Urban environments face multiple burdens and significant challenges related to food safety and sustainable agriculture. Urban agriculture remains fragmented and incipient in many cities worldwide. In their efforts to ensure sustainable urban food systems and provide public access to affordable and quality food, city governments must identify and pursue emerging opportunities. This study analyzed how São Paulo and Melbourne are working to overcome the related challenges.
Despite the progress made in recent decades on reducing global undernourishment, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) released in 2015 note that ending hunger, achieving food security and sustainable agriculture and improving nutrition are significant challenges facing a highly industrialized and urbanized world (United Nations 2015). In 2017, it was estimated that dietary risks factors caused 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). High intake of sodium and low intake of whole grains and fruits were the leading risk factors globally and in many countries (Afshin et al. 2019). In Brazil, low intake of whole grains was the leading dietary risk factor for deaths and DALYs (Afshin et al. 2019). A recent Urban Health report from the UN and the WHO estimates that by 2050 more than 6.3 billion people—or 65% of the world’s population—will live in cities, generating an unprecedented need for sustainable production of quality food (World Health Organization & UN Habitat 2016).
As urban populations grow, the burden of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition shift from rural to urban areas (Ruel et al. 2017). Urban environments therefore face multiple burdens, such as nutrition-derived growth stunting in low- and middle-income countries and increasing rates of overweight and obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean (World Health Organization & UN Habitat 2016). In their efforts to ensure sustainable urban food systems and provide public access to affordable and quality food, city governments must identify and pursue emerging opportunities (Ruel et al. 2017). This article considers the place of urban agriculture (UA) in that endeavor.
The food security, educational and health benefits of UA are internationally recognized as an opportunity for public policy innovation (World Health Organization & UN Habitat 2016). UA can help countries to reduce social, environmental and economic pressures through waste recycling, accessibility to safe and nutritious food, reduced transportation and associated emissions, employment and commercial uplift and improve climate change resilience (Orsini et al. 2013). For those involved in cultivation, UA can help to reduce spending on food purchases and generate income, improve dietary health and physical activity and promote gender-inclusive socialization (Orsini et al. 2013; Giacchè and Porto 2015; Ruel et al. 2017). While UA remains fragmented and incipient in many cities, its benefits are leading municipal governments worldwide to experiment with policies to support urban farmers. In this manuscript, we analyze how São Paulo and Melbourne are working to overcome the related challenges.
Why São Paulo and Melbourne?
Like Brazil, Chile and several other South American countries, Australia is highly urbanized and faces challenges in sustainably managing the growth of its cities. Some of the urban challenges faced across these regions bare similarities, but approaches to overcoming them vary considerably. Herein lie opportunities for comparative study of urban farming governance in Melbourne and São Paulo, including approaches to food systems resilience.
Australia and Brazil reflect a comparable history of food production: from indigenous subsistence farming to colonial agriculture and subsequent reliance on transnational agribusiness to service European and more recently Chinese demand (Alejandro 1985; Hearn 2012). The expansion of commodity crops in both countries has combined with rapid urbanization to encroach on peri-urban land, where fresh food has historically been grown for both nations’ cities. This process has stimulated greater awareness of industrial agriculture’s myriad consequences and an emerging rediscovery of urban agriculture and horticulture at the community scale, separate from traditional commercial market or subsistence gardens on the urban fringe (Carey et al. 2016; Rose and Hearn 2017; Williams and Rayner 2016). Much of the revival of community-driven urban agriculture is taking place on public land in inner cities areas. These areas face various pressures and challenges: intense competition for land; loss of subsidized council allotments and horticulture staff; decline in extension services to gardeners and growers; and contaminated air, water and soil (McSweeney et al. 2014) Below we outline recent projects in Melbourne and São Paulo and, on the basis of their achievements and setbacks, note some mutually relevant insights for strengthening their food systems.
Urban agriculture in Melbourne
Australia has one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world, with more than 75% of the population living in five cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. Melbourne is projected to overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city by 2028, with overseas migration and university student enrolments expected to underpin population growth from five million in 2019 to eight million in 2050 (Longbottom and Knight 2018; Urban 2018). The city is world-renowned for its living standards, ranking among the first in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of “most livable cities” (EIU 2018). It is located at the center of a highly productive agricultural area, with the surrounding peri-urban “foodbowl” producing around 47% of the vegetables grown in Victoria State (Carey et al. 2016).
It is estimated that over 15,000 tons of food is required each day to feed Melbourne (Sheridan et al. 2016), but the projected 2050 population will demand at least 60% more food from a diminishing area of arable land. Commercial market gardens within and around the city face constant pressure to retain their land as real estate developers identify new commercial opportunities. Among the consequences of high food demand and shrinking local supply is price inflation (Carey et al. 2016). Aiming to increase the resilience and sustainability of the city’s foodbowl while maintaining fresh food affordability, the Future Melbourne Plan has set a target for 30% of food consumed in the city to be grown within 50 km of the municipality by 2020 (City of Melbourne 2008). While pressures mount on the traditional market garden sector, community-based urban agriculture or community gardening has grown rapidly since 2005, especially in the inner and middle ring suburbs of the metropolitan Melbourne, leading to an estimated threefold increase in area cultivated to around 55 hectares on public land 2019 (Williams and Rayner 2016; City of Yarra 2019). This increase can be attributed to a combination of grass roots pressure on local government to provide more land but also to public health strategy development by municipalities seeking to make the links between food growing, physical activity and the fight against obesity and mental health epidemics (see for example Moreland City Council 2017). It should be noted that gardening in Australia ranks in the top five leisure activities undertaken by citizens within their households (Lawrence 1997). So while community food gardening on public land has increased, we also know that food gardening on private residential land has also expanded in this period through increased production in nurseries for vegetable seedlings and fruit trees (NGIA 2019). It is, however, difficult to quantify the amount of increased land under private production that this shift in gardening focus represents.
Community gardens in Melbourne demonstrate two modes of land use: individually managed garden beds and communal or shared spaces, where gardeners work jointly on the same garden bed. Many individuals and associations use urban agriculture as part of their work, including private practice, public service and academic research (Burton et al. 2013). Furthermore, some of the city’s urban agriculture initiatives have engaged migrants in gardening activities. The nonprofit organization Cultivating Community endeavors to “engage people in activities relating to plants and food that share skills and knowledge [and to] increase their sense of community and connectedness with those around them” (Cultivating Community 2009). In an attempt to help immigrants to settle into Melbourne and develop social connections, the project’s four community gardens—each containing between 12 and 126 plots—prioritize places for refugees. Another initiative, called “Dig In Community Garden” was established in 2002 in Port Melbourne with 58 allocated plots. The project was created after the construction of a major real estate development as an attempt to promote social cohesion in a high-density context. The gardeners are mostly middle class, female and in their 50s (Kingsley and Townsend 2006), demonstrating the range of urban agriculture initiatives currently flourishing in the city. In 2017, two hundred community gardens and city farms in the Victoria State were registered in the ACFCGN platform (Fig. 1) (ACFCGN 2018).
The University of Melbourne hosts two community gardens run by staff, students, ex-students and locals. The community gardens are located at the University’s Parkville Campus (MUC Garden) and at the Burnley Campus of the University, where horticulture has been taught since 1891. The main activities include the cultivation of vegetables herbs and fruit, composting, research into novel crops (including indigenous vegetables) and hosting educational events and workshops on fermenting, germinating, irrigation, among others (Williams 2016, 2018; Williams and Rayner 2016).
Another of Melbourne’s key educational platforms for UA is the “Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies” (CERES) (Fig. 2d), a not-for-profit community business based on social and sustainable programs. In 1982 the Greater Melbourne council of Moreland sought expressions of interest to rehabilitate a 4.5-ha waste landfill, which had been a bluestone quarry in the early 1900s and an Indigenous (Wurundjeri) hub for food gathering prior to European colonization (CERES 2019). An independent association of local organic food producers won the council-subsidized tender to establish CERES. Today, the Centre attracts 400,000 visitors each year and employs over 180 farmers, educators and service staff. At the core of its mission is public education about sustainable food production and practical methods for achieving it. Council grants and land allocation were critical for establishing CERES, but subsequent funding cuts have seen it become 95% self-funded through commercial operations. These include two markets that retail seedlings, plants and organic produce; a restaurant; an events facility for conferences and workshops; a teaching service for local schools; an educational travel division; and most significantly the Fair Food organic home delivery service. According to Fair Food’s director, Chris Ennis, by 2018 its turnover had more than tripled to AUD $6 million (UK $3.3 million), enabling it to reach over a thousand families and restaurants within and beyond the city each week (interview 17 September 2018). These outcomes align with Moreland’s 2017–2019 Food Systems Strategy, which commits AUD $320,000 (UK $185,000) to projects that promote fresh food growing, trading and educating (Moreland City Council 2017).
Metropolitan Melbourne is home to 30 municipalities or local government councils. As community interest in urban agriculture has grown, various local councils have responded by allocating resources to community gardens and developing strategies. For example, the City of Yarra (which incorporates the inner-city suburbs of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond) was the first council in Australia to employ a dedicated Urban Agriculture Facilitator in 2012 (Williams and Rayner 2016) and has recently produced its second Urban Agriculture Strategy (City of Yarra 2019).
Meanwhile, the City of Melbourne (the local government council at the heart of metropolitan area which incorporates the Central Business District) is also engaging with community interest in growing food. The Community Garden Policy sets out the City of Melbourne’s role in managing community gardens on land it owns. This includes the City’s aims for the gardens and the resources it will invest in them, as well as its principles for their operation and how it assesses proposals for new community gardens. The policy responds to two key goals articulated in the City of Melbourne Council Plan 2013–2017: to achieve “a city for people” and an “eco-city”. The policy’s scope is limited to community gardens that operate on land that the City of Melbourne owns, and does not include gardens on privately owned land (City of Melbourne 2013).
In addition to the Community Garden Policy, in 2015 the City Council published “A Guide to Community Gardening in the City of Melbourne”—a companion document of policies regulating urban community gardens that provides more details about planning, operating and management (City of Melbourne 2015). The document outlines requirements that must be addressed when developing a proposal for a community garden; the essential aspects of running a successful community garden, such as location, funding, health, safety and welfare, pests and soil contamination issues; and the criteria for formulating an Expression of Interest for a community garden on land that the City of Melbourne owns and/or manages. The document also addresses the issue of soil contamination in the city due to past industrial uses, noting the requirement that “potential community garden sites should be investigated prior to planting” (City of Melbourne 2015, p. 11). Further, the document cites certain types of inappropriate locations for community gardening purposes such heritage listed sites, roadside nature strips, public parks and gardens.
Urban agriculture in São Paulo
The city of São Paulo, which is the capital of the State of São Paulo, is the largest and most populous city of Brazil and one of the most inhabited cities in the world. It is the main Brazilian industrial center and has approximately 12 million inhabitants distributed in an area of 1521.11 km2 (IBGE—Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística 2017). The city of São Paulo has a broad contrast in the socioeconomic status within its regions, being the peripheral neighborhoods those with lower Municipal Human Development Index (MHDI), which considers longevity, income and education (UNDP 2014). The MHDI varies between 0.689 and 0.972 (Prefeitura de São Paulo 2017).
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in 2017, the city of São Paulo had about 550 agricultural establishments, with 441 men and 93 women working as farmers—being only 10 individuals younger than 30 years old. Only 26% of the establishments have regular public technical assistance, and 25% use pesticide for pest control. In 2017, the city of São Paulo produced 117,188 tons of banana, 11,256 tons of cassava, 70,695 tons of corn, 40,473 tons of pumpkin, 25,338 tons of beans, 16,590 tons of sugarcane, among other crops in smaller scale (IBGE—Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística 2017). Although the yearly mean food consumption per household in the South Region of Brazil is about 36.7 kg of cereals, 32.4 kg of vegetables, 11.5 kg of legumes and 2.7 kg of leaf, only about 5–11% is produced for self-consumption, mainly in rural areas. Moreover, it was observed that as the Brazilian’s income increases, the consumption of basic food such as grains and legumes tends to decrease, and the fruit and vegetable increase (Orsini et al. 2013).
Farming has always been conducted in the city of São Paulo, and commercial agriculture started in the early 1900s in the Southern region (Parelheiros), driven by Japanese and German immigrants (Giacchè and Porto 2015). Nowadays, this region stills very important for its agricultural production and has a large area of environmental protection of the Atlantic Forest, indigenous reserves and two important water reservoirs that substantially help to supply the metropolitan area, named Billings and Guarapiranga (Nakamura 2017). Although commercial urban agriculture in the city of São Paulo date back to earlier 1900s, only more recently public policies at Federal, State and Municipal levels began to be more effectively created to encourage urban, peri-urban and sustainable agriculture.
In 1980s, the Government of São Paulo State started to stimulate urban agriculture in unused areas of public companies, such as the electrical company ELETROPAULO, the oil and gas transportation TRANSPETRO and the water and waste management SABESP. Unfortunately, the program was later reduced due to political changes and disputes (Giacchè and Porto 2015). More than 20 years later, in 2004, the Brazilian Federal Government launched the “Program of urban and peri-urban agriculture” (Programa de de Agricultura Urbana e Periurbana). In the same period, the Municipal Government of São Paulo introduced the “Program of urban and peri-urban agriculture of the Municipality of São Paulo” (Programa de Agricultura Urbana e Periurbana no Município de São Paulo—PROAURP), through the Law n. 13.727/2004 to promote urban agriculture as a source of income and social inclusion, but changes in political strategies reduced the project to school gardens more focused on the educational role (Giacchè and Porto 2015). In 2006, the Ordinances 003/2006 and 004/2006 of the Brazilian Federal Government aimed to stimulate the development of community gardens in metropolitan areas, facilitate the transfer of federal resources to the municipalities and implement support centers to help the purchase of agricultural equipment and inputs (Giacchè and Porto 2015).
Public policies from the federal, state and municipal levels aimed to promote urban and sustainable agriculture in the city of São Paulo. The “Sustainable Guarapiranga Program” (Programa Guarapiranga Sustentável) was launched in 2009 to protect the Guarapiranga Reservoir from environmental degradation (Giacchè and Porto 2015). This watershed, located at the city of São Paulo Green Belt (Biosphere Reserve, UNESCO) in the southern region, has the Municipal Environmental Protection Area of Capivari-Monos and is one of the main water supplies for the metropolitan region. The program “Programa de Desenvolvimento Rural Sustentável - Agricultura Limpa” aimed to preserve and recover the watershed areas of the southern of the city of São Paulo.
In 2010, the Decree 51.801/2010 of the São Paulo City Hall started the “Casas de Agricultura Ecológica”, to provide technical assistance to the urban farmers, and in 2012, the Federal Government started the “National plan of agro-ecology and organic production” (Plano Nacional de Agroecologia e Produção Orgânica) to stimulate the development of urban agriculture and organic production. In 2013, the state of São Paulo started the “Program Organic São Paulo” (Programa São Paulo Orgânico) to stimulate the transition from chemical-dependent to organic farming (Giacchè and Porto 2015).
Although public policies provide the legal support, the effectiveness is still very challenging and hard to implement. In 2014, in its Strategic Master Plan the city of São Paulo transformed 23% of the rural areas in the periphery areas of city in rural areas, to attend the farmer’s demand and stimulate urban and peri-urban agriculture. In 2015, the municipal government signed the Law 16.212/2015, which include the community gardens in the regulation of the participative management of public spaces.
In 2015, the Municipal Law 16.140/2015 determined that the food offered in municipal schools should be organic or of agroecological basis and bought from family farming. To be enrolled in the program, farmers must be organic certified or in agroecological transition, preferably from the State of São Paulo. As price differences between organic and conventional products are common in Brazil, and to stimulate organic growing, prices paid by the municipality for organic products could be up to 30% higher than the ones bought from the conventional agriculture.
As one can see from the above exposed, legal support for UA exists in the city of São Paulo, but the implementation and continuity of the projects (that are dependent on the political orientation of the current public managers) are erratic. For instance, Ferreira interviewed twenty organic farmers in 2015 (Ferreira 2015). Ninety percent of them said that never received any kind of public support, be technical or financial of the local governments. Thirty-eight percent cited the federal laws related to credit facilities for family farms as example of governmental support. It is also important to notice that design and implementation of public policies focused on urban agriculture depend not only on governmental actors but also on social movements, non-governmental organizations, farmer’s cooperatives and associations (Giacchè and Porto 2015).
Census surveys of agricultural production units in the municipality of Sao Paulo showed a 20% reduction in total agricultural properties between 1995/1996 (313 properties, 3676.2 ha) and 2007/2008 (253 property, 2936.0 ha). However, this survey did not account for areas cultivated by tenants, squatters, sharecroppers and lenders. A new survey, considering the production unit regardless of the form of access to land, identified in the municipality 446 agricultural production units occupying a total area of 5000 ha (Valdiones 2013). This number is probably underestimated because it does not include community and educational vegetable gardens as an agricultural production unit.
In São Paulo, UA practice is heterogeneous and can be roughly understood as: (1) urban gardens with a socio-educative expression, occurring spread out throughout the city center, based on voluntary work and agroecological principles; or (2) as an occupation that generate income and food to supply local markets, mostly located in peripheral areas, in extreme south (e.g., Parelheiros and Marsilac), and some sites in the northern (e.g., Serra da Cantareira and Perus) and eastern regions of the city (e.g., São Mateus). UA in São Paulo also occurs on different scales and sites, such as power line areas (by a concession of use), school grounds, public health units, homes or public squares (Oliveira 2017).
Since 2012, inspired by urban agriculture movements worldwide, community gardens flourished in São Paulo, with peculiar characteristics. Most of them were settled in public spaces that were underused and with inadequate maintenance by public authorities. These gardens were occupied collectively, based on agroecological rules, without the division in allotments, as it occurs in Melbourne. Everyone interested can work and harvest, without rigid working hours, which limited their potential as food providers. In contrast to Melbourne, there is no municipal orientation, formal authorization or technical assistance to these places, which compromise greatly their existence. In most of these gardens there is limited or no access to water for irrigation or assessment of potential contamination of the soil. On the other hand, some of these gardens became poles of citizen activism, especially in themes related to environmental issues and qualification of public spaces. These gardens have an important environmental educative role in the city, being associated with themes such as food and animal biodiversity, and accessibility to healthy and agroecological grown food.
Because of the difficulties in having access to water, good quality soil and the irregularities in working forces, most of these gardens became beds to wild edible plants (WEP). In Brazil, WEP are known by the acronym PANC (Plantas Alimentícias Não Convencionais), while in Australia as Novel Crops. These plants have recently gained an enormous popularity in Brazil (Kinupp and Lorenzi 2014). PANC commonly refer to edible plants that are either ruderal, that were part of our traditional diet but were somehow forgotten or that are traditionally consumed by other populations but not locally (for instance, some edible Amazon plants are not used in the south of the country, like Acmella oleracea). Commonly, these novel crops are nutritious, plentiful and versatile and can be used in many receipts to replace and complement conventional foods.
In Brazilian community gardens, several unconventional vegetables are frequently found, such as Malabar spinach (Basella alba L.), pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), sorrel (Rumex acetosa L.), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina K. Koch), aromatic and flowering plants; roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.), Indian borage (Plectranthus amboinicus), Malvaviscus (malvaviscus arboreus Cav.), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus L.), fruits; and cambuci (campomanesia phaea), Cattley guava (Psidium cattleyanum) and cassabanana (Sicana odorifera). Some of these vegetables are shown in Fig. 3.
Independent civil movements, like MUDA and Hortelões Urbanos, gather people from different areas of expertise to exchange knowledge and stimulate organic agriculture in the city of São Paulo. Hortelões Urbanos was created in 2011 as an independent Facebook based network and nowadays brings together about 80,000 participants from different regions of the country, promoting a strong articulation between people interested in organic food production in urban areas, whether in public or residential spaces. Initiatives like these boosted the installation and management of community gardens in public spaces in different regions of the city of São Paulo (Giacchè and Porto 2015).
It is known that fruits and vegetable consumption is determined by the availability of these foods where people live, and it tends to be less available in the peripheral lower income regions of the city (Duran et al. 2013). In these areas, urban gardens are source of income to small farmers and have a potential role in increasing food security and resilience, by providing access to local production of fresh food. The project “Cidades Sem Fome” (Cities without hunger) was launched in 2004 to build community gardens in unused public and private plots of land and improve poor communities’ income. To date, it has started 25 community gardens and employed more than a hundred people. It also organizes the School Gardens Project that involves local schools and student’s parents to cultivate food and improves diet of several thousand children in 38 gardens in public schools and institutions.
Farmer’s associations and cooperatives also have an important contribution to the amount of food produced in the city of São Paulo. For instance, the “Associação de Produtores Orgânicos da Zona Leste (APO-ZL)” in the East region had more than 60 farmers registered in 2014. COOPERAPAS—Cooperativa Agroecológica dos Produtores Rurais e de Água Limpa da Região Sul de São Paulo, created in 2011, in the southern region of the city of São Paulo, has 35 registered farmers, mostly in transition to sustainable and organic agriculture. Part of its production is marketed in nonprofit stores and fairs throughout the city. In the Northern region of the city, the “Assentamento Irmã Alberta” consists in more than 40 camped families waiting for agrarian reform and producing quality food following the principles of collective and agroecological production.
Recent effort has been put in trying to foster the distribution of the food produced in the peripheral areas of the São Paulo, especially the agroecological production, to the market, in order to improve financial sustainability of farmers (Oliveira 2017).
Figure 4 shows the different initiatives related to urban agriculture in São Paulo.
In São Paulo and Melbourne, as worldwide, UA has the potential to increase the access to healthy and affordable food. While the city of Melbourne expects to grow locally 30% of food consumed by 2020, the city of São Paulo is still mapping its production potential and finding ways to increase local sustainable food production and distribution. UA can contribute to a more resilient local food supply due to the environmental pressures on food production. In addition, considering the severe social inequalities of São Paulo, it can represent an opportunity to build a socially inclusive urban food system.
In both cities, the access to land is an important limiting issue. Further, in São Paulo, despite many existent public policies aimed to support farmers, the implementation of these policies is still very challenging, along with a lack of technical support and resources provisions. Commonly, Brazilian smallholder family farmers are socially vulnerable and rather dependent on public support to boost their production.
Community gardens are popular in both cities. In Melbourne, the city council developed guidelines to orient citizens interested in developing an urban garden, with orientations to clarify issues such as funding, maintenance, composting, water-wise practices, soil contamination, among others. In contrast, the implementation of community gardens in São Paulo is still under regulated, with lack of rules and public support of any kind, limiting these initiatives to environmental and political activism.
As Melbourne and São Paulo deal with deepening food security pressures, it is becoming more important to explore novel crops and alternative sources of protein and nutrition. In São Paulo, these novel crops production are recently increasing and have an enormous potential to help supply nutrients demand under certain circumstances. Thus, urban agriculture has an important role to play, and comparing Melbourne and São Paulo helps to clarify which policy settings and educational initiatives can help to achieve this.
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This study was funded by the financial support of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)—SPRINT Project 15/50081-2, Project 2014/19201-9 and by Coordination and Improvement of Higher Level or Education Personnel (CAPES). LFAL is funded by São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). RJB is funded by the Brazilian Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES).
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Amato-Lourenço, L.F., Buralli, R.J., Ranieri, G.R. et al. Building knowledge in urban agriculture: the challenges of local food production in São Paulo and Melbourne. Environ Dev Sustain 23, 2785–2796 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-020-00636-x
- Urban food production
- Urban agriculture
- Resilient cities
- Urban community gardens