Crisis of urban agriculture: Case studies in Cuba

Crisis of urban agriculture: Case studies in Cuba

Tess McNamara, MArch & MEM1


This project investigates the extensive system of urban agriculture (UA) in Cuba, a network that arose out of nation-wide food crisis in the 1990s, with the purpose of speculating how elements of this system might be applied to other nations also grappling with food instability born from crisis. The study is primarily spatial in nature; it investigates the common characteristics of UA land in Cuba, the aesthetic impact of the farms on their urban context, and how UA produce travels from farm to consumer. After visiting, analyzing, and interviewing farmers on 21 UA sites (predominantly government-run organopónicos) across the cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santiago de Cuba, successful and replicable elements of the Cuban system emerged. The farms are often in the center of areas of high density, on vestigial construction lots, and have on-site marketplaces, resulting in vibrant community spaces and immediate access to fresh vegetables. The system benefits in a number of ways from the strong, centralized government in Cuba, which is highly motivated to support in-country food production due to previous instability and ongoing insecurity. Organopónico regulations ensure quality and ‘organic’ methods, prices are lower than other options due to government support and minimized transportation costs, and all land used for these farms is owned and ‘leased’ to farmers by the government. While some elements of the Cuban system are unique to the country’s distinct history and political system, I have identified significant spatial attributes with the potential for replication.

History of urban agriculture in Cuba

Cuba’s history of food production is indelibly tied to the political systems in power both at home and abroad. Cuba’s food instability was solidified in 1972, when Castro signed trade deals with the Soviet Union after the 1962 U.S. embargo. These agreements limited Cuba’s agricultural products to nonessential foods like citrus and sugarcane, and established a dependence on trade relationships for critical goods like cereals and oil. (Clouse 2014: 38). By 1988, Cuba was importing 57% of its food supply (Murphy 1999: 1) with staples like cereals, beans, and rice imported at rates of 100%, 90% and 49% respectively. That year the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc together provided 84.6% of Cuba’s imports and received 81.7% of its exports. At this time, Cuba’s exports were 75% sugar and sugar derivatives, which were purchased by the Soviet Union at an inflated, favorable price (Rosset and Benjamin 18). Up until 1989, the Cuban agricultural sector was characterized by a dominance of export monocultures, scant at-home crop production, heavy dependence on imported raw materials and food, and a high degree of modernization in farming methods, all buoyed by their agreement with the Soviet Union (Rosset 1994: 18).

Therefore, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba lost its supply of wheat, beans, and oil almost overnight (Wright 2009: 3-4). Cuba was forced to develop a way to feed its population of 10.5 million people, 69% of whom lived in cities, without the imports of staple grains and agricultural technology that its entire food system had come to depend on (Rosset 1994: 15). The following decade is defined in Cuba’s history as The Special Period in Time of Peace, an austerity program officially mandated in 1991 that today is a stand-in reference for Cuba’s extreme isolationism. Food crisis followed this political and economic turmoil, and it has been estimated that the average Cuban’s daily caloric intake was reduced by 30% when compared to 1980s levels (Ibid: 22). In the three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this food shortage translated into a loss of thirty pounds for the average Cuban (Clouse 2014: 33).

This period of isolation transformed the country—socially, politically, and spatially. Faced with extreme rations, Cuba’s urban population took to vacant urban land in order to produce their own food. The acute food shortages pushed the government to allow individuals to grow food on government-owned urban land, and in 1993 Castro responded to even more severe U.S. sanctions with the Third Agrarian Reform Law, which allowed 70% of Cuba’s agricultural land to be transferred to individuals and cooperatives through usufruct rights (Schultz 2012). The agricultural systems developed during this period were devoid of pesticides and fertilizers by necessity, and therefore Cuba’s emerging farming practices were organic by default. The Cuban Special Period represents the largest attempted conversion from conventional to alternative, semi-organic, agriculture in the world’s history (Rosset 1994: 34). By 2001, food security was under control in Havana, in large part due to government-supported urban farming (Clouse 2014: 44). From guerrilla growers to the state-run organopónicos, urban agriculture in Havana alone converted 35,000 hectares of land into productive space. By the early 2000s, Cuban officials estimated, conservatively, that more than 50% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Havana were produced within the city (Clouse 2014: 35). A country whose food system was previously reliant on imports became self-sufficient through urban, organic agriculture (Diaz 2005).

The Cuban diet today has improved from its crisis time severity; however the population is still under ‘food stress’ due to the challenges Cubans face in securing a balanced diet. High protein animal products like butter, cheese, milk, and meat are still in short supply, as Cuba’s cattle population has yet to rebound to 1980s levels due to the difficulty of growing feed in a tropical climate (Clouse 2014: 52). The isolation Cuba saw in the early 90s is also no longer a reality. Today, 25% of Cuba’s total food and agriculture imports come from the U.S., including poultry, corn, and wheat. Brazil is Cuba’s main source of soy products, and other food imports come from the EU and People’s Republic of China. (Ibid: 38-39). While Cuba-U.S. relations had shown further signs of thawing in early 2016, at time of writing the inauguration of President Trump casts doubt on future improvements to trade partnerships between the neighboring countries. Although Cuba today has diversified its imports of food, it is still dependent on Venezuela alone for oil, an all too familiar dynamic. The two countries’ 15-year oil agreement is unraveling as Venezuela experiences increasing political and economic turmoil. In 2016, Venezuelan exports of oil to Cuba dropped by 40%, and the Cuban government had to reduce power service daily in state run buildings (Parraga 2016). Cuba’s need for low-input, urban agriculture has not yet evaporated.

Table 1. Location and information on study sites in Cuba.

Name City Affiliation Market Density Size
INRE 1 Havana Collective Organopónico Yes Medium 1.0 ac
24 de Febrero Havana Collective Organopónico Yes High 0.4 ac
Raquel Pérez Havana Collective Organopónico Yes High* 0.4 ac
Oro Verde Havana MINAG Organopónico Yes Low 0.3 ac
5to Congresso Havana MINAG Organopónico Yes Low 1.3 ac
Plaza Havana MINAG Organopónico Yes Low 2.5 ac
La Sazon Havana MINAG Organopónico Yes High* 1.3 ac
San Isidro Havana Other Yes High 0.1 ac
Playa Havana MINAG Organopónico Yes Low 5.4 ac
Las Americas Havana Collective Organopónico Yes Medium 0.5 ac
La Calzada Cienfuegos Collective Organopónico Yes Medium 0.6 ac
Grifo Viejo Cienfuegos Collective Organopónico Yes Medium 0.4 ac
Julio Sotolongo Trinidad Collective Organopónico Yes Medium 0.6 ac
Belleza Productiva Trinidad Collective Organopónico Yes High* 1.9 ac
Hospital Garden Santiago Other No Medium 0.1 ac
Chicharrones 1 Santiago Other No High* 0.2 ac
Chicharrones 2 Santiago Other No High* 0.6 ac
addlinespace La Finca Privato Santiago Other No Low 1.6 ac
Febrero 24 Havana UBPC Yes Low 5.9 ac
1rd Julio Havana UBPC Yes Low 5.1 ac
Vivero Alamar Havana Collective Organopónico Yes High* 27.2 ac


This study is motivated by the premise that with rising global instability and increasing urban populations, our petroleum-based food system will come under threat. Cuba’s food crisis in the 1990s, and the nation’s subsequent use of urban agriculture as an adaptation to this crisis, deserve a fresh look as we enter a time of potential world-wide food insecurity. This is a spatial study that investigates the network of urban agriculture in Cuba in order to speculate if and how elements of the Cuban system might be extended to other nations or cities grappling with food instability in the face of crisis. The study asked four questions of urban agriculture in Cuba: What is the path food takes from growth to consumption? What are the common characteristics of urban land used for food production? What are the spatial and aesthetic impacts of urban farms on the surrounding city fabric? Do urban residents depend on this produce as a food source?

In pursuit of these questions, I conducted field research in urban Cuba during July 2016 (Fig. 1). The cities chosen for in-depth analysis were Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santiago de Cuba, due to both population size and reported significance in previous studies of urban agriculture. While I identified a few sites of UA prior to travel based on information from previous studies, the majority of farms visited were identified while in the field. Once at a site, I mapped the farm, conducted informal interviews, and documented surrounding context. Spatial data was analyzed upon return, and farms were mapped and classified based on the following variables: relationship to Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG), density of surrounding area, and size of lot (Table 1).

Fig. 1. Map of Havana indicating visited and observes sites of urban agriculture.
Fig. 1. Map of Havana indicating visited and observes sites of urban agriculture.

Results and analysis

The 21 sites of urban agriculture that I visited across the four cities displayed three clear spatial trends and common functional significance. Of these 21 sites, 14 were classified as organopónicos: for-profit urban farms run by residents on government land. Of the 14 organopónicos, nine were run by collectives and five by residents working directly for the Ministry of Agriculture. All organopónicos are subject to government regulation, and therefore characteristics such as bed size, vending practices, and types of produce grown are consistent across sites. Two of the 21 sites were larger and run by Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), four were informal with no point of sale, and one was an old organopónico converted into a medicinal herb garden due to problems with water access.

Due to its scale, Havana (Fig. 2) had the most diverse range of UA types, with five Ministry of Agriculture-run organopónicos, five collective organopónicos, and 2 UBPCs. The collective organopónicos are run by worker groups that arrange profit sharing for farmers but are still regulated by, and pay a profit tax to, the Ministry of Agriculture to keep their organopónico status. Generally speaking, these collective farms are newer, less organized, and slightly unkempt when compared to their MINAG counterparts. In both Cienfuegos and Trinidad, I visited two organopónicos each, both run by collectives.

Fig. 2. Centro Havana, Cuba
Fig. 2. Centro Havana, Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is the outlier of the four cities. During field-work there, I did not witness any organopónicos, and there were no points of sale at any of the observed sites of UA. While some of the spatial trends to be discussed do hold true for the more informal farming that was observed, UA in Santiago was of a different tenor. Compared to the bustling sites of UA in other cities, in Santiago no residents or farmers were present, sites were smaller, and had a forgotten, deserted appearance contradicted only by the presence of growing plants. There are a number of reasons why Santiago might be such an anomaly with respect to the type and quality of UA activities. The climate is considerably hotter and drier than Havana, for example, with average temperatures 3° higher and precipitation 10cm lower than its more eastern counterpart (Climate Data). Additionally, the terrain is steeper and more uneven than the other cities, as much of the urban fabric springs out of severe slopes unsuited to agriculture. While the nature of UA was distinct from other cities, the activity was still present and contributes to the significance of an important spatial trend that will be discussed in the following section.

Accepting Santiago de Cuba as an outlier, the UA I observed in the other three cities had significant commonalities, and through my visual observation and farmer interviews, research question one, what is the path food takes from growth to consumption, was immediately answered. The 14 organopónicos were highly regulated and organized—each had an attached market stall to sell produce and were clearly subject to spatial standards. The consistency of market stalls explains how food grown on UA sites reaches consumers, as produce is consistently sold directly from the farm to residents. It is significant to note that none of the farming observed was subsistence farming; all food was produced with the goal of sale for profit at both UBPCs and organopónicos.

Research question two, what are the common characteristics of urban land used for food production, is best discussed through three spatial trends across the witnessed urban agriculture sites: the presence and urban significance of market stalls attached to farms, the confluence of high density housing projects with sites of UA, and the persistent concern of water access for farming activities.

With the exception of Santiago de Cuba, as already noted, all instances of urban farming we observed came with an adjacent market stall, just feet away from the produce production. These markets were consistently within the urban lot of the farm (Fig. 3). Facing the street and typically labeled with the farm name, these market stalls, staffed by farmers, sell the produce from the farm to residents in the surrounding neighborhood. When these stalls are set back from the sidewalk (Fig. 3), as is the case at INRE 1, La Sazon, and Oro Verde, the markets serve as informal community spaces, where residents interact while buying fresh produce for their home, casa guests, or paladar (informal restaurants operated out of residences). In contrast, these market stalls can also be pressed right up against the sidewalk, presenting a welcoming front to the neighborhood. In some cases, like Raquel Perez, 24 de Febrero, and Vivero Alamar, the attached market stall extends the length of the farm, incorporating an entrance and a covered vending area, almost as if trying to blend into the surrounding urban fabric (Fig. 3). In the summer months, the organopónico markets supplement their own produce with vegetables grown in the cooler countryside, an arrangement that maintains their role as bustling hubs of community food access all year round.

Fig. 3. Market at 24 de Febrero, Havana, Cuba (top left); Market at La Calzada, Cienfuegos, Cuba (bottom left); Market and housing at La Sazon, Havana, Cuba (*right)
Fig. 3. Market at 24 de Febrero, Havana, Cuba (top left); Market at La Calzada, Cienfuegos, Cuba (bottom left); Market and housing at La Sazon, Havana, Cuba (*right)

The second trend worth noting is the spatial overlap of housing projects and organopónicos. This concurrence was apparent in La Sazon (Figs. 3 and 4) and Raquel Perez in Havana, in Belleza Productiva in Trinidad, and in the farming seen in the Chicharrones neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba. The housing developments at these sites were built in the 1980s Soviet era, the pre-collapse period in which the USSR’s influence over Cuba was extreme. The USSR was not only Cuba’s main source of imported goods, but also their resource for technology and expertise (Rosset 1994: 30). The time of this construction made these housing projects ripe areas for urban farming in the decade that followed. For example, Organopónico Raquel Perez, founded in the late 1990s, was built on a lot flanked by two 20-story high-rise apartment complexes. This lot was used as a staging area during the 1980s construction, so when the economy collapsed a few years after they were built, the central lot had yet to be put into use and was available for urban farming. This places organopónicos directly amidst areas of high-density residential populations, and means that farms and their markets are within walking distance of a large number of city residents.

Fig. 4. Housing at La Sazon, Havana, Cuba.
Fig. 4. Housing at La Sazon, Havana, Cuba.

The third trend among UA sites in Cuba is the challenge of water access for farming in an urban environment. This was especially evident in Havana, where the government controls residents’ supply of water through a network of crumbling infrastructure, often restricting supply in times of drought (Clouse 2014: 45). Water access is therefore a fraught subject in Havana, and farmers at Raquel Perez, INRE 1, Vivero Alamar, and San Isidro confirmed this by mentioning water use as a point of contention between the community and urban farms. Farmers at Raquel Perez, INRE 1, and Alamar boasted their own, on-site well, an essential resource that both ensures consistent irrigation and appeases residents’ concern about farmers expending the neighborhood’s entire water supply. Access to clean and plentiful water for crop irrigation is a fundamental challenge facing agricultural activity in urban areas (Ibid: 54).

Attitudes toward urban agriculture

Research questions three and four, what are the spatial and aesthetic impacts of urban farms on the surrounding city fabric, and do urban residents depend on this produce as a food source, were both answered by conversations with residents and farmers. The three themes of market accessibility, housing density, and water use influence residents’ feelings toward organopónicos, with the first two contributing to their popularity. A few residents mentioned that they appreciate the greenery that urban farms bring to the neighborhood, a contrast particularly evident in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana (Fig. 1), where treeless streets are filled with swirling dust and unrelenting sun. The farms of San Isidro, Raquel Perez, and 24 de Febrero emerge from this dense crumbling fabric like oases—lush, green openings in a densely packed city-scape.

Many urban residents also spoke of how they love the proximity, assurance of quality, and low price of food grown on organopónicos. As a point of comparison, one farmer explained that agromercados, markets that sell produce grown in the countryside, are five times the price of organopónicos, largely due to difference in transportation costs. Considering this price differential in reference to the average Cuban’s $40 monthly salary implies that residents rely on the food from urban farms to maintain a complete and balanced diet. Therefore, within the Cuban system of urban agriculture today, land used for farming is government-owned and often near high-density development. These farms provide aesthetic respite from a dusty, decaying urban fabric. Food is sold from market stalls directly on the farm, and residents rely on this relatively inexpensive source of fresh produce.


Conclusions regarding the replicability of the Cuban system can be drawn based on both the results of this study and an understanding of the conditions that contributed to UA’s proliferation in Cuba. However, it is first important to discuss the unique elements of the Cuban situation, which complicate a discussion of replicability. It is clear that urban agriculture in Cuba was motivated and enabled by the extreme extent of their food crisis, the enduring U.S. embargo, the strength and power of the centralized government, and both vacancy and low land values in urban settings.

The unique reach of the central government in Cuba cannot be separated from the success of the urban agriculture program. All of the sites of urban agriculture observed were on government land. The legal framework of usufruct rights allowed individuals and groups to use government land for farming initiatives over long-term lease periods for 25-year renewable terms (Schultz 2012: 117-38). MINAG also provides seeds for organopónicos, in effect shouldering much of the burden of cost. This policy and framework of ownership makes it easy for the government to assign land uses to plots of land, independently from market force. In fact, between 1960 and 2012, there was no real estate market in Cuba—Cubans legally owned their homes but were unable to sell them (Clouse 2014: 56). Therefore, after the food and economic crisis of the ‘90s, urban land had no real value: state construction had halted and Cubans could not sell or buy property. These unique land-use policies, and the government’s ability to control all development, are elements of the Cuban system unlikely to be replicated in other countries.

However, there are other UA practices developed in Cuba that have the potential to be employed elsewhere to improve food security in advance of crisis. The cases explored in this study indicate that government support for urban farming practices is essential for ensuring adequate land access and effective affordability of produce. To this end, governments in other nations could subsidize urban farming practices in the face of food crisis, providing seeds and public land to support the activity. Additionally, the on-site vending so pervasive in the Cuban system demonstrates an effective method of integrating an urban farm into city fabric. This market strategy also ensures that time, cost, and energy used in the transportation of food to citizen is minimized—an essential feature of the Cuban system that ensures functionality in the face of threats to the nation’s food system or economy. Additionally, the model of centering urban farms within dense urban populations, like housing developments, has potential for successful replication. This spatial overlap places affordable, fresh, produce within range of a large number of people, who are generally of low income and therefore sensitive to food insecurity. The water issues presented in the Cuban system, resolved only by the expensive project of digging an on-site well, is a significant impediment to proliferation of UA in other countries, particularly those in dry climates. Adaptations involving appropriate plant species can mitigate some of this challenge, however adequate water access is likely a pre-requisite for a successful UA system.

Haiti and Jamaica would be appropriate starting points for a study that sought to apply the lessons learned from the Cuban example to other specific nations. Though their political climates differ from Cuba’s, they are also Caribbean island nations that experience food insecurity in the face of crisis. Both are import dependent and geographically isolated; Haiti still reels from the 2010 earthquake and 2016 Hurricane Matthew; and Jamaica confronts an economic crisis made more severe by the rising cost of imported food (Cave 2005). Overall, the Cuban experience with urban agriculture demonstrates a revolutionary use of urban space that alleviated the impact of widespread food crisis. Elements of this system have the potential to be replicated in other nations, both to prevent a crisis from affecting food supply, and to mitigate the effects of a crisis that is already underway.


I am grateful to the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology and the Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University for funding this project, as well as to Michelle Addington for advising my studies. I would like to thank Reinaldo Funes Monzote for his generosity, as well as all of my colleagues and friends in Cuba who leant me their stories and experiences. I would also like to thank Frederico Labanti for sharing his immensely helpful research in advance of my field study. A final thank you to Zoe Flavin for her patience and sense of adventure.


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Clouse, C. 2014. Farming Cuba: Urban agriculture from the ground up. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, USA.

Diaz, JP., Harris, P. 2005. Urban Agriculture in Havana: Opportunities for the future. In: Viljoen, A., editor. Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes: Designing urban agriculture for sustainable cities. Architectural Press, Oxford. pp.135–145.

Murphy, C. 1991. Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis. Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Parraga, M. and Ulmer, A. 2016. Venezuela’s energy woes spread to its closest ally: Cuba. Reuters (July 8, 2016).

Rosset, P. and Medea, B. ed. 1994. The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba’s experiment with organic agriculture. Talman Co, New York, USA.

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  1. Tess McNamara is a 3rd year dual degree candidate at both the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Architecture, pursuing a Master’s of Environmental Management, and a Master’s of Architecture respectively. Tess also holds a BA with highest honors from Princeton University. Her research interests include climate adaptation, urban land use, and affordable housing.

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