Sumner Ray Oakes, featured in her New York apartment in a July issue of Modern Farmer, shows that the vertical agriculture methods developed for shantytowns in Sri Lanka, as discussed below, are now ready to be quaffed throughout the Global North. We may not need boots on the round. But we need tippy-toes!!

By Wayne Roberts

Some old reports are like wine. They get better with age.

That’s because some reports are so far ahead of their time that they become truer and more understandable with age.

I had this experience with a lengthy report I photocopied in 2009 and then forgot about. The report was about “family business gardens” and “low/no space” urban agriculture. It was written for people living in overcrowded shantytowns on the outskirts of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

The report piqued my interest back in 2009 because I had recently met a group of wonderful people from Colombo, including an inspired medical officer of health, at an urban agriculture conference.

They talked with me about their project to support women shantytown dwellers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable people throughout the Global South. The venture worked with women who were busy raising young families in very difficult circumstances. The women were encouraged to grow medicinal plants in the bits and pieces of free space on the roof, wall, entrance or yard of their shanties. The plants were sold at a decent price to the health department, which processed them into Ayurvedic medicines.

The women got some cash income and some independence. As a side benefit, they added a touch of homemade fragrance and beauty to an otherwise desolate living area. And the population got access to traditional medicines they couldn’t normally access in city slums.

Where I first portrayed the empowerment techniques of vertical agriculture, as used by shantytown dwellers in Sri Lanka

The project so appealed to me that I featured it as an example of food empowerment in my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

The 2009 report stayed hidden under a pile in the basement until a month ago, when my wife threatened to call the fire marshal if I didn’t clear out my files. I started culling, came across this old report, and started leafing through it.

It suddenly came to me that this old report was no longer relevant just for people in shantytowns. The idea of making use of bits and pieces of land, time and skill to grow high-value crops is now relevant to a huge number of people everywhere.

Where is it written that food producers can only work full-time on their own expanse of land in the countryside?


There is now an international reserve army of unemployed, underemployed, underpaid and unpaid people who have the magical combination that makes for self-reliance — access to some time, space, skills and relationships that help them get by with a little help from their friends, neighbors and family.

Space efficiency merges with artistry in the garden of an artists’ co-op in Toronto, where Katja Jacob uses vertical space to grow plants, store baskets and brighten the day.

I’m thinking of the millions of people who now work for Uber, or in the so-called “gig economy” — retirees, the unemployed and underemployed, seasonal workers, temps, sessional college teachers, artists, people starting their career, graduate students, post-docs, home-based caregivers.

They all have some freedom of movement, some bits of spare time, some makeshift tools, some knowledge that they can put to work. They might prefer to be in the proletariat rather than the informal or casual labor market, or they may like being independent. Either way, they need to supplement their cash income by providing for themselves. The subsistence and peasant economy is making a comeback!

The 2009 report — which was sponsored by several organizations, including an urban agriculture organization called RUAF — helps me imagine how we could turn the gig economy into the subsistence-plus and self-reliance economy. Urban agriculture might just offer a pleasurable and affirming way to supplement incomes with sales or barter, or to offset the need to spend hard cash on food.

Gig economy uber alles? Or is there time and room for self-provisioning?

If so, this opens up a wide range of options between a gardening hobby on one end of the spectrum, and a paid, fulltime, high-production job at the other end. There’s lots of room at both ends, and across the middle, of those polar opposites in today’s job frontier.

Once again, we see how binary (either-or) thinking is the enemy of creative thinking about food.

There’s no good reason why the precariat be denied the same right to innovate and disrupt corporate economies to the advantage of everyday people? Two can play at this game. Innovative disruption should not be monopolized by the Amazons and Ubers of the world.


The report is a manual that helps people make use of “unused and under-used labour in the family” to produce food for sale and for family consumption in Family Business Gardens. Everything is geared to making opportunities available to everyone. The food will be grown in and near the home, in spaces that are easy to find and use, using simple tools and resources that are readily at hand.

The project was formally launched in Sri Lanka on World Environment Day in 2000. They called it “Family Business Gardens” (FBG), using “Low or No Space Agriculture(L/N-SA). According to the manual, the “main thrust of the FBG concept is to convert the simple form of home-gardening into a source of family nutrition supply and a source of mental satisfaction based on sustainable agricultural entrepreneurship/s.”

People in shantytowns and comfortable suburbs all have a hunger to feel nature (biophilia) and to experience beauty. Urban agriculture can meet these needs too.

While it might seem to be inspired by the “small is beautiful” idea made famous by a 1970s book of that title, the project deserves to be named “tall is beautiful.” Lacking space on the ground, the gardens rely on “vertical cultivation structures.”

Business thinkers in the Global North are often captivated by the idea of “Blue Ocean” thinking. This refers to the wide blue yonder of the open ocean, where a small and industrious creature can work hard without worrying about being eaten by aggressive and dangerous whales or sharks. The whales and sharks eat their fill in an ocean they’ve made red with the blood of the fish who were looking for the easy life in more abundant waters.

The metaphor of blue and red ocean is meant to encourage small, independent and hard-working entrepreneurs to venture into new territories, where their hard work won’t be gobbled up by big competitors.

This is the business classic that inspired Blue Ocean strategy. City farmers in the slums of Sri Lanka invented their own form of innovative blue sky thinking.

We might refer to FBG as a school of “blue sky,” rather than “blue ocean” thinking. Competition for space on the ground is intense, but space is there for the taking up above. Innovation is looking up.


Having said that, growing food in the air is challenging, to say the least. It takes serious innovation, imagination and savvy to develop no-cost and low-cost technologies that make use of this space. We might call it airscaping instead of landscaping.

Mining in space? Here’s an ultra-modern version of Sri Lanka’s Cultivation Tower, based on the same model of pointing a row of salad upward, where plants do what they do best — reach for the sun.

The Cultivation Tower makes the grade. Towers are made of bamboo or plastic pipes. The hollow pipes are filled with soil,and seeded through punctured holes at regular intervals. Instead of a row of greens on the ground, we have a pipe of greens, perhaps leaning against a wall.

I first saw a version of a cultivation tower when I toured the rooftop food production facilities at the Free University of the Earth in Oaxaca, Mexico. I had just given a talk there, and was taken to the roof by students, who were expected to do food-related chores as part of their education. Students gathered empty large-sized plastic pop bottles from the street, and filled them with damp soil. Then, they punctured the plastic to make space for seeds. Hundreds of these hung in the air, mostly at shoulder level. As soon as salad greens sprout, they are picked for eating. The containers are harvested continuously, which means new space is regularly made available for fresh sprouts. All the salad greens are eaten fresh-picked, with optimal taste and nutrition. It’s a model of resource, space and nutritional efficiency.


The name for the production system is “continuous harvesting.” It’s sometimes called “pick and come again.”

If a Cultivation Tower isn’t suitable, a Cultivation Wall, modeled on book shelves, can be used. A wall ten feet high and ten feet wide can hold 100 pots overflowing with leafy greens, tomatoes and flowers.

Other variations are the Cultivation Arch, the Cultivation Bangle, the Cultivation Mat, Cultivation Umbrella, Cultivation Cage, Cultivation Rack, Cultivation Cradle, Cultivation Trolley, Cultivation Bag…..and on and on — whatever can hold up or provide backing for containers with plants.


Such airscaping methods not only invent spaces to grow food. The plants fulfill several purposes. They clean the air. They cool the air with their evaporation. They beautify a space.


They impress tourists and visitors, who might buy some of the food. They create conversation pieces that in turn get neighbors talking to one another. They turn food scraps into compost instead of leaving them to rot. They recycle hundreds of containers that otherwise become litter.

In short, Family Business Gardens are “multifunctional.” They perform many functions, including ones that promote healthier and more livable cities. Their efficiency comes from doing many things at the same time, not from doing one specialized task, such as food production, pure and simple.

There’s no reason to think that gardens modeled on Sri Lanka’s Family Business Garden model wouldn’t bring a similar range of benefits to cities in North America and Europe.

For a beautifully illustrated Powerpoint on Family Business Gardens by the author of this manual, see here.


Close to the place in the pile where I found the old Sri Lanka manual was a legal guide to 16 American cities that have adopted bylaws on urban agriculture. It was released in 2011.

The culture of no pervades cities, and is a destructive tradition. The combination of the culture of no with neoliberalism is toxic to progress.

The survey is still a timely reminder of how city governments use the law to stop citizens from doing something new. Zoning is a major tool of local governments. Zoning bylaws are blunt instruments. Their main function is to express a Culture of No, or to be stuck between a straight Yes or No.

For anyone who wants to prevent bad things from happening, No is a quick and decisive answer. Alas, No also has the same impact on anyone who wants to make good things happen. That’s the problem with blunt instruments. It’s the reason why surgeons look for tools that are more agile. They’re not only brainier. They have better tools.

As kids, many of us had conversations with parents that went like this: “Can I go out, mom? No!”

We’re adults and taxpayers now, but we’re still forced into the same conversation with city officials. “Can I have chickens in my back yard, a beehive by the side door, a community garden plot, a street vending cart, a green roof, a food garden on my front yard, a food garden under the electricity wires, a baking oven in my neighborhood park?”


The most amazing thing about city policy on urban agriculture is how often, and in how many ways, food production is prohibited. Lawns are never prohibited, so it’s not a question of cities banning plants, or useless wastes of space. Cities just ban plants that are edible, especially if they’re planted on public lands and if they’re sold.

The lawn, one of the most polluting technologies in North America, has no problems with city bylaws.

Before accomplishing anything in the realm of urban agriculture, cities need to move from “No,” to “Yes, but.”

Permission needed for urban food production could be put on par with cellphone use. People use cellphones “as of right.” Notwithstanding this right, some restrictions are placed on their use in theaters, classrooms, and coffee shops, to give a few examples. Similar kinds of restrictions based on courtesy and public safety can apply to food producers. Urban ag should be assumed innocent until proven guilty, and given a green light to go as well as an orange and a red once it’s going.

Growing food could be treated like driving a car. Yes, you can drive a car, but you have to have a license and obey the traffic laws. Yes, you can grow food, but you have to follow common sense public safety laws and neighborly practices. Urban ag should be assumed innocent until proven guilty, and given a green light to go, as well as oranges and reds once it’s going.

Legitimate limits on city food gardeners could be stricter than the US limits on what kind of machine gun you can buy without any ID or background check, or what kind of permission is required before corporations broadcast false advertizing of junkfood to infants, or the new permits needed to drill for oil, coal or gas on public lands.

But they don’t need to be as strict as limits for driving a car, which requires a test, a license and insurance. Because driving a car is actually a privilege not a right, and a responsibility with enormous liability arising from irreversible errors.

With urban agriculture and many other activities, we need “a culture of yes, maybe.”

The parent-kid equivalent would be “Yes, you can go out, but take cab money, and call if you’ll be home after midnight.”



The sixteen city survey disappoints me for the same reason I’m disappointed by most reviews of city policies on urban agriculture.

For some reason, urban agriculture policy is stuck on a small portion of the potential of urban agriculture. In effect, government policy effort mostly goes to growing food in public spaces and then selling that food. But most of the real-life potential is in growing food in front and back yards, and then eating that food, or sharing it with friends and family.

Roger Dorion of Scarborough, Maine, founder of Kitchen Gardener International, and key advocate of Michelle Obama’s White House garden

If we are looking for impact, the first place to look is front and back yards, where there are few complications — not public green space and vacant space, where complications are inevitable.

Basic math has to play some role in advocates making good use of their time and resources when promoting public policy. There are lots of people trying to get on the new policy agenda, and a lot of counter-pressures and pushback on politicians on every issue, so we need to check every item of advocacy for impact.

Before focusing on public space for personal gardens, which needs permission for obvious reasons, we should check out how much personal space, which does not require special permission, is readily available.

In the US, about 62 per cent of people own a home. In Spain, 85 per cent of people are homeowners. In Norway, it’s 77 per cent. In Israel, it’s 71 per cent. In the UK, it’s 69 per cent. In Canada, it’s 67 per cent. In my hometown of Toronto, where both house prices and condo sales are crazy, it’s 72.8 per cent, ten points ahead of the land of the American Dream.

Homeowners are not the elite. Many disadvantaged people own homes. They may not live in the toniest neighborhoods or have the biggest lots, but they have homes with space around them. In the Global North, seniors are often homeowners, and are encouraged by public policy to “age in place.” Many homeowners rent out basements and attics to individuals living on low incomes. If shanties in the cities of the Global South are counted as homes, the home base for urban agriculture policy is even more clearly a matter of equity.


I champion policies to encourage growing edible plants on public lands, as one of my earlier blogs makes clear.

Policies that favor public allotments are especially important in countries, such as Germany and Denmark, where a smaller population owns homes. Such policies are essential in communities where home ownership is unusually low — as is the case for well over half the African-American and Hispanic population in the US.

But the place where land devoted to urban agriculture can increase by leaps and bounds in the short-term is among homeowners. To put the potential into perspective, individual American homeowners presently devote more land to growing grass on lawns than all of the US devotes to farming corn, the biggest crop in the country.

Encouraging urban agriculture on personal space relies on public support of the idea, but it does not have to await permission of the government. If cities want to encourage urban agriculture, they should start by encouraging people to grow more food in their own yards and unused spaces.

They need to change practices, not policies. Food advocates need to get over the obsession with policy (I myself ran a Food Policy Council for many years), and put a focus on practices. The place where a thousand flowers can bloom this very season is in people’s home grounds — whether it be yards or balconies.

Rain barrels can be decorative, as well as useful, devices.

Cities should donate rain barrels to gardeners, thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on stormwater management. Cities should train residents on how to establish rain gardens, thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on cleaning up after city streets are flooded.

Cities should offer equipment and training for home composting to condition garden soils, thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on garbage pickup and landfill management.

Cities should give tax deductions to homeowners who follow gardening practices that use grey water (from sinks and bathtubs), thereby saving city funds otherwise spent on sewage widening. Cities should offer tax deductions to people who share their backyard garden space with neighbors who want and need to grow food to make ends meet, thereby encouraging neighborliness essential to successful cities. Cities should pilot tax deductions to gardeners who use hand tools and organic production methods when gardening, thereby reducing the air, water and noise pollution caused by grass lawns — possibly North America’s most polluting technology.

If they can grow gardens in shantytowns of Sri Lanka, what could we do with huge lawns areas of the Global North?

With homegrown urban agriculture, we can replace a lawn crop that causes water, air and noise pollution with food crops that phase out food insecurity and food illiteracy.

These are the easy things a Culture of Yes would do to promote urban agriculture, green infrastructure and vital neighborhoods.

When we see what disadvantaged shanty dwellers of Sri Lanka are doing to turn their yards into oases, a civic Culture of No toward urban agriculture becomes inexcusable.

From that perspective, I would argue that urban ag does not need much more in the way of policy. We need campaigns!! Less putting on policy airs; more growing in the air!

Policy-wise, we need to reconstruct urban agriculture as a series of practical initiatives that can be started today — rain barrels so yards are watered with soft water; composting so yards have quality soil; rain gardens so rain is stored for a dry day; pollinator gardens so crops can bloom; herbs on balconies and windowsills so we have these taste treats fresh and they can substitute for fat, sugar and salt as taste enhancers; and so on.

We don’t need boots on the ground. We need hands and trowels!

Then we can do the math so we show how it pays for the city to support these and make the changes easy as pie. Because the real policy trick is to prove that urban ag is a city issue that will benefit the City with a Capital C.

Campaign-wise, we need to find city champions on councils and in the civil service, and then we need to start knocking on doors — first of other politicians, and then of their constituents.

We need to take urban ag ideas out to where urban ag will happen — onto neighborhood streets. If I were militaristic, I would say it’s time for boots on the ground. I am not militaristic at all, but I am militant (I call myself a happy warrior, like FDR). It’s time to put hands and trowels on the ground!

Put policy in perspective. The purpose of policy is to direct good practice. Sometimes good practice can precede good policy or become the custom and supercede policy, which lags behind the times for decades. In such situations, practice is nine-tenths of the law. So practice is the goal to focus on.

I love the joke about the person who’s lost on the way to a Carnegie Hall concert. How do I get to Carnegie Hall, he asks a passer-by. Practice!! I’m ready to pounce with that punchline as soon as someone asks me “how do we get to urban agriculture.” (For an excellent guide to the role of practice, see my reference to Nevin Cohen who writes about the New York experience.)

We also need to seize disruptive opportunities. In my view, Indoor Agriculture is the new frontier of possibility. We can grow herbs on modest home, office and school windowsills. We can grow salads for a whole street one one underused floor of a parking lot.

We live in a world of abundant opportunities. Promoters of urban ag can learn to create bounty from an area of scarcity such as Sri Lanka. There are options, there for the taking, that allow us to create the change we want to see. That’s where we can build the power base to take with us move onto more difficult terrain.

That’s what food practices and food strategy can be about.

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This is a cartoon of me the day I spoke on urban agriculture to several hundred people at IdeaCity. I think you’ll like the video they did:
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