Urban Agriculture Design Principles for Enhancing Sustainability

Urban Agriculture Design Principles for Enhancing Sustainability

Résumé en français

L'agriculture urbaine (AU) est un moyen pour les architectes paysagistes d'aborder la question de la durabilité de l'approvisionnement alimentaire urbain. Un projet d'agriculture urbaine bien conçu peut en effet contribuer à. la santé de l'écosystème urbain et offrir des avantages sociaux et économiques aux résidents.  Dans cette recherche, l’examen des interactions entre durabilité, esthétique et valeurs associées. permet d’identifier 14 principes contribuant à l’amélioration des fonctions environnementales, sociales et économiques. Une méthode originale multi-sources reposant sur un examen critique de la littérature académique et des critères de durabilité et d'esthétique, une analyse de deux importants hubs alimentaires communautaires nord-américains, un inventaire et une évaluation des caractéristiques des projets d’Agriculture Urbaine, mais aussi sur des entretiens avec des informateurs clés. La synthèse des données démontre la convergence des critères de durabilité et d'esthétique. L'analyse de ces critères a révélé l’existence de principes propices à la conception d’une agriculture urbaine susceptible d'améliorer la durabilité et les services esthétiques des projets d’Agriculture Urbaine et des communautés hôtes. Ces critères ont ensuite été utilisés pour définir les 14 principes de conception de l'agriculture urbaine. Pour chacun d’entre eux, des éléments de conception ont été suggérés et les contributions respectives à la durabilité ont été précisées. Ces principes peuvent être utilisés par les architectes paysagistes comme une boîte à outils pour appréhender les services de durabilité de l'agriculture urbaine et sa dimension esthétique au niveau du projet et de la communauté.

Urban agriculture (UA) is one way landscape architects can address the sustainability of food supply in cities. A well-designed UA site contributes to urban ecosystem health and provides social and economic benefits to residents. This research aimed to identify a set of UA design principles that enhance environmental, social, and economic services by examining the interplay of sustainability, aesthetics, and associated values. Methods included a critical review of academic literature in determining sustainability and aesthetic criteria, an analysis of two significant North American community food hubs, a photo inventory and evaluation of UA site elements, and key informant interviews. Synthesis of the data provided design elements that demonstrate a convergence of sustainability and aesthetic criteria. Analysis of these criteria revealed UA design elements that can enhance site and community-level sustainability and aesthetic services; these criteria and elements were then used to develop a set of 14 UA design principles. The contributions to sustainability from each principle are provided, along with associated design elements. The intention of the proposed principles is to better equip landscape architects with a toolkit of documented UA sustainability services and aesthetic considerations to be incorporated into UA design at the site and community levels.


Urban agriculture (UA) is one way landscape architects can address the sustainability of food supply in cities.

A well-designed urban agriculture site can contribute to urban ecosystem health and provide social and economic benefits to growers and residents.

By examining the interplay of sustainability, aesthetics and associated values, this research aimed to identify a set of urban agriculture (UA) landscape design principles that enhance environmental, social, and economic services. The research resulted in fourteen UA design principles demonstrating a convergence of sustainability criteria and aesthetics. The contributions to sustainability associated with each principle are provided, along with associated design elements. The proposed principles intend to guide landscape architects as they work to incorporate UA at the site and community levels.

 Literature Review

UA can be defined as a production activity located within the boundaries of a city that involves the growing, processing and distribution of food and non-food products to supply goods and services mainly to the same urban area (Mougeot 2000). Courbould (2013) estimates that 20% of the world's food supply is through UA - supplying, for example, 60% of fresh vegetables and 90% of eggs in Shanghai, China (Lovell 2010), approximately 90% of fresh vegetables consumed in Accra, Ghana, and 80% of fresh vegetables and 40% of eggs in Hanoi, Vietnam (Corbould 2013). There is evidence in the literature that the contributions of UA can be overemphasised and that the significance of UA varies from city to city (Crush, Hovorka and Tevera, 2011). With the increasing need for nutritious food, employment, biodiversity refugia and open green space as the world population urbanise, the multiple roles that UA can play is increasingly important and likely to increase in the coming years (Kargand Drechsel 2018; Zezza and Taciotti 2010). Noting that research on UA has a disconnect between that in the global north and that in the global south, Gray, Elgert and Winkler Prins (2020:869) urge UA researchers to aim for research convergence to compare "the commonalities among urban spaces and specificities that come from each place."

In concluding their study on the significance of UA in Zambia's Copper belt province, Smart et al. (2015:44) argue that there is "a need for urban planning strategies in Zambia and indeed elsewhere in Africa" to provide and maintain arable land in and around urban landscapes. UA can support urban development objectives, but the expansion of UA requires the proactive integration of this land use into urban and regional planning (Karg and Drechsel, 2018). By advocating for the multi-functionality of UA, green space can be maintained and defended in the face of the expansion and densification of built form; urban green space, it is argued, can contribute to the management of urban ecosystems to "protect biodiversity, generate multiple ecosystem services and… contribute to both mitigation and adaptation to climate change" (Anderson and Elmqvist 2012:23). Cilliers et al. (2020) argue that there is an increasing understanding that green space is crucial for urban quality of life; they ask us to reflect on UA as an urban greening tool. Peanoet al. (2020) identify the 10,000 Gardens in Africa project as supporting the integration of agriculture, community, education, and outreach in the urban landscape. While planners can consider UA as part of their mandate in shaping urban form, it is at the local level that the primary benefits of UA can be realised while also linking across the landscape, community to community. However, the use of UA as a greening tool cannot take a one-size-for-all approach; it is a complex land-use and "calls for trans-disciplinary planning in approaches in considering best practices"(Lin and Egerer 2017 in Cilliers et al., 2020). Suppose UA is a valid and innovative use of the urban landscape. In that case, it may, in turn, help shape the urban landscape (Aubry et al. 2010) rather than simply be a land use that must find whatever patches of arable soil are leftover from the urbanisation process.

Landscape architects can contribute to the generation of best practices in shaping UA

Linkages between landscape aesthetics and environmental, ecological, and cultural benefits are well documented in academic literature, including landscape aesthetics that are associated with care, perception, awareness, and experience (Iverson Nassauer 1996; Gobster et al. 2007; Jorgensen, 2011). Design is the process of carefully selecting and arranging elements to achieve an overall intent, either functional or aesthetic, or a combination of the two (Faimon and Weigand,2004). The challenge for designers of UA is to assemble elements into a cohesive and meaningful whole.


This research developed UA design principles pertaining to ecological, environmental, and social services of sustainability while incorporating aesthetic values that contribute to urban form. The principles are to guide landscape architects, site designers and planners in the implementation of UA sites that contribute to sustainability and aesthetics, operating at the site and community levels.


The UA design principles were developed from the analysis and synthesis of:

o Sustainability criteria highlighting contributions such as goods, values, and services

o Aesthetic principles that enhance urban form

o Design considerations from Key Informant interviews at two case study sites (community food hubs & satellite sites). UA sites were selected based on production and nutrient-cycling facilities, aesthetic contributions to the community, food-security mitigation initiatives, and skill-building programs that empower community members.

o A design element inventory and analysis of the two case studies, examining the interplay of UA sustainability and aesthetics.

The research design is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Research Design


Sustainability Criteria: Sustainability dresses the needs of both present and future generations by integrating production, distribution, and consumption with the overarching goal of improving economic, environmental, and social well-being and is inclusive in approach. UA sites can exemplify sustainability in that they can function as a central facility providing for the production, distribution, and retail of sustainable food products and serve to increase visibility and access to equitable food. A literature review of sustainability contributions from UA sites, including community gardens, small plot intensive farms, compost facilities, urban livestock, greenhouses, and food storage facilities, guided the development of a sustainability matrix. Table 1 shows a partial listing of the matrix.

Table 1: Sustainability Matrix (partial listing)

Aesthetic Principles: To evaluate the aesthetics of UA sites, we examined their role in enriching the experience and understanding of urban form. Literature on aesthetic principles, form, art, design, and landscape architecture informed aesthetic principles such as balance, rhythm, contrast and more. Often aesthetics is framed as a social service in sustainability circles. However, this research frames aesthetics as a separate entity altogether, with the objective to review the combined contributions of aesthetics towards influencing design arising from the three pillars of sustainability. Table 2 summarises combined representational and representational aesthetic principles and associative threads for design consideration that can be used to enhance the aesthetic experience through the urban form.

Design Considerations: A series of open-ended interviews were conducted with key informants at two exemplary UA community food hubs that contribute to UA sustainability services and design, namely The Stop in Toronto, Canada, with satellite sites across Toronto, and Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with satellite sites in Chicago, Illinois. (Note: Growing Power is now closed & under transformation, and several of the UA periphery sites visited for this research are now part of the Urban Growers Collective in Chicago). The interviews focused on the design, aesthetics and perceptions of the UA site. Sample questions included: What are design elements that contribute to aesthetics? How does the site attract people? What is the neighbourhood perception of the site?What are some features that enhance the visitor experience? How is the site designed to facilitate different user groups?

Design Element Inventory: An inventory of design elements at the UA sites was collected using photography. Attributes of design elements were compiled from data collected from site visits and analysed as to how they aligned with the sustainability criteria, aesthetic principles, and design and aesthetic considerations summarised from the key informant interviews. See Figure 2 below for examples.

Figure 2: Examples of design elements and their contributions

Table 2 presents the Aesthetic Principles used to evaluate UA sites. The have been adapted from Gotshalk, 1947; Faimon & Weigand, 2004; Gobster et al., 2007; Iverson Nassauer, 1995; and Stankovic et al., 2016.

Table 2: Aesthetic Principles

UA Design Principles

The research aim was to develop UA design principles based on the methods outlined above. The data analysis resulted in fourteen guiding UA design principles, as follows.

Principle  1:   Layout and Spatial Relationship

Situate UA hubs near production sites, processing and distribution infrastructure, market and retail, and nutrient cycling facilities. Prioritise food-insecure neighbourhoods.Utilise municipal resources to identify underutilised space.

Elements: cooperatives, processing & distribution facilities, land conversion

Principle  2:   Integrated Environmental Design            

Facilitate integrated environmental design that incorporates production and nutrient cycling while creating opportunities for use and conservation of energy and water. Foster a perception of an environmental aesthetic by promoting awareness of site function.

Elements: aquaponic beds, compost facilities, stormwater tanks, irrigation systems

Principle  3:   Biodiversity

Protect, mimic, and enhance the region's biodiversity while ensuring production needs are met. Engage users at the local scale while also fostering awareness that ecological services are connected to and enrich a more extensive system.

Elements: native plant species, conservation, reflect local ecosystem in production

Principle  4:   User Experience

Enrich user experience. Create multi-functional space that is attractive, develops positive perceptions associated with food production and consumption, promotes awareness, invites community, and fosters interaction with people and the environment.

Elements: value-added services, bake-ovens, kitchens, eatery, education areas, murals, art

Principle  5:   Learning and Assembly

Provide space for assembly, capacity building, agri-tourism, education, and awareness. Locate learning and assembly to avoid conflict with UA production, processing, and distribution.

Elements: community kitchens, education facilities, gathering & learning areas, event space

Principle  6:   User Groups

Design for a variety of user groups. Unify elements to increase access, limit distraction, delineate usage and provide a safe environment.

Elements: multi-functional gathering space, cultural gardens, evidence of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)

Principle  7:   Community Identity

Reflect community identity through repetition of design elements. Preserve person, place, and food connections through historical, ecological, and cultural food values.

Elements: cultural gardens, heirloom varieties, murals, community products at retail, TEK

Principle 8:   Food Narrative

Showcase community and food interactions. Attract users to central features that reflect values associated with local food and sustainability services.

Elements: community kitchens, learning areas, greenhouses, community gardens, art

Principle  9:   Positive Perception

Group and frame elements to facilitate perceptions of care, efficiency, and benefit to the local community. Buffer disordered areas; design views of orderly UA space.

Elements: row plantings, tree/hedge buffers, murals, sustainability services signage

Principle 10: Progression

Create a sense of progression and movement. Instil flow and, where applicable, a sense of curiosity and adventure. Delineate UA production space and visitor space.  

Elements: paths, repetition, colour changes, buffers, varying sub themes, centrality

 Principle  11: Micro-climate and Comfort

Enhance comfort at the human scale. Design for UA production requirements for sun exposure. Design micro-climate environments to provide shade and shelter and to reduce the urban heat island effect on the surrounding area.

Elements: reflective materials, wind protection (hedgerows), sun exposure and shade

Principle  12: Activity and Attraction

Design to capture attention and highlight activity. Create a draw by integrating sites into pre-existing or neighbouring public spaces. Ensuring production, outreach, and retail have prominence and are visible to residents and visitors alike.

Elements:public markets, retail stands, green space, cultural gardens, landmarks

Principle  13: Production and Retail Diversity

Facilitate a diversity of production and retail strategies. Maximise food and non-food production and retail opportunities through creative integration of UA space.

Elements: stacked vertical production, livestock, apiaries, aquaponic beds, compost, rooftop production, land procurement, value-added products, ornamentals, eateries, CSAs, markets

Principle  14: Cohesiveness and Context

Unify design elements to achieve balance, organisation of parts and context appropriateness.Harmonise features enhance awareness, experience and values associated with food, community, and sustainability.

Elements:Applicable to all elements and planning strategies. Integrate components to relate to each other and reflect this in the overall design.


Implications for Landscape Architects: The proposed design principles offer a way of intervening through the design intent. The principles are evident and identifiable, with the intention of shaping perception, experience and understanding; they can equip designers and planners with a 'toolkit' of documented UA sustainability services and aesthetic considerations to be incorporated into the design at the site and community levels. The proposed principles are not a panacea for meeting all urban food needs, nor are they a definitive set of UA design and planning strategies. However, the proposed principles offer a design approach to integrate and assemble UA elements to function as a cohesive whole in the urban environment.

Contributions to UA Design:

UA can play a role in the sustainability of communities; it is an outcome of a synergetic relationship between food production and consumption; associative social, environmental, and economic services; and landscape aesthetics.

The aesthetic experience is often undervalued for its role in understanding and awareness; the challenge for designers is to create active and engaging sites that shape perceptions of ecosystem function, social values, and economic viability. These principles can aid in building positive perceptions of UA as an amenity in the urban landscape. While this research is informed by academic literature and an inventory of two North American UA hubs to inform design principles, it is hoped that the design guidance and flexibility of the principles can contribute to UA initiatives in African cities.

NOTE: The full research project can be found at the Library and Archives Canada theses repository:



Anderson, P. &Elmqvist, T., 2012. Urban ecological and social-ecological research in the City of Cape Town: insights emerging from an urban ecology City Lab. Ecology and Society, Volume 17(4), p.23. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05076-170423

Aubry, C., Ba, A.,Dabat, M.H. & Ramamonjisoa, J., 2010. Urban agriculture and sustainable urban landscape. An applied research on two case studies (Madagascar and Senegal). WS5.1 – Designing sustainable landscape, 9 European IFSASymposium, 4-7 July 2010, Vienna (Austria).

Cilliers, E.J., Lategan, L., Cilliers, S.S. & Stander, K., 2020. Reflecting on the Potential and Limitations of Urban Agriculture as an Urban Greening Tool in South Africa. Frontiersin Sustainable Cities, Volume 2, Article 43. https://doi.org/10.3389/frsc.2020.00043

Courbould,C., 2013. Feeding the Cities: Is Urban Agriculture the Future of Food Security? (Strategic Analysis Paper) Dalkeith, Australia: Future Directions International.

Crush,J., Hovorka, A. & Tevera, D., 2011. Food security in Southern African cities: the place of urban agriculture. Progress in Development Studies Volume 11(4), pp. 285-305. https://doi.org/10.1177/146499341001100402

Faimon,P. & Weigand, J., 2004. The Nature of Design: How the Principles of Design Shape Our World – From Graphics and Architecture to Interiors and Products. Cincinnati, OH: How Design Books.

Gobster,P.H., Nassauer, J.I., Daniel, T. & Fry, G., 2007. The shared landscape:what does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22, pp.959-972. doi:10.1007/s10980-007-9110-x

Gotschalk,D. W., 1947. Art and the Social Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gray,L., Elgert, L. & Winkler Prins, A., 2020. Theorising urban agriculture: north-south convergence. Agriculture and Human Values. Volume 37, pp. 869-883. Doi: 10.1007/s10460-020-10015-x

Hamel, N. & Danso, G. 2010. Agronomic considerations for urban agriculture in southern cities. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. Volume 8(1-2), pp. 86-93. https://doi.org/10.3763/ijas.2009.0452

Iverson Nassauer, J., 1995. Culture and changing landscape structure. Landscape Ecology. Volume 10(4), pp. 229-337. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00129257

Jorgensen,A., 2011. Beyond the view: Future directions in landscape aesthetics research. Landscape and Urban Planning. Volume 100(4), pp. 353-355. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2011.02.023

Karg,H. & Drechsel. P. (Eds.), 2018. Atlas of West African urban food systems:examples from Ghana and Burkina Faso. Columbo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). CIGAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), 83p. Doi: 10.5337/2018.224

Lovell,S., 2010. Multi-functional urban agriculture for sustainable land use planning in the United States. Sustainability, Volume 2(8), pp. 2499-2522. https://doi.org/10.3390/su2082499

Mougeot,L.J.A., 2000. Urban Agriculture: Definition, Presence, Potentials and Risks,and Policy Challenges. Cities Feeding People Series, Report 31. Ottawa:International Development Research Centre.

Mougeot, L.J.A. 2006. Growing Better Cities:Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Development. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.

Nasr, J., MacRae, R. & Kuhns, J., 2010. Scaling Up Urban Agriculture in Toronto: Building the Infrastructure. Toronto,Canada: Metcalf Foundation.

Olivier, D. & Heinecken, L., 2017. Beyond food security: women's experiences of urban agriculture in Cape Town. Agriculture and Human Values, Volume 34(3), pp. 743-755. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9773-0

Peano,C., Massaglia, S., Ghisalberti, C. & Sottile, F., 2020. Pathways for the Amplification of Agro-ecology in African Sustainable Urban Agriculture. Sustainability Volume 12, p. 2718. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12072718

Smart,J., Nel, E. & Binns, T., 2015. Economic crisis and food security in Africa:Exploring the significance of urban agriculture in Zambia's Copperbelt Province. Geoforum. Vol 65, pp. 37-45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.07.009

Smit, J. & Nasr, J., 1992. Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Cities: Using Wastes and Idle Land and Water Bodies as Resources. Environment and Urbanisation Volume 4(2), pp. 141-52. https://doi.org/10.1177/095624789200400214

Stankovic,T., Tonner, A. & Wilson, A., 2016. I know what I like: Parallel Tastes in Fine Art Consumption. Advances in Consumer Research. Volume 44, pp. 343-347.

Zezza,A. & Taciotte, L., 2010. Urban agriculture, poverty, and food security:Empirical evidence from a sample of developing countries. Food Policy Volume 35, pp.265-273. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.007