Urban Growth and the Need for Sustainability
As the world’s population grows, so the need for sustainable approaches to urban living does too. While for much of the twentieth century, people tended to move outwards to the suburbs, today they are increasingly being pushed towards the city. When fuel was cheap and land plentiful, suburban living seemed attractive. Now, it is the city centres that are growing. Of the 39 most populous counties in the US (those with over 1 million people), all but two grew between 2010 and 2011 (those that didn’t were Wayne in Michigan (Detroit), and Cuyahoga in Ohio (Cleveland)). At the same time, population growth in suburban counties on the edge of the big cities slowed or stopped. Worldwide, over 50% of people now live in urban areas. With an ever-growing population, we have little choice: cities are growing and will continue to do so. We need to learn to live more densely, but also to live smarter.
The Rural-Urban Balance
As cities get bigger, so the pressure on the rural land that is left increases. Urban farms can help cities to feed themselves, rather than relying on food imported from the countryside. Fuel scarcity and rising prices also makes importing food into cities less sustainable. It makes much more sense for cities to be able to meet — at least partly — their own needs. While urban agriculture might seem like a very twenty-first century problem, it is nothing new. Just as the concept of the suburb was a creation of its time and a certain set of circumstances, so is the concept of separation between city and agriculture.
Urban Agriculture in History
Cities throughout history have engaged in urban agriculture and been able, at least to an extent, to sustain themselves. Machu Picchu is one of the most well-known examples, and one of the best. Perched on a mountain ridge, surrounded by jungle, the city has never been easy to access. It had no choice but to grow and raise its own food. It was self-reliant, with complex systems in place for food production and irrigation. The terraces on which the city grew its food can still be seen today, cut out of the steep mountainside.
In Europe and North America, it was the norm for city-dwellers to keep their own animals until the industrial revolution. Pigs roamed free through streets of seventeenth-century Paris and London, for example. In nineteenth-century Paris, salad vegetables were grown in the waste horse manure that would otherwise pollute the streets. The city produced so much salad in its huge manure-based market gardens that each Parisian could have eaten 50 kg a year. In Britain, there is a long tradition of city-dwellers growing their own food in urban allotments.
Urban agriculture can take many forms although it is rarely covered in textbooks. It is often highly imaginative, re-using waste and allowing people to support themselves. There is no reason this cannot be replicated today, and it is being, in many places. It is easy to do, doesn’t affect landlords insurance and can help people to help themselves. With more of us moving back into the city, we need to make the city work for us.