Itabashi Ward revitalises its small scale urban agriculture tradition

Small scale urban agriculture in Japan has a long history but is increasingly being diversified beyond just providing freshly grown products. It is offering farming experiences for residents, green space for communities, conserving local biodiversity and, in disaster prone Tokyo, safe evacuation space. In Itabashi it also presents a way for residents to rediscover, and eat, the local history.

Itabashi’s history of urban farming

Itabashi Ward in the north west of Tokyo sits on a flood plain by the Arakawa river. Rice, other grains, and vegetables have been grown for local farmers’ own consumption on this arable land since 1 AD.  As the population of Tokyo rapidly increased between 1868 and 1912, Itabashi’s location meant farmers could easily transport fresh vegetables to the growing markets in central Tokyo. Urban agriculture became an income earning activity for the area.

When Tokyo grew again after World War II the small scale farming industry did not benefit in the same way. As Itabashi’s population increased, large apartments were built over the rice growing areas. The remaining fields were still used to grow vegetables such as cabbage, spinach, komatsuna, cauliflower and leeks, but the farming industry continued to decline. Today, only 1% of Itabashi Ward remains farmland.

Urban agriculture in Itabashi today

Despite the decrease in farmland, farming in Itabashi is being revitalised. 30 hectares of farmland, the highest amount of any Ward in Tokyo, is tended to by 180 part-time farmers. The most popular vegetable crops are radish, potatoes, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. Itabashi Ward holds farmers markets for this locally grown produce. The vegetables are also used for local school meals. During the Harvest Festival, student grown vegetables are sold directly at farmers markets across Tokyo. The Ward also rents agricultural fields from 114 land owners. For a small fee, local residents can use these fields to learn how to grow their own crops.

The rebirth of the Itabashi Radish

Radish growing has a particular history in Itabashi. The Itabashi Traditional Radish is one of the ‘Edo-Tokyo vegetables’ grown in the area since 1603. Radishes grow well in the Ward; they can cope with the summer heat and be harvested after only two months. However other disease resistant radish variants were developed as farming technology increased. As such, though radish remains the most widely grown crop, the Itabashi Traditional Radish previously became extinct.

In 2011, the Japanese Agricultural Cooperative revived Itabashi’s Traditional Radish growing. This involved recreating the Traditional Radish variant and rediscovering the cultivation methods used by Edo farmers. Though a time consuming endeavour, ten farmers in Itabashi now produce the Traditional Radish. It can be bought at agricultural events held by Itabashi Ward.

Moving forwards with urban agriculture

Itabashi’s urban agricultural activities do not stop at vegetables. Grapefruit, mint, basil, and arugula are sold to local Italian restaurants. Flowers such as cineraria and cyclamen are grown in greenhouses for regular customers. These greenhouses also host lectures on flower growing and concerts for local residents.

Itabashi Ward is showing us the potential of small scale urban agriculture to reconnect with our food systems. It is exciting to see the ever increasing popularity of locally grown produce and the different activities being held on the farmland. Next stop; the Harvest Festival in November.

Co-Author Isabelle Ward