Growing food in the city: Low-income farmers in the ‘Global North’ versus the ‘Global South’

By |2023-12-19T15:00:18+01:00May 17th 2017|Gender and Inequalities|

by Stephanie Buechler and Christopher Scott

Urban agriculture is practised around the globe. Who practises urban agriculture, why they engage in it and what barriers they face are often similar across the seemingly disparate divides of the ‘Global North’ and the ‘Global South’. Cross-site learning for the development of possible policy responses may therefore be fruitful. Food security will also be one of the issues discussed at the Dresden Nexus Conference in Germany this week.

Tucson, Arizona, the second poorest city in the U.S. (population of 526,000), has numerous community gardens where urban agriculture is practised. Twenty-five of these are connected with the non-profit organisation Community Gardens of Tucson (CGT). Additional gardens in Tucson are associated with other non-profit organisations working with low-income populations, with neighbourhood associations and with institutions such as hospitals. In return for a monthly fee to be able to plant crops on a 4 feet by 10 feet (1.2 meters by 3 meters) plot of land, the CGT community gardeners get access to irrigation water distributed by drip irrigation technologies, gardening tools and gardening information. For those who need it (such as the handicapped or elderly) some raised beds are available.

However, people do not only practise urban agriculture in community gardens. Backyard gardeners in Tucson (including renters) grow crops near where they live, sometimes planting crops in large pots. The ‘Tucson Backyard Gardening’ virtual network has over 17,000 members on Facebook and offers gardeners the opportunity to share and exchange knowledge, input and crops.

Research that is currently being conducted at the University of Arizona in coordination with non-profits working in low-income neighbourhoods and a virtual network of backyard gardeners in Tucson is revealing that the majority of urban farmers are women. Women in Tucson are still the main providers of food in their households; when they grow their own produce they are able to provide their families with a healthier diet. This is important because the diet of over 75 per cent of all Tucsonans does not include the recommended daily amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit.  Also, 15.4 per cent of Tucson’s population is food insecure. Urban farmers in community and backyard gardens also share their crops with relatives, friends and co-workers, thus extending the benefits to a larger group of people.

The study also shows that new immigrant populations (e.g. from Bhutan/Nepal, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Burundi) are benefitting from practicing agriculture in the city; they bring agriculture-related skills with them when they come to Tucson and are excited to engage in agriculture in their new home. The main ways in which Tucson’s women and immigrants as well as other groups like the elderly and the disabled benefit include: improvements in their own and family members’ health by obtaining access to organic (all CGT community gardening is required to be organic), fresh produce and access to exercise in green spaces for improved physical and emotional health. These gardeners, who represent groups especially vulnerable to social isolation, also build social networks through contacts with fellow gardeners and neighbours and with staff in organisations across the city.

Community-garden site-coordinators are often instrumental in linking gardeners to organisations and businesses that can help gardeners in myriad ways including with access to information and inputs.  Other benefits that many low-income gardeners reported included a feeling of independence from employers and other power brokers prevalent in their daily lives. Barriers urban farmers face are often related to land, especially the limited availability of land in an urban setting, and the dependence on landowners or the city government for access to land. The prevalence of crop theft varied depending on the surrounding areas of the farmland.

In addition to land, low-income urban gardeners who grow crops have other unmet needs. These needs include access to the following: reduced monthly community garden plot fees, free or reduced prices for inputs, water for irrigation that is affordably priced and easily accessible, knowledge about local growing conditions, better transportation routes to community gardens, more land and the location of community gardens closer to public toilets, schools, parks and playgrounds, laundromats, stores and workplaces. If city government agencies work together with non-profit agencies to integrate urban agriculture, food security, efficient water provision, transportation and input provision, the needs of urban farmers can be met. The costs of these initiatives are low compared to the cost of providing produce as well as medical and mental health programs to at-risk urban populations.

These findings show similarities with urban agriculture practised in cities across all regions of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Urban agriculture has created access to fresh produce to groups who often lacked such access before. Urban agriculture has also created opportunities for newcomers to a city to increase their own and their household members’ health and, frequently, income. Most of the time, these newly arrived urban farmers have brought skills with them from rural areas or have relatives who either currently practise agriculture or who have practised it in the past. They obtain these benefits through the production and sometimes sale of vegetables, herbs, and, less often, fruit, fodder and small livestock such as chickens and eggs. Urban farmers often exchange some of their own crops for other crops grown by other urban gardeners.

As in the case of Tucson, women in the ‘Global South’ are major actors within urban agriculture. The barriers these farmers face and their unmet needs are similar to Tucson’s urban farmers; however, often they do not have the advantages of gaining access to land, tools, irrigation water and social networks afforded by Tucson residents who are members of community gardens. Programmes and policies which are geared towards meeting the needs of urban farmers and that have been successful in one city, such as the establishment of community gardens and the development of backyard or kitchen gardener networks, could be adapted to the needs of urban farmers in other cities—even if those cities are located across North and South divides.

Stephanie Buechler, Research Scientist, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona.  Dr. Buechler has conducted research on gendered livelihoods linked to urban and peri-urban agriculture in semi-arid Tucson, Arizona, USA; Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India and near Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico.

Christopher Scott, Director, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and Professor, School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona. Dr. Scott has studied water policy for irrigation in urban and rural locations in many parts of India and Nepal, South and Central America, Mexico and Southwest U.S.

Stephanie Buechler
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