25 January 2018
Growing Greener Cities: Urban Agriculture and the Impact on SDG 11
Photo courtesy of Marc Hernandez
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To achieve SDG target 11.3, governments should integrate urban agriculture into their established and growing cities.

A modest increase in urban agriculture could reduce the urgency of increasing rural agricultural yields.

Best practices must take into account possible adverse impacts and help mitigate climate change.

The focus of sustainable agriculture tends to be on rural areas and conventional solutions to development. As modernization engulfs both the developed and developing world, it is critical to address the importance of urban agriculture. Cities currently house over 54% of the world’s population – a number that is expected to increase to approximately 59% by 2030. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) have highlighted the importance of agriculture and sustainable cities in SDG target 11.3, “countries should aim to work to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization for participatory, integrated, and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” We argue that to achieve this target, in the spirit of the SDGs, governments should integrate urban agriculture into their established and growing cities.

The road to sustainable cities involves a multi-pronged approach that strengthens social capital, creates innovative agricultural technologies, and allows public and private partners to participate. Innovative methods of urban agriculture take the form of community and rooftop gardens, greenhouses, indoor and vertical farms, and edible green walls. Though these techniques likely won’t feed our largest cities, research indicates that urban farming techniques could produce enough vegetables for each person’s recommended daily consumption using less than 10% of city land. A modest increase in urban agriculture could reduce the urgency of increasing rural agricultural yields. Urban agriculture structures will not replace rural farming; however, they can produce different varieties of crops that rural areas are less able to produce.

The most significant benefits of urban agriculture concentrate around its ability to increase social capital and civic engagement in low income communities. The sharing of knowledge and cultural values and skills gained through gardening serve as a social bridge, helping to maintain the traditions associated with food. These benefits are especially important in developing countries where agriculture is a big part of culture.

Conversely, urban agriculture has shown mixed reviews in the developed world. Efforts to “improve” neighborhoods are often conducted by outsiders creating scenarios where urban agriculture does not benefit the community that surrounds it. Additionally, research suggests that property values increase in the vicinity of community gardens, which can displace long-time residents while doing very little to stop other injustices these communities face. Implementation strategies should directly address the concerns of neighborhood residents, and all stakeholders should work towards an equitable arrangement in which the neighborhood receives the majority of the benefits from their labor, and where negative impacts are mitigated as best as possible.

Based on case studies, the development of urban food policies must overcome a few barriers before they find their place in the sustainable development scheme. First, rural and urban governments, along with the private sector, must collaborate to adopt policies that benefit both communities (SDG 11.A). Polices aimed at improving green infrastructure, increasing access to loans, and creating local job opportunities in urban agriculture will have to be enacted on multiple levels of government. As urban agriculture becomes integrated within cities, it is important to implement a multi-stakeholder initiative for continual monitoring and management of the food systems that serve these communities.

Second, urban agriculture must prove that it can address health and economic disparities that stem from food access (SDG 10). Urban agriculture provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which can lead to an overall increase in nutrition. It allows for physical activity, especially for the elderly, as well as benefits in mental health. In the current food system, the urban farmer plays little to no role in the food supply chain. By getting urban farmers more involved in food transactions, they are able to reap health benefits while simultaneously generating income through the sale of high value crops such as fruits and vegetables.

Third, best practices must help mitigate climate change. Although urban farmers have found innovative ways to produce crops through vertical farms, greenhouses, and hydroponics, these technologies can be far more energy intensive than more traditional forms of agriculture. Unfortunately, energy intensive facilities may undercut the gains made by greenhouse gas reduction initiatives. If properly engaged, urban agriculture could contribute to the overarching goal of reducing human impacts on the climate and building food system resilience (SDGs 11.6 and 13.2).

With a concerted effort from various stakeholders, urban agriculture can begin to play a central role in communities by supplementing the local food supply, creating spaces for community building, and advancing larger community health and sustainability goals. Despite the negative reputation and the many hurdles that must be overcome, urban agriculture offers a promising solution for sustainable development. Urban agriculture has the capacity to aid in successfully meeting several targets housed under SDG 11. This includes SDG target 11.7, providing inclusive green and public spaces especially for women and children, and SDG target 11.6, aiding in the improvement of air quality and waste management.

Achieving sustainable cities requires a unique approach that calls for the integration of forgotten practices in our modern society. As shown by Lawson (2016, 1), we should draw upon lessons from ancient cities such as Santa Domingo, where they were able “to ease access to crops and animals, provide waste management, and protect food supply.” As research continues to paint a clearer picture that helps shape policy decisions and spur innovative technologies, it is crucial not to neglect these ancient practices and lessons learnt in order to identify new synergistic pathways to achieve specific targets under SDG 11.

The authors, Marc Hernandez and Rosemary Manu, are graduate students at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC, US.


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