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Home>FFTC Document Database>Extension Bulletins>A strategy to strengthen the local food systems in Korea: urban agriculture

Hogun Chong, Tae-Gon Kim
Korea Rural Economic Institute
119-1 Hoegi-Road, Dongdaemun-ku,
Seoul, 130-710, Korea


Though the magnitude of interest is dependent on the level of economic growth or food scarcity of a country, along with global growing concern for food safety, secure food supply, environmental pollution, people get more interested in local food system that is quite related with slow food and food mileage. The private as well as public sectors including central governments are putting various efforts to strengthen local food systems. Examples of which are urban agriculture, farmers' market, direct-to- consumer sales, school meal program and diverse `eat local' campaigns.

In local food systems, social distance between producers and consumers is as important as physical distance that people can easily think of. The physical distance is based upon transportation cost while the social distance is based upon their trust and understanding. In both sides, urban agriculture plays an important role. In a country like South Korea, where is Seoul, and other 5 metropolitan cities stand for 48% of the population. The other 72% if including the surrounding areas, even a small increase of urban agriculture can significantly reduce transportation cost. Also urban agriculture can change citizens' way of thinking about agriculture and farmers, either allowing them to get a chance to be farmers or to see product and how they are grown.

Urban agriculture can be both intra-urban and suburban, the former favors physical distance while the latter, is biased towards social distance. Recently in Korea, traditional local markets drew attention again as well as diverse forms of urban agriculture. In this paper we first take a look at the scope of urban agriculture vis-a-vis the role of central and local government. Couple of cases in urban agriculture is introduced where vision and tasks of urban agriculture are derived. Some examples of tasks are to secure farming land in suburban areas in the long run, to expand supply of backyard vegetable garden, to increase exchange of information between producers and consumers, and systematic promotion of urban agriculture.

Keywords: food safety, local food systems, urban agriculture, backyard gardening, roof gardens


Though the magnitude of interest is dependent on the level of economic growth or food scarcity in a country, along with growing concern for food safety, unstable food supply from weather change and environmental pollution, people get more interested in local food systems. The local food systems, which are quite related with slow food and reducing food mileage, helps us to be able to produce and consume within local areas. The private as well as public sectors, including central governments, are putting various efforts to strengthen local food systems. Examples of these which we can easily recall are urban agriculture, farmers' market, direct-to- consumer sales, school meal program and diverse `eat local' campaigns.

In local food systems, social distance between producers and consumers are as important as physical distance. The physical distance is based upon transportation cost while social distance is based upon trust and traceability. In both cases, urban agriculture can play a significant role. In countries like Korea where Seoul and 5 other metropolitan cities stand for 48% of the population (or 72% if including the surrounding areas), even a small increase of urban agriculture can significantly reduce transportation cost and produce many positive effects such as harmony between the rural and the urban areas, quality of life in cities, so on (Jeong, 2011). Also urban agriculture can change citizens' way of thinking about agriculture and farmers, either allowing them to get a chance to be farmers or to see how farm products are grown. Hence, local food system will be strengthened naturally as urban agriculture grows (Chul-Gyu Kim, 2011). In addition, we will make a progress in the preservation of the environment, a development in domestic agricultural industry, and healthy and sustainable food supply.

Urban agriculture pertains not only to people living in the city but also those around the city (peri- urban). The former favors physical distance while the latter is biased on social distance. Recently traditional local markets drew attention again and diverse forms of urban agriculture have been shown in Korea. Local markets in cities were used to be located at the suburb of each direction of the castle and named dongmoon (east gate), seomoon (west gate) market, so on depending on which side it is located. They are regaining their market share that had been lost due to large- scale distributors or marketing chains.

Participation in agriculture by local citizens has been expanded. For example, in 2005 one city farm school in Seoul produced 50 new city farmers who either use the rooftops or backyards of their houses for farming. They also go to weekend community farms. Now, there are 30 of these city farm schools in Korea that can produce more than 2,000 new city farmers. In addition to backyard vegetable gardens, agricultural tourism or the farm provides agricultural experiences to urban residents. Repeating these activities, they get more pleasure and make themselves better understand what agriculture is all about. Communication and direct transaction between rural and urban residents are increasingly appreciated as well.

The number of citizens who are interested in agriculture is growing as social problems such as aging population, overcrowded cities, food safety and environmental pollution are growing on the rise. As they recognize the problems, not only do their interest in agriculture increases, but also various changes in agriculture are observed. Urban agriculture has developed into various shapes including its industrial, empirical, and educational aspects. It is multi-functional, which draws more attention socially and politically, conserving the eco-system and environment as well as maintaining the order in the local community. Hence, agricultural extension centers in Seoul and 6 other metropolitan cities, whose major role had been relegated to technical and input support for production, recently initiated an urban agriculture team in order to support urban agriculture efficiently. Also many kinds of civil associations participating in urban agriculture were organized and have been doing activities dealing with agricultural demands of its citizens.

Foreign cases for example, are the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in US that is related with citizens' farming activity or rural-urban exchange, the AMAP (Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne) in France consumers and producers meet and decide together the amount and kinds of productions and the Gisangiso , which means "to consume" were produced in Japan (Park, 2005).

In this paper, we first take a look at the scope of urban agriculture then the role of central and local authorities. Campaigns undertaken by the private sector are also discussed. The paper concludes with what is necessary to foster urban agriculture based on the survey and a review of recent studies including Tae- Gon Kim, et al. (2011) and the RDA(2008). Some examples of tasks to foster are to secure farming land in suburban areas, to expand supply of backyard vegetable garden, to increase exchange between producer and consumer, and systematic promotion of urban agriculture.

Scope and functions of urban agriculture

The early or micro definition of urban agriculture is commercial farming practice using backyards or idle lands in a city. As gradual interest and demand for urban agriculture is growing, it has transformed to a new paradigm toward sustainable ecological community. The emphasis also expands to relaxation and healing, forming a community, forming an eco-friendly space, and balanced development between urban and rural areas.

Nowadays, urban agriculture means both the urban and peri-urban areas. Naturally the advantage of the nearness from the areas of consumption makes sales easier and provides more opportunities for empirical or educational businesses. Mean-while, there are factors interrupting development of agriculture in urban areas. Being compared with lands in rural or town areas, the land in cities is much more expensive and has stricter environmental regulations. It might be one of the reasons why backyard, rooftop, portable beds, and terraces become more popular for urban agriculture, even though they are far from the economies of size which makes them economically unattractive.

In Korea, when we confine urban agriculture area to Seoul and 6 metropolitan cities (Busan, Taegu, Inchon, Gwanju, Dageon, and Ulsan), it has 34,250 ha. of land used for it, which is 2% of the total farming land. This means not onlyfull-time or part-time farmers are included but also all kinds of activities ranging from weekend farming, recreational or educational purposes which cultivate a variety of products such as rice, vegetables, flowers, and fruits are offered. The citizens engaging in urban agriculture, who get pleasure from self-produced products, also purchase agricultural products nearby. It contributes to the increase in agriculture's value-added mode.

When we count all the functions that urban agriculture can perform, they can be categorized into 1. industrial, 2. environmental, and 3. educational, cultural and social. Urban agriculture sheds light in both aspects of personal economic interest and public interest even in living atmosphere, ecology, and culture. (Fig. 1). In its industrial aspect, it can provide fresh products to citizens like what the JIT, one of the inventory control systems, in manufacturing does. Farmers commercially running urban agriculture demand most of their farm inputs as other farmers do. The functions in environmental aspect have both steady and presentational ones. It constantly either stops deteriorating or improves the quality of water, air and soil and also lessens the risk of fire and flooding. In terms of educational and cultural aspects, citizens who experience farming can better understand the true value of farming and farm products and learn how to cooperate with neighbors while working together at community gardens. In addition, mostly farmers who run urban agriculture commercially succeed in farm technology while those in the cities can preserve rural culture. In terms of social aspect, dynamic communities or those pursuing common goal can be formed among citizens or between the urban and the rural areas (Oh, 2006).

While the size of urban areas shrinks from the competition with other urban modernization efforts, multi-functionality such as conserving environment, landscaping, and preventing hazards becomes more important than before, as cities become more overcrowded. As we can spare more time for leisure and become more family-oriented, the demand for recreational purposes for a family unit and empirical farming for self consumption increases. In addition to community gardens and personal backyard in a house that were conventionally used for apartment terraces, crates and roof gardens, those in buildings are also frequently used by many individuals as well as groups. Most of the private community gardens were owned by farmers who cultivate them before they are leased or rented. However, after citizens were allowed to own smaller than 1,000m2 of land for community garden purposes in city on 2003, community gardens owned by both farmers and citizens were expanded. In recent few years, the new purchase of agricultural land for community garden by citizens is between 4,000-5,000 ha per year.

One of the important multi-functionalities is education. Farming experience allows students to better understand agriculture as well as acquire a culture of aesthetic sentiments. They grow vegetables and write farming diary in schools. The effects of education in urban agriculture is produced from many shapes. They include vegetable growing with diary writing in ordinary schools, and education programs provided by agricultural extension center in local government. In addition, a return to farming education for the retired citizens is also being undertaken.

As shown in Table 1, the citizens feel that the provision of fresh and safe products is the most important function which urban agriculture carries out. The next is the provision of rest and culture and a provision of farm experience. It shows that the cultural aspect of urban agriculture is more important for men than women.

The role of the public and private sector in urban agriculture

In this chapter, we introduce schemes of central and local authorities and the businesses of civic organizations to promote urban agriculture.

The public sector

As 5 workdays per week has settled and the citizens' interest on leisure activities has increased, the desire of citizens to improve their quality of life has increased as well. Organizing `the National Council of urban agriculture' in 2010, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MFAFF) has regularly made a discussion to activate urban agriculture and made a progress to legislate a so called `basis act to activate urban agriculture'. In order to accommodate the policies of the MFAFF as well as to link urban agriculture with green growth, The Rural Development Agency (RDA), one the agencies of the MFAFF, has run schemes such as spread of green city space, education for the return to farm, discovery of rural amenity resources, and the exchange between urban and rural areas.

The spread of green city space to practice green life includes demonstration of urban agriculture for homes or children, a support to make a business in urban agriculture mainly by the urban agriculture characterization Business Center, and rural life education for consumers. The education for the return to farm covers not only education for farming but also counseling of adaption of rural life and technology information. The discovery of rural amenity resources has run the business including composition of the education center to experience rural life and agriculture which is aligned with the school curriculum. Organizing `the urban agriculture research team' in 2010, The RDA also runs and backs up the necessary technical studies on urban agriculture. Installing `urban agriculture team', the agricultural technology extension centers in metropolitan cities assist experience or training, and the exchanges, etc.

As civil movements, `urban agriculture network, city farmer schools, and so called urban agriculture forum' have found and made vigorous activities in response to the demand of urban agriculture from its citizens. Started in Seoul whose government has enacted the ordinance to revitalize urban agriculture in 2007, local authorities from cities such as Pusan, Gwang-Myung, and Suwon have promoted urban agriculture, making a necessary ordinance and establishing urban agriculture teams. Urban agriculture related schemes by local authorities can be grouped into five categories. They are community, farm, facility, education, and program. Community and farm vary from weekend farm for families to school farm mainly for elementary and middle schools. Facilities such as learning center and therapy garden are arranged for the citizens by major cities. In learning purpose, there are 10 different classes opened by local authorities. It includes home daily horticulture, pastoral life, farmer school, return to farm, so on. (Table 2). The classes cover more than five major cities offered and are composed of home daily horticulture, pastoral life and farm life education. Five programs geared towards different goals are arranged by cities. Green tour programs visit farms in peri-urban areas, offering both learning and empirical practice. Urban-rural exchange center by Inchon, a port city located in west coast of Seoul, tries to promote tours in farming and fishing villages. Cities also support to form civil associations for urban agriculture. It includes `daily horticulture study group' and `urban agriculture network' and they arrange detailed programs from lessons to farm tours.

From Table 1, a few numbers of schemes are described especially for Seoul. Since 1992, Seoul has supported making the administration of weekend farm, which is a typical type of community farm. In 2010, the amount of 60 million won was provided for 25 weekend farms to make shelter, portable toilets, and signposts or to renovate soils, and so on. The weekend farms are mostly owned by private entities, which are composed of three types. One, the farmer who owns and operates, the farmer who rents and operates, and the citizen who purchases and operates. On the contrary, local authorities own weekend farms and rent lots to citizens in Japan or the United Kingdom (Tae-Gon Kim, et al., 2011). A weekend farmer usually rents the lot, a size of 3.3 ~ 16.5m2, annually and grows mostly vegetables. The owner of weekend farms usually provides technical advice, service such as plowing, and seeds depending on their availability (Kwon, 2010).

Rooftop garden program, which started last 2009, assists in building gardens at the roof of welfare office, preschool, or public organizations. 1 or 2 rooftop gardens for each borough in Seoul, altogether 25 of them is planned to be made. Considering waterproof and building safety, vegetables and flowers are grown at the portable beds that are made with either plastic or wood. Silver farm is a program targeted for citizens older than 65 and which has a size of 6,200 m2 farm land for free to 300 citizens. Dadung-yi farm is for the family which has more than 3 children, with a size of 1,200 m2 farm land to 100 families. Seoul also builds and runs a horticultural therapy garden, and a citizen nature learning center for its citizens. The citizen nature learning centers run by agricultural technology extension centers, have facilities such as eco-friendly learning field that shows natural enemy, bugs, eco-friendly inputs, traditional farming tools, agriculture exhibition center, and wild flower fields. Work-study for children held at the citizen nature learning centers accommodates more than 2,500 children per year. (Table 3).

There are education programs such as home daily horticulture, farm life education, and pastoral life. Home daily horticulture from Seoul agricultural technology extension centers started since 1985 and offers free lectures on growing flowers as well as for vegetables. Lectures have three classes reflecting different demands. These are beginners, intensive, hobby and each class has between 300 and 500 students. Pastoral life program, which started in 2004, is organized by preparation of pastoral life, environmentally-friendly farming education for each crop, field trip and case study of pastoral life. The distribution of time for the program is 40% theory, 40% field exercise, and 20% case study. The return-to-farm program, which started in 2009, is divided into introduction level that focuses on preparation for return to farm and basic farming practice and expert level which focuses on environmentally-friendly farming education for each crop. The return-to-farm program is more intensive than the pastoral life program and takes around three months.

Green tours, which started in 2008 allows citizens to visit various crop fields such as vegetables, fruits, flowers, and rice allows people to try their hands at farm related activities. Most of the fields visited are located in Seoul with direct transactions during the visit. Farms allowing green tours visit get assistance on making a space for the education as a reward. There are also programs such as food processing, preparing traditional Korean foods for both the domestic and the foreign markets.

The civic associations working diligently for urban agriculture are the city farmer school from the Return-to-Farm Movement Center, Inchon Agriculture Network, and the Urban Agriculture Forum, so on. The city farmer school, having a goal of fostering city farmers, is running 10 different classes for both learning and practice. Inchon Agriculture Network has to deal with environmental problems, food safety and also youth related problems in Inchon. It runs not only city farmer schools but also eco-backyard classes for kindergarten and daycare centers, and provides portable beds to members.

The Urban Agriculture Forum which started from 2010 January is a civic organization and has members from different classes including culture, art, media, housekeepers, etc. To allow more citizens to know and get interested in urban agriculture, it runs promotions as well as education classes to stress safe food and environment to the current as well as future generation. It also does research and participates in seminars or fairs. A few examples of the research are `a development of urban agriculturemodel fitted for Korea in 2010' and `a study on Japan citizen farm in 2011'. The city farmer school, one of the major activities by the Urban Agriculture Forum, is now running a third one and most of the students are forum members and opinion leaders in many fields. The class opens every Tuesday and focuses on community garden and garden humanities rather than commercial technologies. The content of the class is also composed for a field practice and an outdoor class not for the classroom.

We can say that up to now, urban agriculture in Korea is still in its infancy stage and the lack of interest from the society results in underestimation of its importance. According to the survey done by KREI (2010), only the 9.7% of those who answered know the multi-functionality of urban agriculture while the 38% don't. And the understanding and a bond of sympathy of government is not enough as well and results in insufficient schemes, budget and government bodies for urban agriculture. An ideal urban setting is based on farming faithful to the basic as well as revitalization of all the regional urban agriculture associations. It is supposed to be a joyful farming and activities in which all classes of citizens come together. In order to revitalize urban agriculture, the associations need to have more studies and education emphasizing safe food, urban landscape, and social welfares such as healing, leisure activity, and communication among neighbors. The education and development of classes for the future generation is as important as the one that meets current demand.

Fostering urban agriculture

After reviewing various types of urban agriculture in Korea, from commercial to being a mere hobby, we can conclude that unreliable lease of farming lands and regulations in usage of land in cities are major issues in developing urban agriculture. The survey showed that expansion of community farm is most important for revitalizing urban agriculture. Citizens also think that provision of information about community farms, amenities in farm is not sufficiently provided. (Table 4).


To secure the usage of land for urban agriculture is top priority for many others. As long as we view that the usage of land for city development has greater economic value than the usage for agriculture, then urban agriculture is destined to be unstably managed. High price of land makes the expansion of urban agriculture by land purchase as difficult and the expansion by lease becomes more common, which contributes to more constraints on substructure investment as lease system is not yet well established by law. So, there is a need to consider that so called `agricultural zone' to set the town planning scheme to ensure farm land in the urban areas in the long run. By designating suitable land for agriculture in urban areas as `agricultural zone', the problem from unstable management would be mostly released and we can be prepared for increase of land demand from such community gardens. When the era for citizen reduction comes, the direction to switch to land usage can be opposite, meaning from housing to agriculture. In this case, the supply of land for farming purposes in urban areas would more easily meet the demand.

Recently, the demand for urban agriculture especially for community garden is soaring. Most of the community gardens in Seoul and other metropolitan cities are private with poor relevant facilities and amenities. Because construction of facilities, privately owned gardens are not free from the regulation of land usage, this problem can be solved if local governments purchase and lease lands for community gardens. The local authorities in Seoul and other major metropolitan cities that have already started it, need to expand the land lease program and use other local government agencies for benchmarking.

Multi-functionality of urban agriculture works as public goods, meaning there are many beneficiaries regardless if they pay for it. Consumers of agricultural products can build a system to support urban agriculture using both labor and monetary aids. Good example of this can be the CSA in the US and the AMAP in France. Most of them are contract transactions among consumers and producers, which has food quality and safety as intermediaries, and we expect them to have an effect on maintaining local community and promoting local agriculture in globalization trend (Park, 2005).


Globalization and progress in transportation make the distance between where it is produced and consumed to be longer and people are more concerned about the CO2 release during the process. Accordingly, food mileage concept spreads and there are movements from import to domestic production and from national marketing to local marketing. By consuming foods that were produced nearby, we can expect that local food system becomes more active.

In order to make urban agriculture provide enough service to urban residents, government and urban residents should play new roles. Central government legislates the so-called `basic law for urban agriculture' that is ground for relevant support and regulation. Local authorities establish related ordinances and deal with various local demands for urban agriculture. Until now, cities other than Seoul have been running temporary schemes without any solid legal background. Actively utilizing agriculture as main source of income or a part of daily living, citizens can enhance urban culture and their quality of life. (Fig. 2). We can expect natural promotion of local food system when more citizens communicate with producers and participate in direct transaction with producers of local food (Jong-Duk Kim, 2007). The same should be expected for environment preservation, healthy and sustainable food supply, and stable agriculture industry.


  • Jeong, Eun-Mee. Local Food System Construction Plan for Revival of Local Economy. KREI. 2011.
  • Kim, Chul-Gyu. "The current state and future tasks for Korean Local Food" Korea Society 12(1) pp111-133. 2011.
  • Kim, Tae-Gon., Park, M. and Heo, J. The Vision and tasks of urban agriculture. KREI. 2011.
  • Kim, Jong-Duk. "Revitalizing the Korean agriculture via local food system and its tasks". Rural Society 17(1). 2007.
  • Kwon, Hyuk-Hyun. "Urban agriculture initiated by city of Seoul" Symposium prepared by urban agriculture forum and KREI in 2010.
  • Oh, Dae-Min. Urban Agriculture. Hag-Ji Press. Korea. 2006.
  • Park, Byung-Duk. "The situations and challenges of community support agriculture as a local food system: a case study of old trail market, Moorehead, Minnesota, USA" Rural Society 15(1). 2005.
  • The Rural Development Agency. A Study to revitalize urban agriculture as life farming. 2008.

Index of Images

  • Fig. 1 Function of urban agriculture

    Fig. 1 Function of urban agriculture

  • Fig. 2 Tasks to foster urban agriculture

    Fig. 2 Tasks to foster urban agriculture

  • Table 1 Ranking of functions of urban agriculture

    Table 1 Ranking of functions of urban agriculture

  • Table 2 Urban agriculture related schemes by local authorities

    Table 2 Urban agriculture related schemes by local authorities

  • Table 3 City supported weekend farms in Seoul

    Table 3 City supported weekend farms in Seoul

  • Table 4 Factors in revitalizing urban agriculture

    Table 4 Factors in revitalizing urban agriculture

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