Cultivating citizenship: the impact of urban agriculture

Academic Article

Abstract: With ever more people living in cities, urban agriculture embodies one effort to transform the historically tumultuous relationship between cities and food, with the additional benefit of positively impacting urban citizenship. This article proves a brief overview of the literature, demonstrating the economic, health and environmental benefits of urban agriculture, as well as urban gardening’s ability to foster community building and social cohesion, enhance community ownership and promote social learning and understanding, thus having a profound impact on urban citizenship.


On a cool August morning in Prague, hidden behind quiet cobbled walkways and roaring road construction, a small open field in Vrsovice was transformed into an assembly of restaurant stalls, café cushions and community chatter. It marked the second year that Prague residents participated in Restaurant Day, an international food carnival held in over 200 towns in 35 different countries. The festival’s aim is to allow anyone to open a restaurant for a day, with the aim of rethinking food, space and community.

“Your imagination is the limit,” boasts the organiser’s website, and imaginations were running wild. “I am so happy that I live in a neighbourhood, a city, where things like this can happen,” explained Patricia Madarova, local shop proprietor. Madrarova transformed her vintage clothing shop into a “Boho Deli” offering treats and free beverages to all visitors. “It is a good excuse to create a place you want to be, to really change the city, and come together – and food is really the best way to do that.”

From pop-up restaurants to food trucks, a preoccupation with what we eat, and how we eat, has never been greater. But urbanites are not only questioning where their food comes from, but joining together to take ownership of their communities via urban agriculture (UA). In this way, UA is directly supporting urban citizenship in its ability to grow active citizens through community participation, empowerment and education.

According to United Nations data, approximately 55% of the world’s population lives in cities. Between 1950 -1985 alone, the number of people living in urban environments nearly tripled, doubling in developed countries, and quadrupling in less developed regions. This is the first time in history that more than half of the globe lives in urban instead of rural environments. These numbers have only continued to rise and it is estimated that by 2050, 80% of the world’s growing population will live in cities.

This demographic change has great implications for urban food. While the connection between cities and agriculture may not be apparent at first, the two are integrally linked. Historically, cities have had a tumultuous relationship with food production, as it was not considered an urban issue despite high occurrences of food insecurity, especially in low-income neighbourhoods. Today, however, with more and more people moving to cities, this is changing, and a growing number of people are taking a closer look at urban food chains and trying to improve them.

Urban agriculture embodies one effort to transform the relationship between cities and food. Often defined simply as “the growing, processing, and distribution of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation and animal husbandry in and around cities” (Bailkey & Nasr 2000), UA allows groups or individuals to construct gardens or mini-farms on small plots throughout the urban landscape. Many use innovative techniques and designs to maximise yield, meet local needs and make efficient use of space. Urban farmers are growing food in abandoned buildings, on rooftops and in vacant plots of land. And that is just the start. Guerrilla gardening, allotments, community gardens, and balcony and windowsill vegetable growing are all types of UA.

While many active in Urban Agriculture are in the developing world, there are a large number of practitioners in developed countries as well.

According to recent reports, 800 million people worldwide participate in urban agriculture.  While many active in UA are in the developing world, there are a large number of practitioners in developed countries as well. In Berlin, it is estimated that 80,000 people are involved in urban agriculture, with more every year. This can be seen in the growing number of organisations that support this practice in the United States, Canada, South America and Europe. In developing countries, governments and NGOs in countries such as Kenya and the Philippines are supporting UA projects as well, realising the potential impact. UA allows citizens to increase local food security, become actively involved in their community and generally improve their living environment.  This is of crucial importance in a time of rapid urbanisation.

While studies show that urban agriculture has a number of economic, health, and environmental benefits, this paper will mostly focus on the socio-political impacts UA initiatives instigate.  Specifically, we will focus on how UA fosters community building and social cohesion, enhances community ownership, and promotes social learning and understanding. By stimulating participation, empowerment and education, urban agriculture can directly impact urban citizenship.

Urban Citizenship 

Citizen n. 1. An inhabitant of a city. 2. A member of a state. (Oxford English Dictionary)

While the modern conceptualisation of citizenship was constructed solely in the realm of the nation-state, this narrative is increasingly being challenged as the nation-state fails to offer citizens little more than voting rights and market participation. In the case of the city, we increasingly see new definitions of citizenship emerging. As urban scholars James Holston and Arjun Appadurai confirm, there is a big difference between formal citizenship and de jure membership of community that derives from it on the one hand, and substantive citizenship and the de facto membership of community that concerns various civil, political and social rights on the other.

Simply put, cities are the political spaces in which the rights and duties of citizenship are enacted. In acknowledging the contested nature of urban citizenship, it is reasonable to accept that by virtue of this, it is as much shaped by the city in as much as it enables rights to the city. Urban citizenship is a two-way – bottom-up and top-down – process, where citizenship is as much about rights and responsibility as it is about actual practice and participation in urban social intercourse. Urban agriculture impacts citizenship in the city, by holding the potential and the power to activate citizens.

How Cities Shape Urban Citizenship 

Urban citizenship has been described as a “Right to the City” for urban denizens. The idea that first originated from Henri Lefebvre in 1963 has been posited by a variety of theorists, who further expanded this right beyond basic access to institutions and political life, but also to urban public space and the right to direct participation in political process for a whole variety of actors, not just formal residents. The presupposition of a “Right to the City” involves the existence of an active urban citizenry. Cities function as incubators for active citizenry.

Active citizenship can be loosely explained as the voluntary capacity of cities and communities to work together, with engagement, participation and individual contribution as its goals. Active citizenship is not limited to volunteering and informal social engagement but also encompasses political and civic engagement. Active urban citizenship is a type of social inclusion, where citizens associate to collectively experience the opportunity to exercise agency over political power, civic choice and moral responsibility for metropolitan communities. 

Fostering Community

Urban agriculture is a community-driven and community-managed activity (Smit & Bailkey 2006). It therefore can make significant contributions, both directly and indirectly, to the lives of urban residents. One of the most fundamental outputs of UA is its ability to bring a dynamic group of people together, strengthening community ties. There are many documented studies in which community gardens and other types of UA have led to improved social interactions and increased community pride.

One study by the University of Toronto, entitled “Growing Urban Health” (Wakefield et al. 2007), interviewed over 60 participants of active community gardens in South-East Toronto. The authors concluded that UA participants varied greatly in several respects. Urban gardeners in Toronto have diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and they take part in UA for a variety of reasons, ranging from improved access to fruits and vegetables, to keeping active through physical activity.  The common link was in how participants perceived the community benefits of UA: improving relationships among people, increasing community pride and having the potential to lead wider community improvement and mobilisation.

In Amsterdam, where Debra Solomon and Mariska Van den Berg have established Urbaniahoeve, a social design lab, their Foodscape project in The Hague has led to similar findings and success. The 3.5-hectare edible landscape produces a number of food products, free to the public, and offers public space programming, increased social cohesion and community solidarity, also available to all.  The Urban Agriculture Summit in Sweden this year echoed similar trends when discussing the impacts of UA in communities through out Europe.

In this way, urban agriculture is about more than food. It also creates a space for social interaction. In a study of community gardens in New York, it was found that these spaces were used for more than just growing produce: they were also a space for neighbourhood gatherings and social events. Regardless of ethnicity, age or socio-economic status, community members gathered and participated in urban growing, thus strengthening community ties. Researchers have found that this interaction is important for curbing isolation and individualism, thus forging a robust community. When volunteers are able to interact with each other, it creates community support systems and new social networks (Levkoe 2006).

UA’s ability to generate community can be seen at Brooklyn Grange, the world’s largest rooftop soil farm. Located on two rooftops in New York City, the initiative started in 2010 with a small group of people who set out to create a sustainable urban farm to produce healthy produce for their local community while improving the environment. Today, the farm grows over 40,000 pounds of organically cultivated produce every year, and sells their vegetables to local restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, and directly to the public. But beyond produce, Brooklyn Grange offers education programs, apprenticeships to youth interested in farming and daily yoga classes open to the public.

Community Empowerment

In this way, many UA initiatives have cultivated a community of active urban dwellers excited to participate in their local food system.  This sense of place and togetherness, initially established to produce food, has been found to act as an incubator for other localised movements. As described by Jac Smit (2006), known as the Father of Urban Agriculture, a sense of community ownership over a food system can lead to community empowerment – studies have found that communities often use UA as a platform for taking on other community issues, ranging from neighbourhood safety to reclaiming public space. With a multi-actor approach to decision-making, UA can lead to further discussion on other urban issues because it provide a social forum for urban residents to come together and address local concerns.

Minorities, women, the elderly and other disadvantaged groups are frequently involved in UA, and studies have found that this can reduce discrimination amongst and against these groups…

Promoting this do-it-yourself ethos and bottom-up approach with localised solutions, urban farming is known for inclusion. Minorities, women, the elderly and other disadvantaged groups are frequently involved in UA, and studies have found that this can reduce discrimination amongst and against these groups (Garnett 1996; Smit & Bailkey 2006). Additionally, this leads to a number of benefits as those involved in UA initiatives often gain greater self-confidence and think better of themselves and their neighbours.  The social organisation needed to create and maintain urban agriculture projects therefore not only develops deeper community bonds, but also creates a sense of productivity and accountability. Participants are proud of their shared achievement, watching something grow from nothing.

In this way, UA can have an extreme effect in disadvantaged areas, where hunger and malnutrition are prevalent and communities face a number of additional challenges.  Urban farming has been shown to directly contribute to local food security by increasing the amount of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats in communities, while also stabilising food costs. Additionally, it can lead to decreased levels of crime as UA projects bring together a number of different stakeholders in the community, and often utilise abandoned lots or properties.

An example of this can be seen in Baltimore City, where a vacant lot littered with needles and beer bottles in Curtis Bay-Brooklyn was transformed into a dynamic community garden, complete with a nature path and picnic table. With support from The Open Society, Baltimore Fellow Jason Reed partnered with local schools, churches and NGOs, each working a plot of land, to improve the health of students and residents of the community and foster community pride. In Oslo, Norway, a similar transformation took place along the city’s waterfronts where new communities are being developed. With the help of a Future Farmers NGO, locals have transformed abandoned fields, previously occupied by drug addicts and prostitutes, into an allotment garden with a community bake house where locals can come to eat and socialise. Residents have been involved in every step of the planning of the space, as locals will continue with the project without NGO support in coming years. In interviews with Monocle magazine, residents said being involved with the project, and their efforts to shape their community’s future, are a great source of pride (

Smit and Martin Bailkey, outreach coordinator for the NGO Growing Power, have written extensively on how UA can help struggling neighbourhoods (e.g., Smit & Bailkey 2006). From cities in Africa to North America, they have cited how UA initiatives actively improve the lives of poor and at-risk families. They use The Food Project in central Boston as an example of how UA can empower disadvantaged communities. Every summer, children and teenagers from both inner-city Boston and its affluent suburbs join together to grow food on urban sites and then donate or sell the produce throughout the Boston area.  Participants also share their knowledge about urban growing and are able to take pride in their work. The Food Project allows youth to develop skills and confidence through this UA program, combining food security with leadership training.

Social Learning

Leadership and confidence promoted in UA practices is just one type of social learning it supports. Urban agriculture is credited with skill transference and even job creation. In their study of UA initiatives in Philadelphia, Katharine Travaline and Christian Hunold (2010) describe how participant learning in UA initiatives values local knowledge and encourages participants to use the know-how they have gained. Practical skills gained, whether in food production, sales, marketing or health education, can be used when finding employment. Levoke (2006) confirms that individuals can undergo a personal transformation after realising the potential of their gained skills, and how they can benefit themselves and their community.

Additionally, working together to solve problems in community agricultural projects allows individuals to develop strong civic values.  This can enrich their democratic capacity. Brown and Jameton (2009) take this one step further, explaining how creating and maintaining urban gardens forces communities to interact with government offices, access public resources, find donors, and deal with “complex social relationships”.

Travaline and Hunold (2010) describe how high school students participating in a local urban agriculture project acquire farming and marketing knowledge, as well as teamwork, outreach and communication skills. The students not only work together in the garden, but also work together to organise fundraisers and events, and participate in a student-led conference that offers networking and support for youth who want to improve their local food system. The students therefore develop a multitude of skills that can be transposed into other activities as young adults in the urban environment. Iles (2005) explains that this collection of skills can develop one’s interest in and ability to actively shape a community’s future.

There is no doubt that UA can create change in cities. The evidence above is only a small sampling of the innumerable case studies, reports, and research highlighting the positive link between UA and citizenship values. UA fosters and evokes characteristics that are imperative for an active citizenry.

Civil Society Impacts

In his book Civil Society, Michael Edwards posits that three schools of thought exist on civil society: civil society as associational life, civil society as the good society, and civil society as the public sphere. Each school of thought has something to offer, and as urban agriculture displays characteristics from all three types of civil society that Edwards conceives, it quite clearly lends itself to the creation of active citizens.

The idea of ‘civil society as associational life’ is largely built upon the work of Robert Putnam, who views trust as necessary to the creation of an adequate amount of social capital, which then leads to economic success. In UA, this is seen in community organisations that sprout from such initiatives, developing social capital through social learning and personal and community capacity building. Citizens work together to learn skills, sharing local knowledge and know-how, thus forging a stronger profile for each individual, while fostering community productivity and improving their economic capacity. UA also can lead to entrepreneurial activity, linking together various actors that may not have come in contact with each other without joining such an association.

John Keane, on the other hand, sees civil society’s need to have participatory democracy and tolerance, as well as the ability to question the state and voluntary associations, on whose thoughts Edwards bases his understand of ‘civil society as the good society’. Urban agriculture is inherently inclusive. Praised for its ability to involve minority populations, whether women, ethnic minorities or the elderly, UA has been found to decrease discrimination in communities.  Additionally, learning about local food systems has been found to encourage communities to ask questions about other processes in their community, and motivate them to take action.

Finally, the idea of ‘civil society as the public sphere’, which is synthesized from the work of Jürgen Habermas, is where civil society takes on the role of the ‘public sphere’, and becomes the space for discussion as well as for association and institutional collaboration, from which genuine ‘public opinion’ emerges.  Since democratic learning is enhanced in public spaces, urban agriculture initiatives create a social space for various community actors to come together and not only participate in city growing, but also develop civic virtues and analytical viewpoints, activating interest and participation in public life.


Participation in community groups, such as urban gardens or city farms, fosters social and political skills that are needed for active citizenship.

Food is intrinsically connected to democracy. It can represent a society’s values and also has the power to evoke great change.  It is clear that urban agriculture can have a great impact on the lives of urban residents. But it can also have an impact on their urban citizenship, by inciting active citizenship through participation, education and empowerment.

As previously described, city farming promotes social learning, not just about food and agriculture, but about citizenship in general. Studies have found that when urban residents learn about food, they also learn to make decisions about their food system. In this way, the old adage that “Knowledge is power” is true. Participation in community groups, such as urban gardens or city farms, fosters social and political skills that are needed for active citizenship. Through such involvement, urban residents become more familiar with local processes, thus becoming more engaged in other community issues. Learning that they have the ability to participate and generate change in their communities, leads to greater political efficacy and the desire to have a greater influence on local policies, thus cultivating a stronger urban citizenship.

“In Slovak, we have this saying, love goes through the stomach,” explained Madarova. “I think it is really true, for cities too.” And for her, Restaurant Day was just the start. “Something is starting here in Prague. This greater community is starting to develop… restaurant day was my way of contributing to the city, in a way that is greater than just my shop. But I met so many people and have so many ideas for the future… I am happy that I am here in this moment to be part of it. It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?”


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