Urban agriculture for the sustainable future of Asian cities

Authors and Affiliations: 


Department of Urban Engineering

The University of Tokyo


  1. Natural disasters and food security

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami which hit Northern part of Japan on March 11th, 2011, reminded us that Japan is sitting on an archipelago prone to serious natural disasters.  In fact, looking back the history, Japan has been experiencing a number of major earthquakes including the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, which hit Tokyo and Yokohama, resulted in nearly 60000 victims, and the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995, which destroyed Kobe and brought 6400 victims. However, Japan is not an exception but many Asian countries are sharing similar geological conditions.  The magnitude 9.1 earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia, 2004, took 220,000 lives, and the magnitude 8.0 earthquake in Szechwan, China, 2008, brought nearly 70,000 victims.  Countries as Taiwan, Philippines, India, and Pakistan have already been experiencing major earthquakes with victims in 2013.  Not only earthquakes and tsunamis but disasters caused by tropical cyclones and floods should be added to the list of natural disasters most of Asian countries share. 

Modern urban planning concepts, initiated in Europe in the late 19th century, are based on the idea to clearly separate urban areas from surrounding rural lands, and then divide the urban land into homogeneous land units each specializing in a certain function.  Rural land uses including farmland are therefore excluded from the city.  Food consumed by urban residents are supposed to be produced in rural areas and provided to the city, not produced in the city.

The planning concept to juxtapose homogeneous land units, aiming to maximize the efficiency of each land unit, is backed up with the idea that inter-unit functional relationships are always secured.  Lives of urban residents thoroughly depend on the food supply from surrounding rural areas, which will never be deteriorated.  Such stable condition may be expected in Europe where almost no serious natural disasters are perceived.  A map of seismic hazards in the world, illustrated by the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program by the United Nations, clearly indicates that most of European and North American countries are almost free from major seismic damages (http://www.seismo.ethz.ch/static/GSHAP/).

However, the map also clearly indicates the contrary condition of Asia with extremely high seismic hazard risks.  Under such a condition inter-unit functional relationships may suddenly be deteriorated when unexpected serious natural disasters occur.  To secure urban residents’ lives we have to be prepared for unexpected and sudden termination of food provision from rural areas to the city. The Japanese Government had been announcing that, by having vast transportation networks which cover the entire nation, food supply will somehow be restored within a couple of days even when a serious natural disaster occurs, and asking each household to stock food for at least three days.  However, by carefully examining the risk of serious earthquakes and tsunamis which may hit cities and regions along the Pacific Coast including Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe, the Government is now strongly suggesting each household to stock their food at least for a week.

Stocking packed and canned food is indeed necessary to survive in an emergency event, but in a long term we have to fundamentally reconsider the planning concept of our cities for securing food provision.  The key should be agriculture.  If you have places to produce food in the city, then you don’t have to fully rely on distribution systems which aim to provide food from external areas.  Do we really have to exclude agriculture from the city?  Is mixture of urban and rural land uses really a problem?


2. An older garden-city: urban agriculture in Edo

When we take a look at the medieval European city, which modern urban planning concepts took as a model, focusing on the area just beyond the walls surrounding the city, we can identify land-use systems that might give a new direction to future urban planning. Looking at these walled cities, we are first struck by the clear separation of the urban and rural. However, if we look more closely at the areas just outside the castle walls, we see that these lands were dedicated to gardens (Home, 1997). At present, ‘garden’ is used most commonly to refer to park-like spaces intentionally designed and planted with flowers and other ornamental plants. However, ‘garden’ also signifies spaces of small-scale agricultural cultivation where vegetables and other fresh produce are cultivated. The gardens outside the medieval city were undoubtedly of the latter type. While these gardens may have been clearly separated from the citadel by the castle wall, they were interlinked with daily urban life as suppliers of fresh produce. At the same time, this belt of gardens was also distinct from the more expansive arable and pasture land beyond. In other words, this area constituted a distinct agricultural zone: a garden zone.

The concept of the ‘Garden City’, as originally proposed by Ebenezer Howard, also makes this distinction between a garden zone and more expansive agricultural regions beyond. In his radical solution to relieve the overcrowding of industrial British towns, Howard conceived of the garden city as a marriage between town and country. However, the garden cities that were eventually designed and built largely failed to realize the integration of urban and rural, although they did achieve other aspects of Howard's original vision (Hall and Ward 1999). Revisiting Howard’s notion of integrating urban and agricultural areas through the establishment of hybrid garden zones can help us frame a different set of planning tools and objectives. The original garden city diagram sketched out by Howard placed an urban area at the very centre. This urban area was ringed by a garden zone and a further rural area beyond. This blueprint followed in part from Howard’s understanding of the structure of a European medieval city (Home, 1997). While Howard’s familiarity with the medieval European city led him to delineate between the urban and the rural, we can find other historical examples of garden cities were the distinction between the urban and the agricultural were not so firmly demarcated.

In Japan, the firm separation between urban and agricultural areas was not a historical feature of urban landscapes. The integration of the urban and agricultural can be seen in the earliest examples of Japanese urban development, the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto. These cities were built upon a rational system of town planning based on grid patterns imported in China. However, within this rigid grid pattern, many individual plots were occupied by farmland. More recently, during the 16th to 19th centuries, the city of Edo (the pre-1868 name for Tokyo) was also well-known for containing farmland plots within the city's limits (Yokohari et al 2000).

A recent analysis of land-use within the city of Edo (Fujii et al. 2002) details the extent of urban agriculture in the city during the mid-nineteenth century. Historical records indicate that 40% of the land inside the city confines was farmland. In addition, since it was common for the feudal lords, who were forced to commute regularly between Edo and their distant estates, to own a villa in the city and rent the surrounding farmland to tenant farmers, it is possible to estimate that around 50% of the land in Edo was farmland (Fujii et al. 2002). The gardens of Edo were not spaces of leisurely recreation, but spaces of agricultural production which supplied the residents of Edo with fresh produce. Present-day names of a number of varieties of vegetables such as ‘Nerima-daikon’ (a variety of radish), ‘Komatsu-na’ (a variety of rape) and ‘Yanaka-shouga’ (a variety of ginger) continue to bear testimony to the districts in the city of Edo where they were primarily grown. The names of these local vegetable varieties attest to the fact that agricultural production in the city was not sub-par or marginal, but instead well respected and even accorded its own brand images.

Like the European medieval city, the fresh produce of Edo was also supplied by gardens. However, there are notable differences between the city of Edo and its European counterparts. Whereas the medieval European city relegated gardens to the spaces beyond the walls, Edo had a large number of gardens within its confines, leading to a distinctive land use pattern of mixed farmland and urban areas. Since the transportation of goods was difficult at the time, perishable crops were the main products of these garden areas. However, the flow of perishable goods to the urban areas was not a one way flow. As agricultural products went out from the gardens, night soil from the surrounding urban areas flowed back in and was used as fertilizer to boost production. Thus, from the standpoint of both non-farmers and farmers, we can see that the mixing of farmland and urban areas was a highly efficient and logical arrangement which served the resource needs of both groups.

During the mid-19th century, Edo was the world's largest city with a population of 1.2 million. During the same period, European cities such as Paris and London were experiencing serious planning problems as a result of poor hygiene and the subsequent spread of diseases. Yet despite having a population density 5 to 6 times higher than present day Tokyo, Edo was a rather hygienic city. The cleanliness of Edo was a direct result of the mixture of farmland and urban areas, and the recycling of material that occurred between them. Small-scale recycling developed as an effective response to the challenges of hygiene and this was aided by the mixing of urban areas and farmland.

In modern times, the mechanization of farming, improvements in transportation and the use of chemical fertilizers has rendered the integration of the urban and agricultural largely obsolete. In the modern Japanese city, gardens are regarded as land for future development. Furthermore, the European conception of urban planning, with its rigorous separation of rural and urban areas, has been fully embraced by Japanese planners. The 1968 City Planning and Zoning Act for example, attempted to impose a rigorous separation of the urban and agricultural. It zoned an Urban Promotion Area (UPA) where development was generally approved and an Urban Control Area (UCA) where farmland was supposed to be preserved. Although an initial draft of the law had called for a middle or third zone of gardens, the law that eventually passed left cities with a clearly demarcated border between two opposing areas: the urban and the agricultural.


3. The development of multi-functional green spaces in Japanese cities

Although more than 40 years have passed since the enactment of the 1968 City Planning and Zoning Act, it is difficult to identify areas where the act has had its intended effect on the form of the urban area (Sorensen 2001). Patches of farmland can still be found throughout all Japanese UPAs, while, on the other side of the intended border, UCAs have become increasingly built-up with public infrastructure and development projects exempted from control. In the future, planners will be confronted by three challenges as a result of this pattern. The first is the emergence of abandoned and fragmented land in existing residential areas. In response, planners will need to work within this pattern to find innovative ways of taking advantage of the newly emerging open space in UPAs. The second issue of concern will be the continuation of urban sprawl of the kind that Sorensen (2001) reports. Due to the many exemptions of development projects, sprawl will continue in the UCAs and planners will need to continue to seek ways of controlling urbanization, since farmland in these areas not only provide food but performs a variety of ecological functions, including flood prevention and reduction of the heat island effect. Finally, a ballooning population of retired individuals in the suburbs will greatly increase the number of residents with spare time to participate in voluntary activities or alternative lifestyles, particularly agriculture. The challenge for planners will be to work within current land-use patterns to develop spaces where the community service and agriculturally-oriented activities of new retirees can be channeled to support community building and the development of sustainable local communities (Yokohari, et al, 2010).


4. Urban agriculture for the sustainable future of Asian cities

Capitalism which ruled the world throughout the 20th century has also been ruling cities by setting economic efficiency as an exclusive target.  Cities were planned, created, consumed and wasted just as an industrial commodity not by respecting vernacular characteristics of the place but by following the universal standards, mostly initiated in Europe and North America, which regarded agriculture in the city as a symbol of primitive and inefficient realms.  Cities in the world, including those in Asia, have therefore been fanatically excluding farmlands and replacing them with urban land uses as residential, commercial, industrial and recreational lands.  However, no matter how enthusiastic we are to fill up our cities with shining skyscrapers and high-tech gizmos, cities in the world can never be away from the vernacular nature where it is developed.  The skyline of New York City clearly reflects the character of the underlying granite bedrock which the city is created on (Spirn, 1985).

We are now living in the 21st century, when the concept of sustainability is starting to rule our society.  Economic efficiency is still there, and will be there in the future as well, but may longer be the exclusive target as it used to be in the former century.  Carefully reading vernacular characteristics of the place and reflecting the knowledge acquired is one of the keys to achieve sustainable society.  Cities in the 21st century should therefore be planned not by superimposing exotic concepts but by following an endemic concept which has been developed by examining their history and nature.

Asian cities should be planned by developing and following a new endemic planning concept which reflects their common characteristics; serious natural disasters.  Not only economic efficiency but earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and floods should be taken as key factors to design their sustainable future.  When examining the history of Asian cities it is obviously identified that agriculture has been one of indispensable elements of the city.  Not excluding but integrating agriculture should be regarded as an Asian way of planning cities which may mitigate the impacts and thus result in quick recovery from natural disasters.  Urban agriculture is the key for the sustainable future of Asian cities.

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