Urban gardening is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for as long as humans have lived in cities! Through time, the significance of urban farming has taken on different levels of meaning. Serving as tools for social reform, as subsistence in times of food insecurity, and even as a simple pastime in times of prosperity. Let’s take a short walk through the history of urban farming to understand the ever-evolving link between city-dwellers and their gardens.
URBAN AGRICULTURE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
3500 BCE Mesopotamia
Some of the first evidence of urban agriculture comes from Mesopotamia. Indeed, farmers set aside small plots of land for farming within the city’s walls. Although we never found the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world), there is is a lot of historical evidence that elaborate gardens and irrigation systems were integrated into several ancient Mesopotamian citadels.
2500 BCE Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, fruit and nut trees were a major part of urban farming efforts. Egyptians used them not only to provide shade but also to provide extra subsistence and greenery within growing cities. They also integrated them into holy spaces and tombs.
1100 CE Aztec Farming
Aztecs built a complex garden plot and canal system, tied to their irrigation waterways, called chinampas. The chinampas started as small-scale “floating gardens” maintained by farmers. But eventually they were implemented on a large scale and within urban areas to sustain the growth of the expanding Aztec empire.
URBAN AGRICULTURE IN THE MODERN WORLD
1800 – 1900s London
After a long period of industrialization, London became not only a global hub, but a hotbed of slums, poverty, and inequality. As a result, allotments and public parks were introduced in the 1920s to maintain adequate amounts of land within the city for residents to use, usually for a small fee.
Germany started organized allotment gardening with the “Schreber Movement” in Leipzig. The goal was to save green spaces within the city for children to play in nature. This movement eventually became more oriented around growing edible gardens in urbanized areas. The importance of allotment gardens or “Kleingärten” grew during the World Wars I and II, out of necessity.
1910s – 1940s Victory Gardens in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany & More
During World War I and World War II, most supplies and food were prioritized for the war effort, leaving many at home to deal with scarcity. In order to boost food supplies, many countries promoted “Victory Gardens” or “war gardens”, or gardens cultivated by citizens on private and public land. Besides alleviating the strain on the public food supply, it was also a way to boost morale and patriotism. In the US, Victory gardens were responsible for about 41% of all consumed vegetable produce in the year 1943.
2010s – Japan’s Citizen Farms
Today, Japan is at the forefront of innovation in urban gardening and farming. Within the urban sprawl, it’s not uncommon to find rooftop paddy fields and bee farms, vegetable gardens under the Tokyo metro. You can even find farms with animals taking up the entire floor of a skyscraper. Overall, urban farming in Japan has grown by 36% in the last 10 years.
Additional information about the history of urban farming: