During the Covid-19 lockdown, people from a fortunate section were able to engage in nurturing their home gardens, producing supplies for home and neighbours. These gardens, which are part of the broader concept of ‘urban agriculture’ (UA), can provide uninterrupted supplies to city dwellers during crisis situations like the pandemic. UA refers to growing plants and rearing livestock, including aquaculture and apiculture, harvesting, processing and distributing food and non-food products from aromatic and medicinal herbs.

These could be at varying scales within urban or peri-urban areas. Growing population and increasing demand for food would require increased per unit food production in available land. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the food produced worldwide finds way into cities where farmlands are constantly shrinking.

There used to be public allotment of gardens in post-war Europe to address food crisis. Similarly, the 2008 financial crisis-led increase in food prices saw efforts of urban communities in growing food themselves, thereby reducing dependence on food imports. This holds an important lesson for localising nourishment of humans to prevent starvation and overcome nutritional deficiency.

What if people were encouraged to grow their food even if they did not own land? While all food supplies could not be sourced through small scale decentralised production, mechanisms for supplementing diets at household or community level could be explored. What if the fabled ‘green thumb’ is facilitated across income groups to access micro-nutrients?

Rooftop farming

A report by the World Economic Forum informs that Singapore is already producing almost 10 per cent of its food through rooftop farming while conventional farming is done only on 1 per cent of its land. There are cases of rooftop gardens in Montreal, New York and Paris, or urban landscapes growing fruit trees in Vancouver and Bangkok. Public spaces are landscaped to grow vegetables and fruits in raised beds, containers or vertical frames. These, besides generating income, also extend positive externalities to the neighbourhood through clean and green environment, nutrition and cultural connect.

In urban India, public spaces generally carry ornamental vegetation. There is opportunity to create edible landscapes and green infrastructure. Berries and fruits growing in the commons have traditionally been important source of nutrition for the poor.

Professionals such as urban planners and landscape architects need to effectively utilise public spaces and offer citizens an opportunity to enjoy nature’s bounty. This will generate income for local bodies and also attract urban agri-tourism. To begin with, public institutions and work spaces, especially those with residential services, could be encouraged to create green corners in their premises by growing vegetation that are regularly consumed by the residents.

The community of small producers exchange ecological knowledge and barter produce making such initiatives successful; to city-raised children such spaces provide avenues for eco-cultural learning. It used to be a practice in government schools in Tamil Nadu where a corner of the school would be used for growing green supplies for children’s mid-day meal.

Planning strategies like Garden city, Broadacre city, Greenbelt development and more have gained traction periodically to revive the idea of interspersing congested and polluted cities with green zones in order to make them liveable. However, with rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and capital investment on urban lands, green zones are being converted to developable areas in cities.

Agriculture, mostly associated with rural practice, hardly finds a place in urban planning guidelines. For instance, India’s Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulations and Implementation (URDPFI) guidelines mention agriculture while preparing city plans.

However, there is little offered for inclusion of agriculture in city plans, though, UA and vertical farming are mentioned as one of the climate mitigation and adaptation measures. Green India Mission is one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change aiming to increase the forest and tree cover, restore degraded lands and promote agro-forestry in cities.

Other corresponding missions on agriculture, sustainable habitat and water if worked in tandem with the goal of UA, have potential to enhance urban resilience. Although the pandemic has brought disruption and uncertainty, never before has there been such mass awareness about health, hygiene and building immunity through clean air and water or consuming fresh, organic food.

It is an appropriate time to introspect and transform the way we produce and consume. Apart from governments, citizens and professionals from the field of architecture, planning, agriculture, social sciences and private developers need to cross-learn and co-create productive green urbanism for a resilient future.

Aparna is Assistant Professor, Institute of Architecture and Planning, Nirma University, Ahmedabad, and Lalitha is Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad.