Re-conceptualizing urban agriculture: an exploration of farming along the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, India


The proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is increasing rapidly, with the vast majority of this growth in developing countries. As growing populations in urban areas demand greater food supplies, coupled with a rise in rural to urban migration and the need to create livelihood options, there has been an increase in urban agriculture worldwide. Urban agriculture is commonly discussed as a sustainable solution for dealing with gaps in the local food system, and proponents often highlight the many social, environmental, and economic benefits. We argue that the sustainability of urban agriculture should not be assumed. There is a need for research to take a bottom-up approach, exploring the influence that city-level conditions have on livelihood decisions by farmers and how this shapes the practice of urban agriculture. This paper uses a case study for an in-depth look at urban agriculture in Delhi, India to understand from the farmers’ perspective how urban agriculture is practiced and what factors influence farmers’ livelihood decisions. Using a team-based, multi-method Rapid Assessment Process, data were collected through preliminary key informant interviews, field observations, semi-structured interviews with urban farmers, and geographic information systems mapping. This research provides an in-depth description of market-oriented urban agriculture in a developing country, explores how farmers’ livelihood decisions are embedded in the urban context, and discusses the potential of urban agriculture as a sustainable city-system.

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  1. 1.

    As a reference, a pristine river has a BOD of approximately 1 mg/l, and a moderately polluted river would range from 2 to 8 mg/l (Sawyer et al. 2003).

  2. 2.

    There is limited documentation on the Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Cooperative Society. The background provided in this paper is based on reviews of court rulings over land disputes between the DDA and various Yamuna tenants.

  3. 3.

    One bigha is approximately 1/6 acre and is the commonly used unit of land measurement.

  4. 4.

    Estimates are based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2014) and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (Vanitha et al. 2013). We acknowledge the limitations in the data used for this estimate, which is based on small samples and data aggregated across a range of ecological zones. The production range is drawn from the two states (Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) on either side of the New Delhi Capital District for the year we were in the field (2011).



Biochemical oxygen demand


Delhi Development Authority


Geographic information system


Rapid assessment process


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This research was supported by grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Jessica Cook.

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Cook, J., Oviatt, K., Main, D.S. et al. Re-conceptualizing urban agriculture: an exploration of farming along the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. Agric Hum Values 32, 265–279 (2015).

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  • Urban agriculture
  • Developing countries
  • Local food system
  • Rapid Assessment Process (RAP)