Urban agriculture: a ‘transformative movement’ of globalised food systems


By: Elena van Doorn

Urban agriculture is on the rise. In a globalised world in which distance between the growing of food and consuming food is ever increasing, urban agriculture has the opportunity of reconnecting people to local food systems. In this essay, I will discuss urban agriculture’s ability to also increase food security in cities ánd as a way of reclaiming colonial and capitalist food systems. This essay uses case studies of East Oakland in the United States, describing a ‘food desert’ and Toronto in Canada, where a grassroots food justice movement was integrated in city planning and policy.


From a historical point of view, urban farming has in – its essence – been growing food for times of scarcity. Throughout time people have grown food in their backyards to supplement their meals in times of money shortage. During the depressions of 1890s and 1930s vegetable gardens served as complementary food during times of unemployment (McClintock, 2008). During both World Wars urban agriculture was utilised as a way to relieve food shortages. In this paper I will draw on researchers of the food justice movement, to explain how urban agriculture can be viewed not just as growing food, but also as a ‘transformative movement’ for unjust food systems.

Recently, the role of community gardens was recognised and is emphasised by public health scholars as, not only promoting nutrition, but also having a positive effect on children, prisoners and at-risk youth. McClintock, of the University of California (Berkeley) describes three aspects of urban agriculture’s role, other than nutrition, being: a recreational pastime, as building community and to increase urban green space.

The current food system that was built through colonialism and capitalism created a food system where mostly black and coloured people in cities have less access to nutritious food (McClintock, 2008). The movement to address these injustices is called the Progressive trend by researchers Holt Giménez and Shattuck (2011) in which “food justice” groups – being community food security and environmental justice NGOs – acknowledge the underprivileged role of certain groups of people (people of colour) not being served as communities, enduring “racism and classism within capitalist food systems”. They view community as one of the answers to the failed food regime directed to individuals.

Food deserts and the food justice movement

The destructive role of capitalism within the food system is viewed in a case study of East Oakland in the United States. McClintock describes how “‘capital’s dynamic flows’ built a city structure “leaving an almost entirely treeless and worn landscape of used car dealerships, taco trucks, liquor stores, dilapidated storefronts, and the occasional chain linked vacant lot”. These liquor stores are in some cases people’s only access to food, leaving them with highly processed and non-fresh foods. When looking at East Oakland, McClintock describes the influence of capital cycles “a palimpsest of building, decay and renewal”, leaving so-called food deserts. The rise of this evolution of the food regime in urban areas is linked back to the earliest food regime, around 1870 – 1930s when colonialism made it possible to ship raw food materials from the Global South to the Global North. The surplus of the North was then shipped back to the South, pushing out peasant farmers of the food system (Giménez and Shattuck, 2011).

The food justice movement originated from environmental and social justice movements, both acting as a resistance to globalisation and instead having a ‘bottom-up’ approach (Wekerle, 2004). Researcher Wekerle gives the example of the slum dwellers in Mumbai, setting up their own food networks and developing urban informal sectors. To mobilise food justice, Wekerle argues, there need to be three aspects, being the existence of a civil society network, these networks engaging with policy making and planning processes and actual attempts to create networked food justice movement. But perhaps Wekerle skips a step. Before the existence of a civil society network, perhaps there needs to be food injustice. McClintock identifies this “racialization of poverty […] central to the story of UA [Urban Agriculture] and the food justice movement […]” and “the development of such inequities between the flatlands and hills that has given birth to a number of social movements, including the food justice movement.”

As discussed before, urban agriculture, has merely been a way to bring more food into the household, but other positive effects have been acknowledged. With the commodification of food, a distance is created between people’s food and their plates. Instead of cooking raw products into a meal, people often buy quick highly processed foods. Food is quickly being eaten in a car, instead of around the dinner table, as a social event for all members involved. It resulted in a change in food culture. Re-embedding the urban agriculture into the agri-food system has the opportunity to recreate social cohesion and can provide a way to “preserve agri-food knowledge” and food culture. In East Oakland this meant that these urban agriculture food programs laid the groundwork for a curriculum in East Oakland that includes urban gardening and cooking classes, to educate children about food culture and nutrition. McClintock also acknowledges the opportunity of urban agriculture in areas with immigrant communities, as a way to “strengthen cultural ties”.

Urban agriculture: maintaining the status quo?

Even though urban agriculture might have a lot of upsides, critics recognise that urban agriculture is not to be seen as a panacea. One of the critiques is urban agriculture’s inability to produce sufficient amounts of food. Therefore, it would surpass the main problem: hunger and malnutrition. Another argument is that city farming sometimes is sold as a “panacea to cure all social-environmental ills” (McClintock, 2008), criticising that urban agriculture is a romanticised idea of being a solution to the corporate food system, when what is actually needed is a transformation of the food system as a whole. While urban agriculture is a bottom-up initiative with many benefits, it maintains the status quo; a capitalist food system. This vision is enforced by researchers Alkon and Norgaard (2011) who doubt that city agriculture has the ability to enable social change within the food system. The food justice movement advocates changes coming through practices and ‘special techniques’ that do not generate disruption of the status quo, they argue. Another critique would be that it forces external values onto a community. Otherwise explained as a colonial relationship of the white community members telling communities of colour how to live.

Wekerle actually contradicts Alkon and Norgaard’s argument by acknowledging the role of urban agriculture as having a strong influence on the existing food system. This earlier discussed bottom-up approach would have positive effects, such as citizen initiated policy making, while also creating new forms of governance and acknowledging cases of citizen planning and grassroots democracy. Wekerle actually recognises an opportunity for policy makers to incorporate food justice movement in city planning and policy making. Urban agriculture should therefore be recognised by politicians as a movement that is active in important transnational networks, that create citizen participation in society. The reason for that, Wekerle mentions, is that these movements are often seen as ‘anti-movements’ going against the status quo. However, when looking at the Toronto Case Study, an example is given where a grassroots food policy council is actually part of the city department rather than an advisory body, advising on sustainability of the food system, which should be an example for the rest of the world.

However, even with the ‘Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC)’ being part of the city department, Wekerle describes how their recommendations –  being: urban agriculture development strategies, zone for and recognise food production as an urban land use, piloting of urban agriculture on ‘brownfields’, developing a ‘food eco-industrial park, connecting urban agriculture to the city’s Energy Efficiency office and expanding community gardening programs – ended up not being included in the city plan. It seems that in this case Alkon and Norgaard would have been right; even with this food justice movement being a part of the city department, it still does not have the tools to generate change. A second paper however was more successful when it was published in the Ontario Planning Journal, a journal seen by every planner in Toronto.

After this, twenty-one changes were made in the city plan, with inclusion of terms such as nutritious food, a Food and Hunger Action Plan and the Toronto Food Charter, allowing everyone the “fundamental right to be free from hunger” (May, 2000). This exemplifies how food justice movements (and urban agriculture) is actually able become a transformative movement, when there is access to the right resources and networks, such as universities, agents within the community and the city department to utilise different strategies to generate transformation. Wekerle thus emphasizes the importance of the local state to allow this transformation in governance and to welcome new policy initiatives originated in civil society.

The role of State in food justice

Karl Polanyi wrote in 1944 when market economy was rising, how markets needed to be regulated to be “socially or environmentally sustainable”. Polanyi by that time, acknowledged capitalist markets – if undisturbed – would “destroy society and its natural resources”. He recognised the need for a market that balances state intervention and ‘self-regulating’, also known as the ‘double movement’. This is an interesting thought to be applied to the global food system. Therefore, the importance of the role of food justice movements should be acknowledged by the state to enable a more sustainable and socially just food system.


In this paper I have discussed how food justice movements arose when Capital came to define the urban environment. Through this we have seen how a need for urban agriculture grew and the ability of it to reconnect its people to their food, to generate social cohesion within communities and to promote urban green space.

We have also acknowledged urban agriculture’s weaknesses, being the inability to provide enough food, the exploitation of urban agriculture as a quintessential answer to socio-environmental problems and the colonial infliction of external values on coloured and black communities. These weaknesses need to be recognised by food justice movements when striving for their aims.

While we have seen that urban agriculture throughout time has been utilised as a way to supplement food supplies, we also recognise it to have transformative qualities. First of all, in the case of East Oakland where urban gardening and cooking classes are used to educate children about food culture and nutrition (People’s Grocery), Mien Formers Collective that has been set up to grow traditional Southeast Asian vegetables and the OBUGS, where elders and teenagers come together in a garden. Second of all, there is the example of Toronto, where the food justice movement is part of the city department, where it has had major influence on city planning; setting up the Toronto Food Charter that promises access to healthy foods and promoting sustainable waste management (composting and reducing food packaging), but also, including urban agriculture in their city plan.

Shown in this last case is how a relative lack of understanding by city planners has a big influence on community food security. As the global food system is such an intricate web of actors, it becomes harder for all stakeholders involved to know how certain policies will actually materialise. As Clapp (2014) shows in her paper on financialisation of the food system, we are increasingly distanced from the global food markets. As the actual and abstract distance between production and consumption becomes more vague, it becomes harder for consumers to see its social and environmental impacts. Here a role can be recognised for both food security movements and governance to collaborate in informing the public, but also to inform themselves.

What do you think of this discussion on urban agriculture and do you believe it has the ability to reclaim global food systems? Please leave a comment below!

Written as part of the course ‘Urban Food Security’ at the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, at the University of Cape Town (course convenor: Jane Battersby-Lennard). Submitted in October 2017. 


Alkon, A.H., Norgaard, K.M. 2009. Breaking the Food Chains: An Investigation of Food  Justice Activism. Sociological Inquiry. 79:3. 289–305. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00291.x

Buttel, F. 1997. Some observations on agro-food change and the future of agricultural sustainability movements. In Globalising food: Agrarian questions and global restructuring, edited by D. Goodman and M. Watts, 344-65. London: Routledge

Clapp, J. 2014. Financialization, distance and global food politics. The Journal of Peasant Studies. 41:5. 797–814. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2013.875536.

Holt Giménez, E., Shattuck, A. 2011. ‘Food crises, food regimes and food movements: rumblings of reform or tides of transformation?’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:1, 109-144. DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2010.538578

McClintock, N. 2008. From Industrial Garden to Food Desert: Unearthing the Root Structure of Urban Agriculture in Oakland, California. UC Berkeley: Institute for the Study of Social Change. Online Available at [http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1wh3v1sj]

McClintock, N., Horst, M., Hoey, L. 2017. The Intersection of Planning, Urban Agriculture, and Food Justice: A Review of the Literature, Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:3, 277-295, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2017.1322914.

Polanyi, Karl. 1944 [2001]. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Wekerle, G.R., 2004. Food Justice Movements: Policy, Planning, And Networks. 23:4, 378-386 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X04264886

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