By Chenae Neilson, University of Melbourne, and Lauren Rickards, RMIT University
It is hard not to notice the rising interest and flourishing activity in cities around the world for growing food in innovative ways. Rooftop gardens, guerrilla gardens, urban apiaries, city farms, allotments, micro-livestock keeping, community and institutional gardens, as well as other evolving ways to interact with primary food production, are fast becoming a celebrated part of the contemporary city-scape.
‘Urban agriculture’ is a key term used when we talk about food production pursuits in cities and urban landscapes, wrapping together a range of models and practices – which are shaped by diverse motivations, for example improving local food security, greening cities and adapting to climate change, engaging the community and connecting to nature, to name a few.
While urban agriculture has certainly become a popular activity, it also seems surprisingly disconnected in many ways from wider agriculture established in surrounding rural hinterlands. And unlike many food production activities in the rural context, the value of urban agriculture can remain hard to pin down and articulate in the context of competing “normal” city land uses and activities, particularly in cities of the global north.
Is urban agriculture primarily about the production of food, like much of its rural counterpart? Or is it about something else, such as offering positive practices for urban communities or making a strategic claim on city space? Much research to date indicates that the answer to date largely depends on the context of where the activity is occurring and who is taking part (Prove et al 2016). Research on urban agriculture is proliferating in geography and beyond, with many authors highlighting the multiplicity of benefits, limitations and opportunities urban agriculture generates (McClintock 2013, Mok 2013, Tornaghi 2014, Classen 2015, Weissman 2016) and the way it slips across multiple high level agendas (e.g. environment, social justice and health).
Looking at this literature and wider discourses about the topic circulating in media, policy and practitioners, we noted that, beyond agreement that urban agriculture means different things to different people, there is underlying ambiguity about how urban agriculture compares to “the rest of agriculture” and “the rest of the city”. Dealing with these questions seems to strongly shape how urban agriculture is understood in any particular context.
Our recent paper in The Geographical Journal explores this by closely examining five discourses about urban agriculture that we found at work in Melbourne, Australia, where a range of urban agriculture initiatives exist and more are underway. Through empirical analysis of these discourses about urban agriculture, the ambiguities of its relational position within both the city and the agricultural sector became apparent.
We believe that, as policy makers and practitioners vie to generate the diverse benefits and transformational opportunities urban agriculture potentially offers, recognising the common agricultural and urban context of all such initiatives may help clarify the stakes of the challenge.
These stakes include the uncertain position urban agriculture continues to occupy within both contexts. Many urban agriculture initiatives are conducted under the shadow of lingering questions about whether they will ever be regarded as more than liminal, temporary, decorative and optional activities and land uses. If urban agriculture is to step out of the margins and make a substantial and lasting difference, it will be need to appraise and manage its relationship with rural agriculture and the rest of the city.
About the authors: Chenae Neilson is a research assistant at RMIT University and a Geospatial Analyst at The Australian Bureau of Statistics. Lauren Rickards is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University.
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