NYC Urban Farm 01

Understanding Urban Agriculture – Part 2, Productivity, Potential and Possibilities

This is part two of a series of articles Angelo is writing, for part one please visit:

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

Permaculture Student

George Bernard Shaw

Urban agriculture is a growing phenomenon worldwide, and in the first part of this article, “Understanding Urban Agriculture – Part 1, The Present State in Historical Context” we looked at the history of localized agriculture and the reasons for the exodus of food production from public spaces in cities. We examined how this has led to the creation of urban food deserts in cities – areas where food is scarce and hard to obtain. The renewed interest that we are seeing in urban agriculture is essentially a grassroots community reaction against the intentional removal of food from public spaces and creation of food deserts by local governments.

When we look at the historical context, we see that urban agriculture is a movement which aims to restore the natural order of things – localised agriculture which produces food near communities. The goals of urban agriculture are to increase community food security and self-reliance by contributing to overall food production, and to also address the issue of food sovereignty.

One point of contention for critics of urban agriculture is the significance of the contribution it can make to food security and self-reliance within cities. The fact that urban agriculture is already a growing practice worldwide and making significant contributions seems to be missed by some.

In this article we’ll take an evidence-based approach supported with real world facts and figures to examine the productivity or urban agriculture. As part of the analysis, we’ll also examine the qualitative difference between urban, peri-urban and rural agriculture and how this relates to productivity, a critical point missed in many discussions on the subject.

The urban agriculture difference, a systems perspective

To equate urban agriculture solely with limited space and to compare it on the basis of area with other food production systems is to completely miss the point. Urban agriculture is a qualitatively different system to peri-urban and rural agriculture systems. It is a logical fallacy to think that urban agriculture is simply a scaled-down version of the latter, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, yet most criticisms and discussions of the potential of urban agriculture are based on this false assumption.

To understand how urban agriculture works and what it can produce, we need to look at it from a systems perspective, and realise that we are dealing with a highly distributed system. Distributed systems are very large systems composed of many small interlinked parts, which as a result are highly resilient with high redundancy and no single point of failure. Think of one million backyard gardens, socially linked by a community of people, this gives you some idea of what urban agriculture is all about.

By comparison, a centralised system is a monolithic stand-alone system where all resources are gathered in one place. It has a single point of failure with no redundancy and is inherently less resilient – this is more like what a broad-acre farm resembles from a systems perspective.

Factory warehouse stock boxes

Since we are dealing with two qualitatively different systems, we can’t apply the principles of food production of commercial agribusiness to urban agriculture. It’s not about finding large expanses of land to clear and huge quantities of water to irrigate it with. That’s the completely wrong mindset. We aren’t creating scaled down commercial farms, we’re creating something else altogether, something far more productive, more intensely managed and far more sustainable.

For people fixated on clearing vast tracts of land to produce food and running in the tractors and mechanised equipment, It’s hard for them to picture that an acre equals 4,000 square metres, and 4000 separate one square metre garden beds is exactly the same space, an acre, and can grow the same amount of lettuce whichever way we divide it up.

The important point that most critics of urban agriculture miss is that small spaces can be managed more intensively than large farms, which means that are typically four times as productive. So those 4,000 separate one square metre garden beds that make up an acre can in fact produce the equivalent of 16,000 square metres or 4 acres of rural farmland, which in turn saves 4 acres of native bushland from being clear-felled in the process.

Also, from a design perspective, there is a glaringly obvious problem with being fixated with a rural farm model mindset. A designer should always approach each design as a completely new solution, as no two locations are ever the same. They should read the landscape and design in accordance to it and in harmony with it. No ‘one size fits all’ cookie-cutter designs! Urban areas are nothing like rural landscapes, the existing elements, scale, manageability, interaction with wild energies – water, wind and sun are all completely different. Why would anyone want to try and shoehorn a rural agriculture model into an urban setting if they are competent designers that know what they’re doing?

Any observant designer (which should really be a tautological phrase!) should be able to see the difference is as prominent as a male dog’s gonads! The wide open horizontal spaces may be limited in urban environments, but there is an abundance of vertical spaces, such as walls and fences, which also provide unique microclimates as a result of their thermal mass. There are also the uppermost surfaces of vertical structures such as rooftops in large numbers. These don’t exist in farms in any significant number, which is why they have to intentionally build arbour and trellis structures for the purpose. There is neither space, nor the requirement for wide spacing, to run tractors or other heavy machinery through urban agriculture systems either.

To insist on constructing a food production system based on the rural agricultural model in such a radically different urban landscape suggests a seriously narrow-minded lack of imagination and design skill, yet many urban agriculture critics argue from this perspective, especially landscape architects, but that’s no surprise considering they are neither qualified nor skilled to work in the area they’re commenting on. Only a fool shouts their ignorance from the rooftops – and it’s never a good look.

Going back to the benefits of smaller-scale more intensely managed systems, peri-urban agriculture, which is located at the city fringes, also displays much higher levels of productivity than rural agriculture operations. Australian government figures show how significantly more productive peri-urban agriculture really is.

“Peri-urban areas are significant agricultural producers in most countries. The Port Phillip region around Melbourne, for example, is the second highest producer of agricultural products in Victoria, and its agricultural output per hectare is four times the state average. Australia’s peri-urban regions comprise less than three per cent of the land used for agriculture, but account for at least 20-25 per cent of the gross value of agricultural production in the five mainland Australian states.” (2)

Clearly, urban and peri-urban agriculture is much more productive than rural agriculture and the potential for cities to grow food is significant.

The whole point of urban agriculture is not to replicate the disaster that is rural agribusiness – it’s not about over-irrigating dead, depleted soil and pumping it full of chemical fertilizers. Neither is it about pushing the land to the brink of ecological collapse, and then saturating it with pesticides and herbicides. We can do better than that!

Farming tractor

Urban agriculture opens up possibilities for the utilization of many different gardening techniques, such as small-scale intensive food forests, aquaponic systems, vertical gardens and rooftop gardens. The reality is that the space is already there in urban environments, any garden bed, balcony, wall and rooftop can be used to grow food, and rain falls on urban areas too, where it’s easily collected from rooftops and directed to irrigation.

Some critics of urban agriculture believe that its contribution is insignificant, but they couldn’t be more mistaken. Urban agriculture has its place as part of a larger, three-tiered food production system that also includes peri-urban and rural agriculture.

I can try to reason till the cows come home, but some people will inevitably stick to their subjective opinions. To address this and to explore urban agriculture’s real potential, we’ll look at some are real world facts and figures of what urban agriculture is already producing.

Urban agriculture productivity facts and figures, an evidence-based discussion

I’ve often heard the loose tongues of critics belittling urban agriculture, its significance and its potential. Everyone has opinions and unless they’re evidence-based, they’re usually worthless. Give me logic and reason, facts and figures, and save the speculation for the outcomes of sporting events!

Here are some interesting statistics that I have gathered which highlight my point, which is that a numbers of small sustainable gardens collectively make a very significant contribution on a national scale.

From the US National Gardening Association reports of 1987, we see that home vegetable gardening is a vast and rapidly growing phenomenon collectively covering enormous areas of growing space and producing a gross national home-garden product of $US12 billion!

Here is an extract which provides all the details:

“VEGETABLE GARDENING HAS TAKEN on dimensions unimaginable when the current boom began back in the early 1970s. At that time, one out of every four vegetable gardeners was brand, spanking new. Today, only one in fifteen gardeners is just starting out That, of course, doesn’t mean that a tremendous number of new gardeners won’t be turning over their first shovelful of dirt in the late 1980s. It does mean, however, that America today has a great many experienced vegetable gardeners who are looking to extend their experience, to try new things. According to the National Gardening Association, home vegetable gardening today has become a vast and almost invisible enterprise spread across 1.7 million acres in 29 million backyard and community plots, in flower borders and in boxes on apartment terraces and rooftops. In 1987, the national Gardening Association estimated the gross national home-garden product at $12 billion.
Why is the vegetable gardening boom still accelerating at full speed?

The reasons are somewhat complex. According to a Gallup survey, all or many of these home gardeners claim they raise vegetables to save on food bills. But perhaps a more fundamental motive is that vegetables picked fresh from the home garden taste a lot better than the stiff, often overripe, vegetables found in the supermarket.” (3)

In a later updated National Gardening Association report (white paper) from 2009, we see a dramatic increase in home gardening, a fast upward trend (29 million households growing food in 1986 compared to 36 million households growing food in 2009), with an impressive return-on-investment.

Here’s an extract from the NGA white paper:

“Findings from the National Gardening Association’s (NGA) new survey, The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America, indicate that food gardening in the U.S. is on the rise. Seven million more households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, or berries in 2009 than in 2008 — a 19 percent increase in participation. This anticipated increase is nearly double the 10% growth in vegetable gardening from 2007 to 2008 and reflects the number of new food gardeners emerging this year.

More Americans are recognizing the benefits of growing their own produce, including improved quality, taste, and cost savings. In 2008, gardeners spent a total of $2.5 billion to purchase seeds, plants, fertilizer, tools, and other gardening supplies to grow their own food. According to NGA estimates, on average a well-maintained food garden yields a $500 return when considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of produce.” (4)

Nothing talks like real-world yield figures and dollar values, in whatever language!

Here are some statistics which show how much all those little backyards are producing collectively across the US and the dollar value of their yields.

From the report “The Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America” page 12 of the report:

“Amount of Food Grown and the Gross Domestic Garden Product

A well-maintained food garden can yield an estimated 1/2 pound of produce per square foot of garden area over the course of the growing season. At in-season market prices, this produce is worth $2.00 per pound. The average 600-square-foot food garden can produce an estimated 300 pounds of fresh produce worth $600 and a return of $530 based on an average investment of $70.

Home Food-Gardening Production

• 36 million households
• 600 sq. ft. average food garden size
• Average yield of 1/2 pound of fresh produce per sq. ft. of garden area
• 300 pounds total yield of a variety of popular vegetables

Home Food-Gardening Value

• $2 per pound at average, in-season produce prices
• $600 estimated dollar return for a 600 sq. ft. food garden
• $70 average food-gardening investment
• $530 average food-gardening return on investment
• Total U.S. food gardening investment: $2.5 billion
• Total return on U.S. food gardening investment: $21 billion” (5)

If we analyse these figures, the findings are quite significant. Using the 2009 figures, which are steadily increasing – 36 million households x 600 sq. ft. average food garden size gives an average figure of 200,670 hectares of productive home gardens across the US in 2009!

(600 square foot = 55.741824 square meter = 0.013774104683 acre = 0.0055741824 hectare)

The above stated return on investment per household is significant ($70 investment returns $530 in produce) as is the total return nationally of $21 billion.

Since those with interests in the rural sector here in Australia like to belittle and look down upon the efforts of urban gardeners, just for our amusement, and to deflate a few egos, let’s compare what US home gardeners produce with what the whole of commercial agriculture in Australia producers, yes, the production of US home gardeners vs. all of Australian agribusiness!

Using the ABS Statistics 2012, we find the Australian gross value of agricultural commodities produced:
• Vegetables 2009-10 – AU$ 3,023M
• Fruit & Nuts (excluding grapes) AU$ 2,950.3M

Total 3,023M + 2,950.3M = 5,973.3M

Population Australia approx 23M, 7.6 million households

By comparison, total return for US home gardeners on food gardening investment:

• US$ 21 billion
• 750% ROI

Population US approx 321M (approx 14 x larger than AU)

Since Americans love to be different for the sake of it (c’mon guys, get with the times, get metric already!), their ‘billion’ is different to the rest of the worlds ‘billion’, it’s a thousand-million in the US while elsewhere it’s a million-million!

So to compare apples with apples, US home gardeners produce yields with a total value of 21,000M in contract to the Australian agriculture industry’s total of 5,973.3M.

Yes, US home gardeners produce is 3.5 times more than the whole Australian agriculture industry put together in dollar value.

Valid comparisons?

Some readers may question whether the comparison between the US home gardeners and the whole of Australian agribusiness Is this a fair one in respect to the latter?

In fact, the figure I have chosen are actually skewed in favour of agribusiness for the following reasons:

• If I’m not mistaken, the US figures quoted refer to vegetables only, not fruit and nuts. A direct comparison of vegetables only increase the US lead to a 7 times greater dollar value.
• The Australian ABS figures combine rural and peri-urban agriculture yield together. On their own the rural production figures would probably be less than 75% of the actual stated figures. Peri-urban agriculture is far more productive than rural agriculture, peri-urban regions in the five mainland States in Australia produce almost 25% of the nation’s total gross value of agricultural production and studies suggest that this may be an underestimate. (6)

When I present this comparison, the first comment I always hear is that “there are a lot more people in the US than in Australia”, yes that’s true, 321M vs 23M, but if we look at the study, these US figures refer to the produce from 36 million households. Australia has 7.6 million households, so we’re talking only 4.5 times more US households, but their dollar value of vegetable production is 7 times that of the whole Australia agriculture industry.

What does this mean? The implications are quite shocking. If every household (23M) in Australia grew as much as the average US home gardener, they would be able to produce (21,000/36)x23 = $13,416M as compared to the Australian agriculture industry figure of $3,023M assuming vegetables cost the same across both countries. This would suggest the possibility of that Australian backyard urban agriculture could theoretically produce more than four times as much vegetables than is produced by rural and peri-urban agriculture combined if they had a 55 square metre garden.

Now, even if one in four households had such a garden and grew vegies, they would match the combined rural and peri-urban figures.

While there is admittedly some room for interpretation in these figures, the whole point is that urban agriculture is significant and is nothing to be sneezed at, and US home gardeners are actually producing quantities of food with a dollar value that make the whole Australian agriculture industry’s effort look like an amateur operation.

One sobering thought to conclude the comparison with is the cost of food production.

Is that US home gardeners achieve a 750% ROI (return on investment), whereas, sadly, in Australia and in the US, smaller-scale commercial rural farmers often struggle to break even while getting screwed over by retail monopolies. The problem with numbers though is they depersonalise things. There is a high cost in rural food production, and I’m not talking about production costs, I’m referring to the cost to people’s lives.

For a long time we’ve been seeing rural farmers saddled with insurmountable debts, some lose their farms, sometimes they lose all hope and take their own lives.

farmer's Hands  of old man who had worket hardly in his life

“In the U.S. the rate of farmer suicides is just under two times that of the general population. In the U.K. one farmer a week commits suicide. In China, farmers are killing themselves daily to protest the government taking over their prime agricultural lands for urbanization. In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. Australia reports one farmer suicides every four days. India yearly reports more than 17,627 farmer suicides.” (7)

There are many factors at play here, but the fact that rural agriculture is not working as it should to fairly reward farmers for their work plays a significant part.

Urban agriculture works as a fairer and more equitable system, as it all operates solely within the community. It doesn’t destroy people’s lives, in fact in enriches them as we’ve seen in the US after the housing market economic collapse. Community groups in disadvantaged areas with high unemployment rates have been reclaiming vacant land and growing food. Some groups have been able to grow enough food to sell, creating jobs for themselves in the process.

A fair and equitable urban food production system can produce more than food, it can build communities, meet people’s social needs for inclusion, recognition, self-development and truly empower people!

The future of food?

When we look at the big picture of our food production systems and see farmers struggling against oppressive retail monopolies, urban agriculture growers struggling against short-sighted risk-averse local governments and smug self-interested landscape architects, it’s not a pleasing picture. Add to this the purely profit-motivated chemical and biotechnology companies hovering over the whole scene like vultures looking for an easy opportunistic feed, and it’s not exactly the glowing model of food security that we would want bet our lives on. Is this the future of food that we want?

I wonder whether those in public office placing obstacles before the people trying to create a better food future have a conscience, and whether their Faustian bargain of choosing self-interests above the common good is something they can live with if they really think it through. Are people so blinded by their ego, fears and base emotions?

The basic human needs of air, water shelter and food are the sacred life-giving gifts from Nature that are given freely. That’s how indigenous people who live in harmony with the Earth see things. Humanity corrupts and profanes these things to profit from them, but the truth is that our life support system is not a play-toy. Food shortages may seem to some like a remote impossibility, yet Australian federal government reports warm of impending food insecurity issues, but the warnings fall on deaf ears as human desires of greed and self-interest cloud rationality and reason.

There are members of the community worldwide actively creating the future of our food at this very moment, while others just talk, saying it can’t be done, and that we should stick to the status quo. What part of ‘unsustainable’ do people not understand. Borrowing from future generations to feed the excesses of the present is hardly viable, logical or ethical!

Urban agriculture no longer a matter of debate. We’re seeing working urban food production systems springing up worldwide. It amuses me to no end when ‘experts’ gather to discuss why urban agriculture can’t be done in Australia. They assume that the rural agriculture model is the only way to grow food, and quote figures stating the large amounts of empty space we will need to grow the food and the huge quantities of water for irrigation. The flaw in their logic as we have mentioned earlier is that they overlook the basic fact that growing areas can be broken up into small plots spread over almost infinitesimal locations, and in urban areas water in wasted, most of the rainwater washes down the stormwater drain and into the ocean! Naysayers are talking while doers are doing. Our food future is already being written by the willing and able. The only question is how much opposition they will encounter from groups with vested interests in maintaining the unsustainable systems of the present.


For most of humanity’s existence Nature provided food, it was free for the picking. Then with the advent of agriculture we started growing our own food to support one of our most primary biological needs, the need to eat. It has always been people’s sovereign right to grow their own food, this was subverted when medieval peasants were forced to grow food for landowners, then industrial corporations hijacked food production for profit making people dependent on them to fulfil a primary biological need, and now people are reclaiming their self-reliance and growing food once again.

The concept of localised food production is also being reclaimed by the urban communities in a major way through the rise of urban agriculture, which has the potential to produce significant quantities of food very close to where people live. Despite criticisms of urban agriculture’s potential, real world figures would in fact suggest otherwise, that the greater efficiencies of small-scale intensive agriculture make a significant difference. Peri-urban agriculture is four times more productive than rural agriculture for the same space, so only time will tell how much more the even more intensive scale of urban agriculture can produce.

The most critical point with urban agriculture is that it is not only about growing food in a different location to peri-urban and rural areas, but it is about growing food in a completely different way due to the qualitatively different growing environment. To make urban agriculture work we need to design our food growing areas in a completely different way to the old formulaic ways that are scaled down versions of the rural model. We need to think outside the square and be creative, we need to produce ecologically-sound designs that take into account the complexity and diverse range of elements found in urban environments, and we need to make our food growing systems sustainable. If there was ever a calling for competent Permaculture designers, then this is it!


1. Duane and Karen Newcomb – “The Complete Vegetable Gardening Sourcebook” (1989)
2. National Gardening Association – Garden Market Research: The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America (2009)
3. “The Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America” report, page 12 – Amount of Food Grown and the Gross Domestic Garden Product
4. Re-valuing the Fringe: Some Findings on the Value of Agricultural Production in Australia’s Peri-Urban Regions, Peter Houston, Primary Industries and Resources South Australia
5. Newsweek article, “Death in the Farm” by Max Kutner, 4/10/2014,



7 thoughts on “Understanding Urban Agriculture – Part 2, Productivity, Potential and Possibilities

  1. Fun article to read. I’m doing a master’s degree about urban agriculture, in a big city in southern Thailand. I’ve found it very hard to locate academic research on urban agriculture of the past. Maybe you can cite a couple of sources. In fact, more citations generally would be cool. I realize this is not for an academic audience, but something more’d be great. One thing, the urban population certainly does not stand around 80% right now. 2007 is the year it supposedly rose above 50%, with the current world urban population, estimated by the UN in 2014, somewhere around 55%.

  2. Lots of “food” for thought. Angelo, I particularly like the comparison of a 4000 sm farm is the same as 4000 1m farms. Large organizations understand the power of incremental growth. Individuals are not as clear on that point, but your illustration points out how powerful individual actions are.

    Let’s add to the conversation the reminder, that these current systems are the result of millions and millions of individual choices – I buy “this” because: it’s cheaper; it’s convenient; it looks pretty; it’s unblemished. If we as individuals keep looking for and rewarding local sustainable food producers, if we share what we find with neighbors, friends and co-workers, the economic choices will shift.

    Buy produce in season. Ask questions of your growers. Spread your personal food budget around to non-standard food providers. Think about each food purchase. Make adjustments. Just like the 4000 1-meter gardens, our individual choices can add up.

  3. The Kos en Fynbos project in the Southern Cape (Garden Route/Klein Karoo) of South Africa has been training urban farmers in “no-dig” and water harvesting methods for around 4 years and there are now almost 1000 such folk. This is amazing considering everything is voluntary and started via a Cancer Survivor training patients how to grow and eat good food. It is a groundswell movement with major impact on many folk in a swathe across the landscape from Ladismith to Uniondale and from coast to Swartberg mountains, including many schools from kindergarten to Grade 12.

  4. Even if you put aside the great food produced on these small plots, just the fact that people are reconnecting themselves to food is a wonderful thing.

  5. Well all you have to do is look at the Netherlands as an example. That country has more agricultural output than Australia. Comparing the sizes between the two countries indicates that more space does not necessarily mean more output.

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