Tariq Toffa

A community food garden in Orange Farm, Johannesburg: toward sustainable, socio-economic 'r-urban' systems

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager


With the projected world population increase of over two billion people by 2050 to be felt mainly in urban areas in developing countries, the future looks urban. This will increase pressure on the larger metropolitan centres to supply not only services such as housing, but also food security. For this reason, urban food gardening has begun to receive increasing attention from policy makers and government officials around the world.

Urban agricultural models can also allow numerous other advantages. Urban agriculture is already a source of income and employment for many households globally, including micro-enterprises (compost, packaging, processing, sales, etc.) and informal sector activities (street hawkers, organic waste collection, recycling, etc.). Agricultural initiatives can also be associated with rehabilitating the environment (and, in so doing, addressing the 'political ecology' of cities, where the poor are often unsafely located on low-lying flood plain areas); and it also has a role to play in fighting malnutrition resulting from poverty. When approached as an interconnected system, these different dimensions of urban agriculture (economic, ecological, social, etc.) — in a European context — have been termed 'r-urban' systems. 'R-urban' refers to a broad strategy of urban resilience involving the creation of locally closed ecological and production-consumption cycles, which link diverse urban activities (economy, habitat, mobility, urban agriculture, culture).

Although in South Africa over a quarter of the population experiences hunger and over a quarter more lives at the risk of being hungry, urban agriculture as a specific policy intervention is promoted only in a fragmented way. As a case in point, recently the City of Cape Town Council controversially released 300 hectares of farmland to developers, at the same time as construction of a pilot agricultural project site was completed in Johannesburg by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo in partnership with the Neighbourhood Development Partnership Grant, a national fund which aims to stimulate investment in underserved neighbourhoods. The latter, the 'Lakeside Community Food Gardens', attempts to develop a flexible urban agriculture model with a view to feeding local markets; and follows the City's new co-operative 'hub-and-spoke mode' of food production, which combines several small providers into a single supply chain.

The Food Gardens is built in Orange Farm, Johannesburg, in one of South Africa's largest informal settlements. Building upon an agricultural base that already exists, and part of a broader wetland rehabilitation project, the Food Gardens upgrades an existing community farming site and begins to encourage 'r-urban' networks. Designed by Newtown Landscape Architects, the Food Gardens consists of 31 raised vegetable plots (also allowing for fair distribution of produce amongst community members), with supporting irrigation and composting infrastructure. Aided by information signage, the facility also allows for skills dispersal.

Since land on the peri-urban fringe will increasingly come under pressure, identifying sites with agricultural potential for such projects is crucial. However, another, perhaps greater, challenge is for the City is to create farming opportunities for people who live in urban areas, but may still need some form of small-scale farming. The omission in either context (formal or informal), would be a serious one not only for food security and diverse income-earning activities, but also for its social function in assisting the most vulnerable members of communities, such as the aged, child-headed households, or the HIV-affected.

While the future may be urban, the urban may be forced to become more rural, transforming our notions of both.

Fig. 1: Local small-scale farming. Fig. 2: A rehabilitated park, with the Food Gardens behind. Fig. 3: On site (from left): the Ward Counsellor, a Community Food Garden leader, and the Site Foreman. Fig. 4: The Food Gardens. All photos by author.