The Integration of Edible Landscaping into City Planning

The Integration of Edible Landscaping into City Planning

Résumé en français

Dans le climat global d'aujourd'hui, l'embellissement n'est tout simplement pas suffisant, en fait, il peut même parfois être inapproprié étant donné le contexte dans lequel nous nous trouvons aujourd'hui. Nous sommes actuellement confrontés au dilemme existentiel de la croissance urbaine rapide, de l'augmentation des coûts de l'alimentation et de l'énergie qui y est associée, tout en gardant à l'esprit qu'il est nécessaire de faire face à des défis de taille sachant au fond de nous que les combustibles fossiles ne peuvent pas durer et ne dureront pas éternellement. D'un côté, nous avons une crise sanitaire mondiale croissante avec des épidémies telles que l'obésité, le diabète, le cancer, l'anxiété, la dépression et les maladies cardiaques, tandis que d'autre part, la sécurité alimentaire, la criminalité et la pauvreté sont des préoccupations majeures en Afrique du Sud et dans d'autres d'autres pays en développement.

Entant que professionnels de l'environnement, il nous incombe d'aller plus loin, au-delà de l'esthétique urbaine et de l'exclusivité. Aujourd'hui, plus que jamais, il est temps de repenser et d'actualiser notre approche du design. Si nos prétendues tâches sont de réhabiliter, restaurer et renouveler le paysage et les communautés qui nous entourent, le faisons-nous de manière appropriée et en réponse aux crises environnementales et sanitaires globales auxquelles nous sommes confrontés aujourd’hui? En tant qu'architectes paysagistes et écologistes, comment pouvons-nous apporter des changements positifs, des solutions et des conceptions appropriées et réactives qui s'appliquent à l'époque dans laquelle nous nous trouvons ? Cet article se penche sur les multiples avantages de l'intégration de l'aménagement paysager comestible dans la planification et la conception des villes.

In today's global climate, beautification is not enough; at times, it may even be inappropriate given the context we find ourselves in today. We are currently facing the existential dilemma of rapid urban growth and the associated rising food and energy costs. We know that fossil fuels cannot and will not last forever in the back of our minds. On the one hand, we have a rising global health crisis with epidemics such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, and heart disease. On the other hand, food security, crime, and poverty are critical concerns in South Africa and other developing countries. As environmental professionals, the onus is on us to delve deeper; beyond surface aesthetics and exclusivity. Now, more than ever, it is time to rethink and update our design focus. Suppose our job descriptions are to rehabilitate, restore and renew the suffering landscape and communities surrounding us. Are we doing it appropriately and responding to the global environmental and health crises we face today? As landscape architects and environmentalists, how can we bring about positive change, solutions, and appropriate, responsive design solutions that apply to the era in which we find ourselves? The article will delve into the multiple benefits of integrating edible landscapes into city planning and design.

Getting our heads out of the sand

Beautification and monument-building are not enough. There, I said it. Let me be so bold in saying that beautification can often be inappropriate given the context of climate change and the high economic pressure in which we find ourselves today.

Allow me to dust the sand off our unearthed heads as I elaborate further: As 21s-century custodians of planet earth; we are currently facing the existential dilemma of rapid urban growth, coupled with the associated rising costs of food and energy, limited fossil fuel supply and, of course, climate change.      On the one hand, we have a rising global health crisis with epidemics such as mental illnesses, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. On the other hand, food security and poverty are global issues, especially in developing countries.

In terms of the urban landscape, our loss of touch with nature seems to have blurred our decisions in terms of city planning. Indeed, lack of open space has been found to be directly related to crime, learning disabilities, as well as mental health (Stuart-Smith; 2022:34).As these sprawling concrete jungles encroach further and envelope what remains of the delicate ecological habitats remaining in the countryside, vacant land,on the other hand, created by the abandonment of city core areas, permeates our urban scenery.

Considering the rather bleak picture I have painted, this brings me to ask a question that has been irking me for quite some time: how can we, as landscape architects and environmentalists, bring about positive change and appropriate, responsive design solutions that apply to the era in which we find ourselves?      Now - more than ever, is the time to rethink and update our design focus. Suppose our so-called job descriptions are to rehabilitate, restore and renew the suffering landscape and communities surrounding us. Are we doing it appropriately by responding to today's global environmental and health crises and challenges?

As environmental professionals, I firmly believe that we need to delve deeper and beyond the surface aesthetics and exclusivity, we seem preoccupied with.

Urban sprawl and our broken food system

As our cities continue to grow, agriculture on the peri-urban fringe is being consumed by urban sprawl. This growth commonly results in pushing small farms and market gardens further away from the city and often into less productive land, or the farms cease to exist altogether.

Consider the notion of food miles: proximity of food production to where we live is becoming increasingly important in an energy-conscious future. Indeed, since cheap, non-renewable fossil fuels are considered the lifeblood of our industrial food system, they also measure the embodied transport energy in food (Zeunert 2011).

One must visit the local grocery store to discover just how broken our food system is. Consider how far one iceberg lettuce has travelled (sometimes thousands of kilometres away) to be cling-wrapped and stickered, only to return to a branch a few minutes from the original farm in which it grew! See the over-priced and out-of-season avocados stacked in non-recyclable polystyrene containers.Perfectly uniform grapes from Spain lie alongside the bubble-wrapped Medjool dates imported from Iran. Yes, stacks and stacks of preserved plastic containers are common in our supermarkets today, never mind that our children, often, have little idea of what the plant that bore the fruit even looked like!

How urban sprawl has affected our mental health

I believe that the poor city planning of the past has had a massive impact on the state of our mental health.      This is not a new belief; in fact, the idea that city living was responsible for undermining people's health occurred over 150 years ago.In 1869 (when only three per cent of the population were living in urban environments), the notion of 'neurasthenia' was coined by an American physician, George Miller Beard, who described it as a 'disease of civilisation' (Stuart-Smith: 2020:92).

The diagnosis of neurasthenia may have disappeared from the medical lexicon. However, the phenomenon that Beard first described is now known as anxiety and depression- with rates considerably higher in urban settings. With an estimate of seventy per cent of the population projected to be living in cities within the next thirty years, Sue Stuart-Smith, psychiatrist and author of 'The Well-Gardened Mind,' says that it is not coincidental that while our urban centres have expanded, so has the contribution of mental illnesses to the global burden of disease (Stuart-Smith: 2020:92).

The aim of this article is not to depress but to enlighten. Indeed, the quo of modern living is not a pretty picture- but there are clues and cues from nature and our intuition everywhere. Urban sprawl, our broken food system, and our resultant disconnect from nature have affected our tangible environment and our intangible mental states, thereby posing a risk of spiralling further if we do not catch ourselves. In writer Michael Pollan's words: 'for what is the environmental crisis if not a crisis of the way we live?’' (Pollan 2014).

Indeed,the mental benefits of nature are remarkably substantial. We physically need greenery and the natural bounty it readily offers us to thrive. How is it that we, as a society, have segregated ourselves so much from nature that we have come to the point of needing scientific studies to convince us of its importance?

The remarkable twelfth-century abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen, composer and Benedictine theologian, and medicinal herbalist, developed her philosophy based on the connection between the human spirit and the growing force of the earth,which she called viriditas. As the source of a river, viriditas is the font of energy on which all other life forms ultimately depend. The word combines the Latin for green and truth. Viriditasis the origin of goodness and health, in contrast to ariditas, or dryness, which Hildegard regarded as its life-defying opposite (Stuart-Smith 2020:29).

According to Stuart-Smith (2020:29), the greening power of viriditas is both literal and symbolic. It refers to the flourishing nature and vibrancy of the human spirit. Hildegard recognised that people could only thrive when the natural world thrived by placing' greenness'at the heart of the thinking. She understood an inescapable link between the health of the planet and human and spiritual health, which is why it is increasingly regarded as a forerunner of the modern ecological movement. 'When we work with nature outside us, we work with nature inside us. It is why people feel more fully alive and energised in the natural world, why gardeners report feeling calmed and invigorated, and why spending time in nature awakens the connection-seeking aspects of human nature (Stuart-Smith; 2020:35).

The link between what we eat and how we feel

As a result of the disconnection between city and farm, between what we mindlessly put into our bodies, and our disassociation with nature, lies the striking toll this is taking on our health as a repercussion. In fact, the fast,mass-produced food that is associated with the busyness of city-living is affecting not only the tangible outside environment but also our internal and intangible ones on an individual level.

An alarming number of urban areas have been classified as 'food deserts.' In other words, an acknowledgement that these concrete jungles have limited access to affordable and nutritious food (in contrast to an area or 'food oasis' with higher access to supermarkets or vegetable shops with fresh foods).      According to Mills(2019), we have reached the point where a poor diet is the leading risk factor of early death in developed countries, while it is also affecting the state of our mental health.

Not mainstream medical knowledge yet, but it has been scientifically proven that there is a link between how we eat and how we feel. Yes- the quality of people's diets is, in fact, linked to the size of their hippocampus - a key area in the brain for learning, memory, gut, and mental health. The first clinical SMILES (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) trial, conducted in 2017, was the first of its kind to investigate the question 'if I improve my diet, will my mood improve?' The study showed that changing people's diets positively impacts their mental health (Mills 2019).

Considering that mental disorders are the leading cause of global disability, this is important, costing trillions of dollars’ worth of pharmaceuticals and therapy each year. At the same time, poor diet is the leading cause of early death in men and number two in women (Mills 2019).

 A new type of rehabilitation

A new sector of rehabilitation is justly needed, one that is reciprocal, one that grows deeper routes into including the healing of the community and the landscape which feeds it in terms of emotional and nutritional health - through restored ecosystems.

In 1984, renowned urban planner Michael Hough so aptly predicted that 'as environment and energy issues assume a higher profile in the future, it will become increasingly necessary to widen the horizons of urban design to meet new goals. He stated that 'Urban land as a whole will be required to assume environmental, productive and social roles, as fundamental components of the urban design process, far outweighing traditional park functions and civic values.' (Hough 1984:68).

As we rehabilitate and renew our cities by repairing and integrating the food system as part of its infrastructure, we will rehabilitate our health. i.e., the concept of reciprocity.Saint Hildegard was onto something. This approach is the future- if we want it.

Inspirational case studies

The GreenHouse Program, New York

The Horticultural Society of New York (known as 'the Hort') runs in collaboration with the New York City Department of Correction and the New York City Department of Education. The GreenHouse Program, as it is known, gives 400 men and women the chance each year to learn to grow and care for plants and, in doing so, provides them with a source of hope and motivation that might help them stay out of jail.

One of the most innovative aspects of the GreenHouse Program is that it offers internships with the Hort's Green Team in the community after release. Individuals who have spent time in prison work on hundreds of different garden and park spaces around the city, contributing to the greening of the urban environment and creating links with the community (Stuart-Smith 2020: 52).

Finding employment after serving time inside can be extremely difficult, and there is a vulnerable transition period to get through, while repeat offending is high. Ina study done for the prison in Rikers Island, one of the world's largest penal colonies, over sixty-five per cent of prisoners are back in prison within three years of release. By contrast, the re-offending rate for those attending Hort's program is only ten to fifteen per cent.

The Insight Garden Program, California

The Insight Garden Program was started in 2002 by Beth Waitkus for San Quentin Prison, California ( On evaluation, the program showed that the higher the level of eco-literacy a prisoner acquired,the more significant the shift in his values. In other words, whilst the permaculture and ecology course run within the prison is educational, it is also a powerful therapeutic tool for change, giving the participants a different context in which to understand their lives.

As Beth (2002) has explained, the principles of sustainable gardening can become a code for living. By getting one's hands into the earth, the prisoners are granted the chance to consider our need 'to live with the environment, not against it, and that is the same for living with people.' The Insight Garden Program has expanded and now operates in eight other prisons in California. Restorative justice, Beth argues, is cost-effective, and she makes the point that the entire program in San Quentin costs less to run each year than keeping one prisoner in jail for the same amount of time.

As with the Hort's programme, the re-offending rates are meagre. Part of the programme's success lies in having strong connections with horticulture projects,such as Planting for Justice, a landscape and gardening practice willing to work with ex-offenders. Beth (2002) describes how transformation happens when people can 'move from me to we' and remarks that she has observed how growing and caring for plants gives people a different attitude, and they start to value it (Stuart-Smith 2020: 61-62).

Seeds of Change: Examples of the emerging inner-city farms of Johannesburg

The JFF Rooftop Farm

 Situated on the first-floor rooftop of the Kalashnikov Gallery in Johannesburg's Braamfontein and accessed via a small ladder is a hidden gem, a large urban gardening centre with an adjoined tea garden. Planted in crates and hanging baskets, abundant greenery adorns the vibrant and lush setting. Co-founders Ashleigh Machete and Negin Monkoe stock everything from miniature succulents to potted herbs, salad greens, and great leafy indoor plants.

Figure 1: JFF Rooftop Nursery in Braamfontein (Photo by JoburgPlaces, 2022)

Figure 2: JFF Rooftop Nursery in Braamfontein (Photo by JoburgPlaces 2022)

Bertram's Inner City Farm

 Starting as a City of Johannesburg initiative in 2006, this 4 800m2 organic urban farm developed on an old bowls club site was initially converted into a self-sufficient farming project to feed crèche children healthy food. Driven by the passionate Ms Molefe, she has used numerous cash prizes from all the competitions the farm has won over the years to build it up from strength to strength, adding features such as drip irrigation and, later, a rainwater harvesting system. When I found this place, I found a home because feeding the hungry is dear to my heart. I have tried to do feeding schemes and ask shops for donations to feed the less fortunate. I was also tired of the bread and pap (traditional porridge) distributed in handouts. I wanted to give the children real, nutritious food so they could grow to be healthy. I got tired of asking and told myself I wanted something that would give me healthy food without asking, and farming was my answer."

The garden also provides stock to nearby supermarkets and even manages to supply stalls at the renowned Neighbourgoods Market, BluBird Market, and various other restaurants. I love working on the farm because I have learned a lot, and I'm studying with Wits to become a better farmer,' says Ms Molofe. Also known as the Bambanani Food and Herb Cooperative Project, this initiative proves that with a driven community member such as Ms Molefe, an under-used green open space can become a vibrant community hub with nutritional, social, nutritional, social, and economic returns.

Figure 3:Work in progress inside one of the greenhouses (Photo by Author 2019)
Figure 4: Ms Molefe proudly selling her harvest of the day, freshly squeezed fruit juices and chutneys (Photo by JoburgPlaces 2022)

Mcebo Fresh Veggie Rooftop Farm

Mcebo Fresh vegetable farm is based in Hillbrow within the Out Reach Foundation project. The project also houses a youth centre, creche, sewing/craft workshop, computer centre, performing arts department, and counselling centre. Partnering with the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership,  the Foundation has provided space for a rooftop farm as part of the Urban Agriculture Initiative (UAI). It is run by the passionate Sibongile Cele, who gave up her high-powered job in the corporate world to follow her dream of being a part of greening the city while helping the less fortunate. The rooftop garden aims to not only provide a sustainable food source in Hillbrow but aspires to be an inspiration to the children of the Foundation.

Figure 5: The Mcebo hydroponics rooftop farm - Hydroponic celery and spring onions growing in abundance (JoburgPlaces 2022)

The GreenHouse Project

Lying in the heart of the city centre, within Joubert Park, lies a historic Victorian-style conservatory (est 1937),which houses The GreenHouse Project. The NGO initiative aims to transform Johannesburg into a self-sustaining green city by empowering its residents with ecological, social, and economic means.

This community project serves as a demonstration garden to empower citizens in the knowledge of the benefits of permaculture, recycling, and food security. Beekeeping and green building solutions are also taught. At the same time, the food harvested is cooked in the on-site biodigester-powered kitchen using the methane gas captured from the decomposition of the on-site composting system.

It was, however, unfortunate to encounter the dilapidated state of the municipal-owned historic greenhouse, as it is in an urgent state of disrepair. With gardens currently managed by the NGO, this venue is ideally situated. It has enormous potential to showcase what a greener, new South African urban environment may become. As with the many other derelict sites and brownfields within the city, this heritage monument may be repaired and assigned with a new and meaningful collaborative use that involves the surrounding community and the vulnerable in our post-apartheid South Africa. It is these projects that are crying out for investment.

Figure 6: The potential for reviving and restoring the glasshouse is immense. The GreenHouse Project is a start, but it is in desperate need of further development (Photo by Author)


The article explained the multiple benefits of integrating edible landscapes into urban environments. It challenged environmental professionals to delve deeper; beyond surface aesthetics and exclusivity to rethink and update their design focus. Landscape architects can bring about positive change through design solutions that respond to an era associated with rising mental health concerns and food insecurity, and spiralling energy costs.

We can reap the reciprocal benefits of integrating edible landscapes into our urban environments by simultaneously healing ourselves and the earth.


Hough, M. 1984. City Form and Natural Process: Towards a New Urban Vernacular. Great Britain: Van Nostrand Reinhold Reinhold Company, Inc.

Mills, E. (2019). How our Food Affects Our Mood. [Podcast]. Deliciously Ella. Available at: [Accessed 2022/ 02/08].

Pollan, M. 2014. Cooked: A natural history of transformation. Penguin Group, New York.

Stuart-Smith, S. 2020. The Well-Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World.      William Collins, Great Britain.

Zeunert, J. 2011. Eating the Landscape: Aesthetic Foodscape Design and its role in Australian Landscape Architecture. AILA National Conference 2011, At Brisbane, Australia [Online] Available: <>


The Well-Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World

This inspirational book was consulted as a point of departure and as inspiration for the essay. Sue Stuart Smith - a distinguished psychiatrist and avid gardener offers an inspiring and consoling work about the healing effects of gardening and its ability to decrease stress and foster mental well-being in our everyday lives. Well worth the read!

The Johannesburg case studies where visited during a JoburgPlaces Green Rooftops Tour, which was hosted by 'urban futurists,' Charlie Moyo and Gerald Garner. For more information,visit