Taking Root in Cities: An Urban Green Revolution

By Mark Redwood, Program Leader Climate Change and Water, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada

Mark Redwood is an urban and environmental planner who specializes in water, sanitation, and urban agriculture. He kicks off our Roundtable topic of urban food systems with a discussion of one of the major shortfalls in addressing urban food security – planning. With coordination and improved urban land policies as main themes, today’s post provides a few action items toward a more integrated approach to addressing urban food security.

In 2008, the United Nations marked the first year in which more than 50% of humanity was living in cities and towns. Given the short time scale in which urbanization has occurred, this migration has profound consequences for both society and economies worldwide. Urbanization has two faces: on one hand, the promise and potential of cities as engines of growth has driven wealth creation and pulled many out of poverty (take China and India, for example). On the other hand, there is a more desperate scenario of cities whose growth has outpaced their ability to govern, leading to failing infrastructure, a lack of basic services for the poor, dense slum areas, highly polluted landscapes, and food-insecure households.

The proportion of developing country household expenditures that is dedicated towards food is huge. Consider that, in Dar es Salaam, food comprises up to around 80% to 85% of household expenditures for slum dwellers in the city. The Asian Development Bank has found that among the poor in Asia, 60% of income is spent on food. In Kinshasa in the Congo, the number is around 70%. This, when compared to the US and in Canada (6% to 15%, respectively), points to how vulnerable urban dwellers in the Global South are to changes in food prices.

And yet, few planners and architects think about agricultural policy when designing cities, even though the connection between where people live and where food is consumed is so unmistakable. Moreover, planners rarely acknowledge the fact that land immediately surrounding cities – and often within city boundaries – is frequently the most productive and intensively cultivated. It is also land that is under threat from irresponsible urban development. Cities need to be part of the solution to help stabilize food markets.

Urban agriculture is part of a much larger strategy that is required to improve food security. It is practiced with the aim of reducing household food costs and often produces excess food for sale, thus increasing household income. In some cities of the world, a large amount of land is being used for farming, and mostly to supply the local market. It is natural that food will be produced close to where it is consumed. Moreover, the benefits can be marked – more nutritious food grown by families, less reliance on marketed commodities. Urban agriculture is also a very popular way for illegal migrants, squatters, and other people living on the margins to become more politically engaged and aware.

There are several things that cities can do, as evidenced by the acknowledged leaders in urban food security and urban agriculture (Toronto, Rosario in Argentina, Governador Valdares in Brazil, Lima, Sao Paolo, Montreal, Amsterdam, London, Blantyre in Malawi, Kampala amongst others). First, cities should protect productive agricultural land – this means encouraging more dense forms of development and preventing sprawl. Second, land policy in and around cities needs to be designed in a way that accepts agriculture as a legitimate land use – this is easier said than done. Most cities render agriculture as an illegal activity because of health fears (and that law is often ignored). If it is legal, it can be regulated and risks can be managed. Rosario separates parkland from agricultural land. The city also has established favourable tax incentives for private owners of idle land to make it productive. In other words, community associations of farmers are able to access vacant land to produce for market.

Third, the establishment of city markets where the sale of local food products is encouraged, is a key way to not only help sellers reach their consumers, but also to ensure that health standards are maintained. Finally, food policy councils are a very helpful method to coordinate municipal responses to food security and to raise its visibility in local settings. Witness the city of Toronto, where a food policy council has acted to integrate local food production into farmer’s markets supported by the city. A food policy council in government serves as an “anti-poverty cell,” in a sense, and can ensure that land use planning is coordinated with community development and health authorities for the benefit of food production.

To be sure, more is required than simply supporting urban food production. A new ‘Green Revolution’ is urgently required, especially for Africa where food security is a serious problem. Advances in biotechnology, such as heat-resistant crops and higher yielding varieties, will be important in the medium and long-term, and need to be part of the solution. Also, improving on food waste and loss is essential, given that upwards of 30% of food is wasted or lost due to poor infrastructure and consumption patterns. So, urban agriculture may not be glamorous, but it offers one more tool to add to this toolbox for cities faced with food insecurity.

Read More:
Agriculture in Urban Planning: Generating Livelihoods and Food Security – IDRC EBook

Photo Credit: syntheticaperture
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