Gardens Renew Cuba’s Urban Core

Although the streets of Havana, Cuba, are dominated by decrepit buildings, it is rare to come upon an abandoned lot strewn with rubble and weeds. Instead, these disused plots are coveted prizes: sites that precipitate heated standoffs between gardeners with trowels and boys carrying baseballs and bats. But, because the Cuban state favors redistributing vacant plots to those willing to grow food on them, the gardeners usually win. The result is that Havana’s urban fabric now boasts an unusual juxtaposition of decay and growth, as urban gardens and farms arise alongside crumbling architectural remnants of bygone times.

While over the past 40 years the Castro government has systematically ignored the city’s decaying built environment, it has, in the past decade, devoted a certain amount of resources to transforming unused land into urban agricultural plots. In 2002, Cubans produced 3.4 million tons of food from 35,000 hectares of urban land; in Havana, 90% of the city’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens.

The country’s urban agriculture movement materialized out of the Special Period, an economic crisis from 1990-94 when the former Soviet Union ended its food subsidies, plunging Cuba into a severe food shortage. Without any other options, Cuban urbanites began growing their own foodstuffs on unutilized land. This wave of urban agriculture spread not only through Havana, but also other Cuban cities. The result has been the increased production and greater availability of fresh and nutritious food.

The urban farms and gardens come in various shapes and forms. One type is the organoponico, or intensive vegetable garden, where vegetables and herbs are grown in containers on hard surfaces. Then there are the smaller plot, patio, and popular gardens, which are managed by a family or group. Factories, offices, and businesses offer a third model of urban gardens—workplace gardens—which grow the food served in company cafeterias, while Havana denizens practice a fourth type of crop cultivation, one that uses mesh tents to shade seeds and vegetables as they grow. Finally, there are suburban farms, which can be public or private; they not only produce food, but also serve a secondary purpose of filling in the empty spaces around the city’s periphery, so that the land doesn’t become illegal dumping grounds.

Because of geographic, economic, and political reasons, most Cuban farmers use organic cultivation methods. The trade embargo has meant the country’s food producers cannot import the pesticides and herbicides used in other parts of the world; thus, the growers have turned to innovative integrated pest management techniques and all-natural biopesticides. These solutions make environmental sense, too, as the proximity of urban farms to densely populated communities makes pesticides a potential health hazard.

The workers of Havana are not the only ones who reap the rewards of Cuba’s ambitious urban agriculture program; retirement homes, schools, and hospital kitchens also receive anywhere from a fluctuating donation to steady supply of food from neighborhood plots. These gardens, coupled with the comprehensive rural and suburban farms, play a critical role in completing the sense of food security that Cubans enjoy.

As fixtures in the landscape, the urban gardens provide food and a pleasurable visual contrast to the city’s decay. And while many of the country’s fertile patches are out of site behind walls, elevated on patios, or secluded by banana tree branches, they are indicators that despite the crumbling facades, there is much growing in Cuba.

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