Growing food in the city

Categorie(s): City life, Food for Mankind, Sustainable projects, thematic lessons

An example of people in a big city reducing their footprint, making the climate more comfortable and getting cheap and healthy food.
This is possible in many places. In Havana they have already much experience:

A project from Havana, Cuba
A coordinated urban agricultural programme


Growing food in cities is quite common. It is estimated that about 800 million people grow vegetables and raise small animals in cities throughout the world (Smit et. al 1996). Cuba is the leader when it comes to growing food in urban areas. It’s prominence in this field has come about recently, as a result of its innovated response to external political and economic events.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba lost access to cheap fossil fuels, direct food imports, as well as pesticide and fertilizers, which it so heavily depended upon for its agricultural production. Cuba was not able to import food to feed its population or to continue with an agricultural system which needed imported fertilisers and pesticides.
To solve the food problem they started developing urban agriculture. People were encouraged to learn how to grow food in infertile urban areas, using readily available and inexpensive materials. Over the course of time, growing food locally, using little or no inputs has become a general strategy.
In Cuba this was started and organised by the government with foreign help (from Australia), but this also can be done by local groups with little money

What is needed?

The most important requirement to grow food in urban areas is access to secure land tenure. (but even a sunny wall can be enough, see ‘GREEN WALLS’ below)
First the group planning to do this must look for places, which can be used to grow food. In addition to gardens, people can use balconies and roof tops, possible gardens that can be designed in schoolyards, unused public space, nearby hospitals, and medical centres.

In Cuba people grow fruit trees (e.g. citrus, mango, guava, fig, coffee, bananas, avocado, grapes, etc.), vegetables (e.g. various kinds of spinach, cucumber, tomatoes, lettuce, etc.), ornamental plants (e.g. orchids, cactus, palms, etc.), herbs (e.g. ginger, curcuma, oregano, rosemary, sage, basil, peppermint, etc.) and medicinal plants. They also raise small animals such as chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, and ducks that are fed household waste.

In Cuba there exists a central organisation promoting the permaculture, informing people, helping in the exchange of seeds, plants and information. They taught people about the optimal methods for growing a combination of edible and useful perennial plants, raising domestic animals and aquaculture. They introduced biological pest control and showed people how household waste could be treated and used as organic compost. They use frogs, insects, and small lizards as biological pest control. They raise guinea pigs, rabbits, pigs, and small birds. People are encouraged to collect rainwater; household water is reused after being treated with aquatic plants.

Growing food in gardens, balconies, street corners empty lots, and school gardens can be
• Fun and informative for city children who often know little of how food is produced
• A good way to get cheap and healthy food of poor families
• A way to make the city more pleasant to live in, green, some trees and flowers, and cleaner air
• A way of using home made compost: the garbage problem can be much smaller if the organic garbage is being composted and used in the gardens.

Any small open space can be used! Even if you have no space, you can grow vegetables in the city, a sunny wall is all you need!


(adapted from the project DEMOTECH*)
Growing vegetables, flowers or fodder for husbandry in urban and arid conditions can make good use of the space available along the outdoor walls of someone’s house. If in total 6 meters wall lengthwise would be used for 4 sets trays above each other, about 8 square meter would become available for this purpose.
Collected waste water (quantity guess is 5 persons x 40 liters each = 200 liters daily available) could be used for watering the plants.
Techniques could be applied as used in modern greenhouse agriculture, as done by the Israeli in the Negev dessert. The general setup has to make a small scale use of these greenhouse techniques possible.
The work regarding controlling humidity, heat, nutrients, plant diseases and damage by insects can be done by people who stay home most of the time.

Trays, that hang from a wall holds pots with plants or seedlings in plastic bags. The trays are made out of bits of wood and sheet metal, about 30 cm wide and one meter long. The trays hang from the wall, using space as available, next to and above each other. Such trays are covered with plastic and can hold a thin layer of water. Waste water from the house is pumped up from a tank to the tray that is positioned highest. From there it runs slowly from one tray to an other, placed a little lower. See ClothPump*) for details on the pumping system
To protect and control temperture and humidity the set of trays is covered by transparent plastic, hanging down in front of the trays. This plastic can be easily removed to give access to the plants.

*) on this site you can find a lot of easy to make and sustainable designs to solve practical problems in a cheap way. Like the cloth pump, a water pump made from simple everyday materials, easily made even by nontechnical people!

Using an empty lot… The way to make real green walls


  1. Why was the collapse of the Sovjet Union a catastrophe for the Cuban people?
  2. What is the main exported product of Cuba?
  3. What do you know of the relationship between Cuba and the USA?
  4. Untill 1990 Cuba received from the Sovjet Union mainly fossil fuels and pesticides. Perhaps it is environmentally a blessing that this stopped. Explain why.
  5. Cuban people grow the fruits and vegetables that fit in their climate. Which species would fit in your city if you would start growing food in your city?
  6. A city full of trees and gardens (even if they are small) is healthier to live in. How do trees and plant make the air cleaner?
  7. What is meant by ‘biological pest control’? Why is this more sustainable than chemical pest control?
  8. In the future more and more people will be living in bigger and bigger cities. This makes thje development of urban food gardening only more needed. Explain why this is a sustainable idea (give at least 3 arguments).

Many aspects not only about growing plants in the city, like composting etc: