


This article is based mostly on research conducted in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina, during 1985, as part of the UNU's activities on the Food-Energy
Nexus, with additional support from the Unesco MAB 11 Programme, the results of which have been reported in Gutman and Gutman [11].


1. World Development Report (World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1980).

2. Simposio de Cocoyoc sobre Ambiente Y Desarrollo (United Nations LNUA/c/2/2921, Mexico, 1974).

3. R. Meier et al., The Urban Ecosystem and Resource Conserving Urbanism in Third World Cities (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, Calif., USA, 19811.

4. R. Meier, Ecological Design (University of California, Berkeley, Calif., USA 1984).

5. S. Boyden, "An Integrative Ecological Approach to the Study of Human Settlements," MAR Technical Notes, no. 12 (Unesco, Paris, 1981).

6. I. Sachs, La crise le progrès technique et l'économie cachée, CIRED Publication no. 7 (Centre International de Recherche sur l'Environnement et le Developpement, Paris, 1983).

7. I. Sachs, "Facing the Crisis in Large Cities: Work, Food and Energy in the Urban Environment," paper presented at the Workshop on Latin American Metropolis and the Crisis, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 10-13 Sept. 1984.

8. L. Wayburn, "Skycraper Salad: A Lifeline for Cities?" Earthscan Features (Earthscan, London, 1984).

9. C. Aveline, "Communitarian Alternatives for Brazilian Crisis," IFDA Dossier, 45: 19-22 (1985).

10. Special Report on Community Gardening in the USA (National Gardening Association, Burlington, Vt., USA, 1985).

11. P. Gutman and G. Gutman, "Agriculture urbane y periurbana en el Gran Buenos Aires: Experiencias Y perspectivas," Research Report no. 3 (Centro de Estudios Urbanos y Regionales, Buenos Aires, 1986).

12. A. Duet, "Reflexions sur l'avenir des jardins familiaux en milieu urbain," mimeo (Atelier d'Etudes d'Amenagement, Paris, 1983).

13. D.S. Leeper, "Lettuce: Food, Money, Energy," IFDA Dossier, 19: 107-108 (1980).

14. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Estimates and Projections of Urban, Rural and City Population, 1950-2025: The 1982 Assessment (United Nations, New York, 1985).

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