Orchards and vegetable gardens provide excluded groups with food, income, a focus for shared enterprise and a constructive channel for young people's energy
Hunger, poverty, exploitation and lack of hope can lead to high rates of crime, prostitution, child neglect and drug abuse in developing cities. The young are particularly vulnerable. In the developing world as a whole, almost half the population is under 25 years old; in sub-Saharan Africa, 43 percent is under 15. As high birth rates and rural migration add millions to the youth population over the coming decade, urban frustration could reach boiling point.
By providing food, income and a focus for shared enterprise, urban and peri-urban horticulture helps build happier, healthier communities. It integrates excluded and vulnerable groups into the urban social fabric, and offers a constructive channel for young people's energy.
In Colombia, for example, the "Bogotá without indifference" community gardening programme extends the benefits of vegetable gardening to former combatants, the elderly, female prison inmates, the disabled and people affected by HIV/AIDS.
In the Nairobi slum of Mathare, young men with a past as petty thieves now earn a decent living growing and selling vegetables to their community. Income helps pay for fees to attend night school. Community gardens in Buenos Aires are described as "symbols of vitality and growth" in neighbourhoods long known for crime and poverty.
Evidence from cities around the world underscores the positive impact of urban and peri-urban horticulture on women, youth and children. Among the benefits cited by participants in a community micro-gardens project in Senegal was social networking among previously isolated housewives.
In outlying areas of Mexico City, women employed as domestic servants in the city centre were leaving home at 4 a.m. and returning at night. During their absence many of their children frequented street gangs. By switching to horticulture, they not only found a new source of livelihood, but were able to dedicate more time to child care.
In Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where an entire generation of parents has been lost to AIDS, an NGO has started school gardens and backyard plots for orphan-headed households, linked to a health clinic. Grandmothers have formed a tightly knit social circle that provides care and support, and school attendance has increased by 25 percent. In Namibia's dusty Katatura township, FAO helped a gardening group, called "Hope", to establish a horticulture training centre for others in their community.
FAO says urban and peri-urban horticulture should have an important place in slum upgrading schemes and the design of new neighbourhoods for the urban poor. As well as income and food, orchards and vegetable gardens offer a healthy urban living environment, a connection to the rural and the natural - and the pleasure derived from hands in soil and watering green plants round sunset.