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Rooftop Gardens for a Resilient, Inclusive Urban Food System

Through a city-wide and citizen-driven urban gardening movement, Chennai will foster a resilient food system for all.

Photo of Parama Roy
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Okapi Research and Advisory

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Greater Chennai Corporation – Government (access to 281 city schools and RWAs in 200 wards) Tamil Nadu Corporation for the Development of Women – Government (enabling job opportunities through women's self-help groups) Tamil Nadu Skills Development Corporation – Government (training for women from vulnerable communities) Care Earth Trust – Small NGO (project management - Urban Horticulture & Urban Forestry) Rain Centre – Small NGO (specialists in Rain Water Harvesting) Centre for Urbanisation, Buildings and Environment, IIT Madras – Other (Soil/ water analysis, certification of civil structure)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Chennai, Tamil Nadu

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Chennai, the capital city of the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India, covering an area of 426

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Chennai city, the fourth largest in India, hosts a population of 8 million. With a GDP of $58 billion it is growing at a rate of 6%. Yet, the fact that nearly 30% of Chennai’s people live in informal settlements/slums is indicative of the inherent socio-economic inequality characteristic of the city. Rapid urbanization in the peri-urban areas of the city and frequent water and heat related shocks and stresses (i.e. floods, storms, droughts) triggered by climate change have been contributing to the loss of much agricultural land and productivity in the vicinity of the city.  

Collectively,these events risk Chennai residents’ access to locally grown and reasonably priced food products while also contributing to rural-urban migration and poverty. This highlights the intricate relation between city’s development trend, water security, and food security. While the entire urban population is at risk, it is the rising number of urban poor, who remain particularly vulnerable. 

Therefore, our vision to foster a city-wide gardening movement is inspired by the growing food security risk that threatens Chennai. The hope is to put the urban population in control of their own food security – so that the rich and the poor can ensure their own access to affordable and healthy food options.

We at Okapi Research and Advisory have been working largely on water,energy and environmental issues, and urban governance and urban resilience at varied scales through adoption of new technologies and science-based approaches. Okapi was strategy partner for developing Chennai’s urban resilience strategy (released in June 2019). During this process, we worked with key public, private and civic stakeholders across the city and identified great popular and political will to commit to an alternative food system through an urban agriculture program. We wish to leverage this momentum to transform Chennai into a resilient and inclusive city with a nutritious and regenerative food system.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Chennai is transforming rapidly. What was once a cluster of fishing villages in the 16th century is now the fourth largest metropolis in India. The transformation, however, has been driven by industrial interests for the most part, with very little land use dedicated to agriculture and significant loss of fertile peri-urban agricultural land to pressures of development resulting in lower agricultural yields and environmental degradation. Further, as a coastal city with low elevation – averaging 6.7m above mean sea level – Chennai’s metropolitan area is highly vulnerable to coastal disasters such as floods, storm surge, and sea level rise. As a city on the lee-ward side of the Western Ghats, it is highly dependent on the 3-4 months north-east monsoon rather than the south-west monsoon which replenishes most of the rest of the country. Over the past few years, the region has witnessed successive water disasters – record-breaking rain and associated flooding, cyclones, and severe drought caused by a combination of natural and anthropogenic factors such as mismanagement of land-use, waterbodies and waste. Owing to climate change, the risk from too much or too little water is only likely to worsen with unprecedented impact on socio-ecological systems, especially food systems which are critical for the local/national economy.

Food is an integral part of Tamil culture, but local produce and traditionally grown foods are disappearing fast with urbanisation and globalisation. Many city dwellers depend on the commercial food market while the rising middle to higher-income classes are increasingly conscious of the negative impacts of processed/fertilizer-fed food and are slowly moving to organic ones. However, these food choices are not accessible to the most marginalised sections of society–the urban poor–who constitute approx. 30% of the total population and are the backbone of the city[1].

As an outcome of the Chennai Resilience Strategy process, Greater Chennai Corporation has expressed interest to introduce rooftop vegetable gardens in public schools catering to 83,000 children from vulnerable communities and build model farms in each of the 200 wards in the city. This growing interest in an alternative urban food system that can potentially bring systemic transformation to a city’s social, environmental and economic realm places Chennai in a unique position.   

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Chennai is rapidly urbanising and growing – in terms of its area and population. It already has a population of approx. 8 million and is projected to rise to approx. 12 million by 2050[2]. This growth indicates the huge challenge of meeting current and future food and nutritional needs of a burgeoning population. As of 2015-16, 31% of children below 5 years in Chennai have stunted growth, which is higher than the state figure of 25%. Further, approx. 45% of children under 5 are anaemic[3] underscoring that accessing healthy nutritious food is a key challenge for the city. The gender variation in access to nutritious food is also a related challenge that needs attention.  

To understand depth and breadth of this challenge, we must take an integrated approach and look at the systemic interlinkages (between the six sectors of economy, environment, diets/health, culture, technology, and policy) that influence and/or are influenced by our food system. The diagram titled “Linkages between Chennai’s food system and other sectors” in the 'full vision section' presents this complex system’s view of Chennai’s Food Challenge. (We added this diagram in the "full vision section" because the option to add attachments was not available in this section). 

The diagram shows that rapid urbanization and transformation of fertile agricultural land in urban and peri-urban areas into impermeable, concrete developments has direct implications for locally grown food for the city’s residents. It also has implications for job loss and increasing number of agricultural migrants adding to the number of city’s poor, slum dwellers and homeless. This highlights the connections across the realms of agriculture, urbanization and economic growth, food and nutritional security, migration and poverty in Chennai city. Similarly, limited access to fresh water raises the risk of untreated wastewater usage in existing farming systems, influencing quality of food, with obvious health implications. It highlights the need for cultural, technological and policy support to transition into using treated wastewater as the primary source of water for urban and peri-urban agriculture. This in turn showcases the linkages across human behaviour and decisions that shape use and management of water resources, their implication for existing water stress, quality of our food, and our health.

While the range of challenges that relate to our food system are innumerable, our vision specifically focuses on addressing the following:

  • Uncertainties in access to nutritious, affordable, and sufficient food, specifically vegetables and fruits that offer key nutrients for a healthy diet;
  • Environmental challenges related to extreme heat, access to water for irrigation, and waste management;
  • Limited civic involvement and consciousness to ensure city’s sustainability;
  • Rising poverty and gender inequality among urban poor who have limited access to nutritious food, income, and jobs.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision is to inspire a people-driven and government supported movement to transform Chennai’s rooftops and available open spaces into vegetable and fruit gardens, to significantly improve Chennai’s urban resilience. We envision a nutritious and regenerative food scene in Chennai where school children, residents, especially women from all socio-economic backgrounds, slum dwellers and corporates, all dip their hands in the soil to ensure a resilient urban future. The envisioned movement will foster urban resilience in the following ways, allowing us to address some key socio-environmental challenges interlinked to Chennai’s food system:

It will allow Chennai residents, especially the urban poor and women to have more control over what they eat, by providing access to a continuous supply of nutritious food and reducing the percentage of income spent on accessing food. According to UNICEF, there is a very strong correlation between extreme poverty and prevalence of stunting among children in India and variability of income is one of the major impediments to accessing nutritious food [4].Setting up rooftop vegetable gardens in the 281 city-run schools for poor children will feed directly into the mid-day meal scheme being run by the government. Scaling up to include residents from all neighbourhoods, these gardens will build resilience among urban populations by developing a shared enterprise that will help Chennai citizens withstand present and future food uncertainties related to rapid urbanization, economic fluctuations and climate change.

By transforming concrete spaces into green spaces these gardens will have a cooling effect on the city which has been experiencing heat waves in the recent past due to changing climate. In May 2019, Chennai experienced a major heat wave (reaching 42°C) and became the first Indian city to reach ‘day zero’ after successive years of drought dried up its reservoirs. These gardens will also increase the city’s capacity to absorb and hold rainwater. The principle of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ will become a way of life in Chennai as solid waste segregation, composting, treating and using waste water for irrigation and supporting rain water harvesting (RWH) will be an integral part of this urban food system. In all this, alternative food system will contribute to building Chennai’s environmental resilience to heat, water and pollution related shocks and stresses.

A gardening movement will build community resilience so that our citizens, especially our youth–the next generation–become more socially and environmentally aware, learn to be responsible for their city and start believing that they too can make a positive difference. Transforming current civic indifference into active civic consciousness, a food-based social-environmental movement will redefine the civic culture of Chennai and build cohesive communities, reinforcing their collective ability to improve the environment where they live, work, create and play.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050 we envision Chennai to be a healthier, greener, cleaner and more equitable city where citizens, irrespective of their economic status, will have more control over their food – a basic need and right for human survival. Being involved in one’s own food production would ensure food quality and make Chennai residents more resilient to climate change and/or market fluctuation related changes in food supply with every citizen having assured access to some amount of fresh and locally grown, nutritious vegetables and fruits.

Chennai will be a greener and cleaner city as we weave solid waste segregation/ composting, use of treated wastewater and RWH into this vision of a people-driven urban food network. Redirecting the nearly 47% biodegradable household waste[5] away from landfills will be critical to solving the city’s solid waste challenge. By encouraging RWH and wastewater reuse through decentralized treatment techniques for gardening, Chennai will also transform into a water positive city. A greener city would also mean a cooler city with higher albedo and greater carbon sequestration capacity.

Most importantly, our vision hopes to see a more involved, responsible and equitable community evolve through the urban food system. The envisioned food system will transform people, especially children, to become more conscious of how their actions related to food, water and waste, matter for the city’s sustainability. Furthermore, by integrating historically marginalized groups into this vision as key beneficiaries and co-creators, Chennai will transform into a more equitable city – providing the poor nutritious, affordable, consistent supply of food, additional source of income and potential jobs.

As a step towards the 2050 goal, by 2030, we hope to see a 30% adoption across the city, benefiting 2.5 million residents.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Chennai, in popular discourse, is often associated with rapid urbanization, severe water stress, expanding slums, increasing inequality between the have and have nots, mismanagement of solid waste and future climate change and sea-level rise risks as a coastal city. Each of these issues, social, economic, environmental, technical and cultural intricately connect to Chennai’s food system is explained earlier (refer attachment “Linkages between Chennai’s food system and other sectors”).

Our vision allows us to leverage these interlinkages such that Chennai can evolve to be a more resilient city that fosters not only a nutritious food system but also a regenerative environment, economy and community utilizing cultural, technical, and policy changes.

Leveraging Interlinkages 
Cultural, technical, policy support

Nutritious and Regenerative Food System
Citizen driven and to a certain extent, subsistence-driven food production will ensure that Chennai’s urban food system is free from harmful pesticides, fertilizers etc. This will positively influence people’s health. In addition, the focus on vegetables and fruits will ensure a healthier and nutritious diet for all, including the poor. The increasing demand for organic food especially amongst middle/upper middle class will offer extra push for such food systems to flourish with potential economic benefits for organic farmers.  
A culture of having small kitchen gardens is picking up as TN State Horticulture Department distributes Do-It-Yourself kits. We envision a wide-spread culture of household level food production to thrive by 2050 – this will need targeted awareness and technical capacity building efforts to transform isolated efforts into a city-wide phenomenon.  
State policies to offer vacant public spaces for urban food production, tax rebates for residents, housing complexes, private schools and institutions practicing urban/rooftop gardening can support this movement in a big way.

Regenerative Environment
The vision hopes to integrate more environmentally sustainable ways of life including waste segregation and composting, wastewater reuse, and RWH into Chennai’s urban food system. This, along with more organic and less chemically-driven food production, will ensure a cleaner and regenerative environment.
Civic consciousness relating to the environment will transform the widely prevalent culture of turning a blind eye to the city’s civic and environmental challenges to one that positively impacts the city’s environment.
Technologies to support on-site and decentralized systems for composting, wastewater treatment and RWH in addition to organic farming techniques will be in high demand. This may open up new green industrial growth opportunities for a more vibrant economy.
Policies encouraging wastewater reuse, solid waste segregation, and RWH are critical for achieving desired goals of the vision. Recent strengthening of the city’s SWM bylaws and RWH regulations will be supportive. Demand of treated wastewater for urban food production purposes may strengthen current commitment to recycling wastewater via relevant policies.

Regenerative Economy
Urban gardening and horticulture will offer a means of economic prosperity for many – citizens can reduce their food expenditure by producing their own food, they may earn more by selling extra produce; especially those who get involved in organic farming will have higher demand for their produce;
Many urban dwellers wish to produce their own food and have access to land/other resources, but do not have the time or knowhow. Several others have the knowhow, but not the appropriate resources. This will open up a critical job opportunity for the latter group who can then work for the former. This urban food system can then contribute to strengthening the economy and building a more equitable economy/community.  

The growing culture of buying/eating organic food has opened up an opportunity for organic farming to prosper at various scales in Chennai.
It therefore also offers economic growth opportunities for organic farming technologies while offering job opportunities to those with farming experience in general and organic farming experience more specifically.  
Policy/programs to connect women and the poor with urban horticulture related jobs will strengthen the economy and support poverty alleviation and equitable development – Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women and TN Skills Development Department will be critical partners to expand their current efforts in this direction.
Regenerative Community
A healthier and a more equitable community is a more resilient community. As citizens become more and more involved in managing their own food, water usage, waste etc, they will become more socially and environmentally conscious of their own responsibilities. Chennai will thus evolve to become a society that knows how to regenerate and leverage its strengths in the face of current and future uncertainties.
Culturally, the lack of civic consciousness amongst citizens will be challenged. People will transform into more responsible citizens for the betterment of the city, and their own quality of living by shaping the way food, land, water and waste is managed.
Availability of technologies and policies to make civic involvement easier will further support such regenerative community building – for instance, a single window online platform offering urban horticulture training and guidance may immensely help broader uptake of urban gardening practice at household level.


We have engaged with a range of stakeholders associated with urban and environmental governance in Chennai from public, private and civic sectors during the Chennai Resilience Strategy development process. This engagement revealed a strong interest in urban horticulture and roof top gardens as a means of addressing multi-pronged social, nutritional and environmental challenges of the city. These stakeholders therefore recognized the potential of developing a local and nutritious urban food system that can make Chennai more resilient by influencing systemic linkages in the realms of water, waste, poverty alleviation, gender inequality, women’s empowerment, and civic consciousness.

During the same time, the Chennai Resilience Strategy team conducted a survey to assess willingness of population groups across lower and middle income sections of the city to actively engage in urban food production and found that 5 out of 6 residents surveyed (sample size 304) preferred to spend time growing produce instead of shopping for it.

The State Horticulture Department’s Do-It-Yourself program and the Greater Chennai Corporation’s interest in introducing urban horticulture in all public schools as an educational tool that may also support the state’s ‘mid-day meal’ program for school children reflect growing public support for this alternate food system. Thus, the vision of translating urban horticulture into a city-wide movement is rooted in community interest and is feasible and futuristic given current trends and priorities of multiple stakeholder groups.

Our vision is to transform Chennai through an urban horticulture movement that:

  • Recognizes the systemic interlinkages between the uncertainties of our food system, urban development pressures, environmental challenges (particularly water, waste, and heat related), economic inequalities and cultural consciousness (or lack thereof) and therefore addresses each of these challenges while empowering Chennai residents to access nutritious and reliable supply of food, irrespective of climate or market related disturbances.

  • Is rooted in community interest and can bring about broad, yet deep transformation in Chennai residents – specifically by shaping young minds and preparing everyone to be more socially active and environmentally responsible citizens.

  • Can be inspirational to Chennai and other cities across India to look and act towards a more sustainable food future that also ensures social, environmental, and economic well being.

In 2050 we see a Chennai where every terrace has a vegetable garden; where citizens grow their own food; where concrete spaces blossom into green spaces cooling the city; where rainwater harvesting results in mitigating the effects of water scarcity; where our citizens learn to be responsible for their city; where the social fabric and well being of our most vulnerable (the poor and the women) are nurtured and strengthened.

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Photo of Krishnamohan Ramachandran

Our flat concrete roofs are ideal for this programme .

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