Havanas’s unique agricultural infrastructure emerged from punishing trade sanctions following the fall of the USSR but today provides an exemplary precedent that could be applied worldwide
When Cuba found itself abruptly cut off from trade with the Soviet bloc in 1989, the country entered into an economic crisis of unprecedented severity. Already sidelined from international trade due to US embargoes, Cuba became, almost overnight, a country detached from the rest of the world. In the years that followed, the tiny island nation struggled to export sugar and citrus fruits for more critical imports: the cereals, corn and meat that had become the staples of the Cuban diet. This was the beginning of Cuba’s food crisis, a period in which residents lost, on average, access to one third of their daily calories, the government instituted a peacetime austerity programme for food rationing, and most Cubans experienced widespread, inescapable hunger.
Along with the evaporation of food imports, Cuba lost access to the animal feed, fertilisers and fuel that had sustained the island’s agricultural efforts. Oil scarcity became so pervasive that it curbed pesticide and fertiliser production, limited the use of tractors and industrial farming equipment, and ultimately seized the transport and refrigeration network that was needed to deliver vegetables, meat and fruit to the tables throughout the region. Without the feed, fertilisers and fuel that had once sustained the nation, Cuba’s Green Revolution system of agriculture effectively unravelled.
Presented with a near collapse of its food provisioning system, the Cuban government responded with an overhaul of agriculture on the island, prioritising organic farming methods, the production of useful edible crops and the use of peasant labour. In urban areas, guerrilla gardening initiatives blossomed into new state-supported urban farming programmes, with widespread voluntary participation. These farming efforts have produced ‘what may be the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture’, and in the process, resurrected the country’s local, affordable and accessible foodshed.
An urban farmer in Havana makes the most of salvaged objects, reusing a soda bottle for sowing and roofing tiles as planter bed material. Photo: Andy Cook
Havana has become an exemplary model of this new self-provisioning, a precedent that demonstrates both the opportunities and obstacles for the transference of urban agriculture to other regions. The city has more than two million people, many universal infrastructural elements, and an urban form more like New Orleans than other cities in the Caribbean. Havana provides an example of a systematic approach to rethinking urban landscapes for more productive means: food production infrastructure has been woven into the city fabric, with interventions that range in size from backyard gardens to large peri-urban farms. More importantly, the Cuban government bolsters these urban growing efforts with training and support, hosting many dozens of subsidised agricultural stores, three compost production sites, seven artisanal pesticide labs and 40 urban veterinary clinics.This combination of top-down state support and ground-up citizen participation has proven wildly successful; economist Sinan Koont estimates that ‘more than 35,000 hectares of land are being used in urban agriculture in Havana’.
Urban agriculture in Havana occurs at a host of different scales, from the balcony garden to the multi-hectare fields that comprise Havana’s greenbelt. Havana’s urban gardens typically produce food for human and animal consumption, although the same formal structure of gardens also supports the production of compost, biofuels and animal husbandry. Many of these gardens have emerged somewhat opportunistically from vacant and blighted properties within the city, exploiting usufruct rights (free land provided by the government) to seize available space.
Nearly 8,000 parcelas, or small lot gardens, are found in Havana today. Photo: Andy Cook
Havana’s urban growers take this work seriously, and have transformed underused urban spaces into exceptionally productive spaces. On one rooftop in the El Cerro neighbourhood, a single farmer raises 40 guinea pigs, six chickens, two turkeys and more than a hundred rabbits. His 68 square-metre system incorporates closed-loop permaculture principles, where he grows vegetables, recycles organic animal waste, collects water and exploits a number of inter-species synergies. He has built his own machines for drying and preserving feed, which allows him to collect abundant waste compost from nearby markets and stores and put it up for leaner times. His small rooftop enterprise produces meat for area restaurants and markets; he is one of more than a thousand small livestock breeders in Havana.
In an effort to introduce food production into the city, agricultural initiatives were necessarily layered over, and knitted into, existing urban fabric. From an urban design perspective, Havana’s agricultural landscapes demonstrate that productivity can be infused into hardened urban landscapes. While food security hasn’t traditionally been considered the domain of architects, landscape architects and planners, designers bring an important lens to urban agriculture, where food production must be appliquéd onto extant urban fabric.
Havana’s urban farms have varying levels of infrastructure and investment, but much of the labor is done by hand. Photo: Andy Cook
More than 400,000 oxen teams have replaced tractors in Cuba, and oxen are not uncommon even in city farms, including this team working the fields at the Vivero Organipónico Alamar. Photo: Andy Cook
As architects, landscape architects, planners and educators look for time-tested models addressing the sister issues of resource scarcity and food security, the progressive urban farming work stemming from Cuba’s Special Period stands out as a rare and important precedent. Widely understood to be ‘one of the most successful examples of urban agriculture in the world’, Cuban urban farming incorporates grassroots organising, the appropriation of public space for growing, and shared technical and educational support. This surprisingly effective movement stands in stark contrast to other wartime or post-disaster environments, with outcomes ranging from profound self-sufficiency and widespread community engagement to environmental remediation and improved stewardship. Moreover, this Cuban model highlights a number of infrastructural, social and political features that could be applied to other areas.
Indeed, the urban agriculture practised in Havana provides an important model for any city transitioning towards food independence. As climate change intensifies and energy, land and water reserves diminish, many see the value in a return to local economies and the development of more resilient food systems. Cuba’s model – affordable, accessible, comprehensive, and de facto organic – could be particularly instructive for other nations seeking improved food security.
With natural and man-made disasters increasing in both frequency and severity, architects, landscape architects and planners can help cities to plan for resilience by identifying replicable methods for self-sufficiency. Cuba presents a useful case study because the country has endured a food crisis and has thrived: the model urban farming programmes under way in Cuba demonstrate 25 years of self-sufficiency and food security in an oil-scarce environment. And while Cuba was forced to innovate due to the food crisis of 1989, other countries have the opportunity to develop their own self-sufficiency before such a crisis unfolds.
This urban farmer also has chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, and vegetable production on his rooftop. Photo: Andy Cook
Reusing soda bottles for watering devices, and using permaculture techniques for animal husbandry on his rooftop, this El Cerro farmer tends to more than one hundred rabbits. Photo: Andy Cook