Urban food forests / urban orchards / edible landscapes

Sanctuary Mahi Whenua gardens food forest 

Urban food forests, also referred to as urban orchards, are an edible landscaping practice which mimic multi-layered woodland ecosystems for growing food and promoting biodiversity in urban areas. They are for the most part self-sustaining and typically open to the public to access and in this way differ from community gardens. Urban food forests are often planted in underutilised open areas with the added intention of revegetating degraded land, enhancing green spaces in cities.  

Name of NbS

 Urban food forests / urban orchards / edible landscapes

Type of NbS

Forest, Created Forest



  • Urban
  • Periurban
Children running in Kahikatea farm’s food forest

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

Connection to locally grown food and self-determination over food production is central to indigenous communities across the globe. Furthermore, a reciprocal relationship with the land is central to many indigenous communities across Te Moananui Oceania. Through the ongoing process of colonisation, Indigenous people continue to experience land loss and subsequently lose connection with cultural practices of cultivating locally grown food and foraging from self-sustaining edible landscapes. When community-led, urban food forests can offer an opportunity for people to reconnect with their ancestral ways of co-existence with the land, enhancing not only food security but also a sense of empowerment and agency. 

Climate change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Changes in phenology
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Freshwater flooding
  • Increased temperatures
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts
  • Loss of food production
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced air quality
  • Reduced soil quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Soil erosion
  • Storm surge
  • Urban heat island effect

Rapid urbanisation is a major contributor to loss of land for growing food. 56% of the world’s population live in cities and by 2045, the world’s urban population will increase by 1.5 times to 6 billion (World Bank, n.d). Further to this, industrial agricultural techniques have contributed to degrading land and ecosystems. Extensive monoculture and tillage depletes the earth of its biodiversity, soil quality and nutrients show that industrial agriculture is not sustainable and other forms of food production are required (Nytofte et al., 2019).  

Increasing vegetation and planting trees – carbon sequestration and can lower increased temperatures 

Permeable surfaces, Sponge cities

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Disaster risk reduction
  • Economic and social development
  • Food security and quality
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Rights / empowerment / equality / tino rangatiratanga

Urban food forests provide multiple socio-cultural benefits. They can motivate stewardship practices through a connection with nature, promote resilient food systems, foster social cohesion and well-being, strengthen local communities and enhance biodiversity (Castro et al., 2018).

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Creation of a sense of place
  • Decomposition
  • Disturbance prevention (erosion, storm damage, flooding etc.)
  • Education and knowledge
  • Food production (for humans)
  • Habitat provision
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Pollination
  • Purification (of water, soil, air)
  • Relaxation and psychological wellbeing
  • Social justice and equity
  • Soil building
  • Species maintenance
  • Spiritual and religious inspiration

Increases biodiversity through the creation of habitat

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Technical requirements

There are typically 7 layers required to create a food forest ecosystem including high trees (canopy), medium-height trees which often include various fruit trees (sub-canopy), shrubs, herbs, ground covers, climbing vines using tree trunks as support and an underground layer (the root system) (Sanctuary Unitec, n.d.). Food forests employ a permaculture approach to agriculture and agroforestry, which means less intervention in maintaining the self-sustaining ecosystem and shift away from human centred outcomes towards supporting biodiversity. Planting perennials means that vegetation will continue to regrow and flourish. Generally food forests are maintained by using mulch, in order to conserve soil moisture, improve soil fertility through organic matter and increased microbiology.

Issues and Barriers

The main barrier for creating food forests is access to land.

  • Castro, J., Ostoić, S. K., Cariñanos, P., Fini, A., & Sitzia, T. (2018). Edible” urban forests as part of inclusive, sustainable cities. Unasylva, 69(250), 59-65.
  • Nytofte, J. L. S., & Henriksen, C. B. (2019). Sustainable food production in a temperate climate–a case study analysis of the nutritional yield in a peri-urban food forest. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 45, 126326.
  • Sanctuary Unitec. (n.d.). Food forest. Retrieved from https://www.sanctuaryunitec.garden/food-forest