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March 1st, 2016
Infrastructure • Cities • Energy

Urban agriculture in Havana

The fall of the USSR in 1989 adversely affected its long-time ally, Cuba. A time of economic crisis ensued, which Cubans refer to as the período especial. As resources dwindled and food became scarce, the citizens of Havana took matters into their own hands and a grow-your-own revolution began. Urban farms and allotments sprang up across the city and have been a sustainable source of food for almost 30 years.

The initiative

In response, the residents Havana residents began to grow more of their own food in organopónicos (urban organic gardens). The Cuban Ministry of Agriculture supported them and, in 1994, an Urban Agriculture Department (UAD) was formed.

The main objectives of the department were to:

  • Maintain an adequate and sustainable supply of food to the urban areas of Cuba, particularly Havana.
  • Provide fresh, healthy food to the urban populations at a fraction of the cost of supermarkets.
  • Encourage community activities, in shared organopónicos and other ventures.
  • Create a safe urban atmosphere.
  • Create jobs and improve economic growth.
  • Reduce energy and oil usage, pollution, and waste output.

The challenge

When Cuba found itself abruptly cut off from trade with the Soviet bloc in 1989, the country entered into the período especial, “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. (The US embargoes created a shortage of gasoline for transporting food from rural to urban areas.) After the crisis, Cuba lost more than 75% of its import and export capacity.

There was not enough food to support the population, particularly in Havana, where a fifth of the country's population live.

The public impact

Some sources suggesting that anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of Havana's fresh produce is grown within its boundaries. It provides an example of systematic rethinking of the urban landscape in order to make it more productive. The “food production infrastructure has been woven into the city fabric, with interventions that range in size from backyard gardens to large peri-urban farms.” [1]

Havana's urban growers take this work seriously, and have transformed underused urban spaces into exceptionally productive areas. “The range of urban agriculture types and scales varies greatly, from the large, independently run organopónicos to community-based rooftop farming, to the individual urban plot or allotment farming.” [2]

Stakeholder engagement

The stakeholders are the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture and its UAD and the urban agriculturists themselves. From 1990 to 1994 an estimated 25,000 people worked on about 1,800 hectares of Havana land.

The UPA is supported by:

  • A Technical Advisory Board, representing 11 agricultural research institutes.
  • A network of agricultural supply stores, municipal seed farms, composting units, veterinary clinics, and centres for the reproduction of biological pest control agents.
  • The city's College of Urban and Suburban Agriculture, which coordinates the training of producers and technicians, and helps to introduce new technologies, crop varieties and animal breeds.

Political commitment

The initiative is strongly encouraged by the Cuban Government, which created the Havana Provincial Office of Agriculture, seven provincial technical departments and 15 municipal offices to assist the grow-your-own sector. The Cuban government also provides training and support, hosting many subsidised agricultural stores, three compost production sites, seven artisanal pesticide labs, and 40 urban veterinary clinics.

Public confidence

Grow-your-own enthusiasts, with support from the government, have created many urban farms and small allotments in the city of Havana in order to support themselves and their fellow citizens, and there is a widespread public enthusiasm for the concept.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives stated at the outset were consistent and have been maintained throughout the nearly 30-year period: to promote urban farming in Havana; to help the city recover from its food shortages; and to develop a sustainable model for any city transitioning towards food independence.


As a government initiative, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture evaluated the financial constraints during the implementation phase. Given that the government owns nearly all urban land, the assessment and leasing of land was relatively straightforward. The initiative required relatively little injection of capital as the main investment was the time of the agricultural enthusiasts themselves in farming their organopónicos and other, smaller ventures.


The initiative within the Ministry of Agriculture has been well managed through the UPA and its Technical Advisory Board and well integrated with institutions, the organipónicos and the urban communities engaged in growing their own food.


Several parameters are used to measure the success of the programme, for example:

  • The scale of urban farming. (“Agriculture is now practised by some 40,000 urban workers on an area estimated at 33,500 hectares. It includes 145,000 small farm plots, 385,000 backyard gardens, 6,400 intensive gardens and 4,000 high-yielding organopónicos.”) [3]
  • The amount of agricultural produce. (In 2012, this included “63,000 tonnes of vegetables, 20,000 tonnes of fruit, 10,000 tonnes of roots and tubers, 10.5 million litres of cow, buffalo and goat milk and 1,700 tonnes of meat.)
  • The amount of food supplied through daily deliveries to almost 300,000 people in ‘priority destinations', such as schools, maternity homes and hospitals.


There is clear alignment and cooperation between the main stakeholders: the governmental bodies involved, such as the UPA; the research institutions, in areas such as landscape architecture, urban planning and agriculture; and the urban growers themselves. The fact that the initial steps were taken by citizens as a grassroots movement meant that there was no resistance to the form governmental involvement. “In all, some 90,000 Havana residents are engaged in some form of agriculture.” [4]

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