Urbanization, Food Security, and Role of City-Region Planning

By Rafael Tuts, Chief of the Urban Environmental Planning Branch, UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), Nairobi, Kenya

Expanding on the background provided last week on urban planning and integration of food and agriculture into cities, Rafael Tuts discusses the need for more holistic planning approaches to building resilient cities. He is responsible for the implementation of the Cities and Climate Change Initiative (CCCI), which is currently active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and draws on this experience to argue for planning at a level beyond city limits.

We are currently witnessing a second urbanization wave. By 2050, the large majority of the additional 3 billion people will live in Asian and African medium-sized cities. Pressures will be greatest where the urban and institutional infrastructure is weakest. Many of the cities that will be created do not even exist yet. Many of the ones that do exist are ill‐equipped to handle such large‐scale expansions. This is further exacerbated through the increasing impacts of climate change, whereby cities are not only called upon to address the vulnerability of people, places, and sectors that may be affected by a changing climate, but also have a responsibility to mitigate their greenhouse gases emissions to avoid unmanageable climate change.

The global population is reaching a size where cities need to start thinking beyond their immediate interests to consider their role as nodes of human consumption and waste production in a finite planet that is struggling to keep pace with humanity’s demands. Cities must acknowledge warning signs of ecosystem degradation and build their economies in a manner that respects and rehabilitates the ecosystems on which life depends. If cities are to prosper, they must embrace the challenge of providing uninterrupted access to water, food, and energy, and improve quality of life of all of their citizens.

For such rapid urban growth to be sustainable, in the context of climate change and food security, there is need for “decoupling”. Essentially, this means enhancing the quality of life while simultaneously minimizing resource extraction, energy consumption, and waste generation, and safeguarding ecosystem services. Decoupling will depend on how cities are planned and on how city-based energy, waste, transportation, food, water, and sanitation systems are expanded and/or reconfigured. In this regard, there is a clear role for food systems and urban agriculture. Indeed, well planned and managed urban agriculture can play a key role in decoupling, as part of the overall food systems within a city-region.

For this to be meaningful, it is important to consider planning at the city-region level – beyond the boundaries of the urban center itself, including towns, semi-urban areas, and outlying rural lands. At this level, there are key opportunities to plan for landscape mosaic patterns that: protect valuable ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots; preserve natural corridors that prevent flooding and landslides; optimize and expand existing transportation network infrastructure; construct a built environment that uses water and energy efficiently; and promote compact cities and planned extensions (e.g. designating low lying areas and flood plains for agriculture to prevent construction and reduce impact of floods). In this regard, agriculture must be considered as a key land use feature in the city-region where you have such challenges.

Integration of food systems in city-region planning – including regulated urban agriculture in flood plains, incorporation of roof top gardening into building codes, or inclusion of home gardens in social housing schemes or in slum upgrading – requires support from a full suite of urban management and governance measures. In terms of urban management, special attention needs to be paid to health standards, storage and processing, land zoning, land tenure systems, use of vacant land, and access to water. In terms of urban governance, it is important for vulnerable groups, particularly women, youth, and migrant workers, to have a voice in a transparent decision making process.

The work of the Megacities Project in Casablanca has begun to address some of these issues. UN-Habitat and RUAF in Burkina Faso, Nepal and Sri Lanka are exploring various dimensions of the urbanization – food security – climate change nexus. Meanwhile, as the UN-Habitat series of guides on Urban Patterns for a Green Economy shows how in cities, like Dar es Salaam, Hangzhou and Berlin, working with nature is essential to plan for ecosystem health. They are focusing on allowing sufficient space for natural systems to continue providing crucial goods and services like fresh water, food, fuel and waste conversion. Much more work is needed to build up a credible dataset that allows decision makers to integrate these issues in various spheres of policy development.

Ultimately, policy measures at multiple levels will underlie the success of linking food systems to urban planning. Urban agriculture must also be a part of the global climate change and food security agendas and, as such, the co-benefits of climate change adaptation and mitigation better articulated. There is obviously great potential to address the dual issues of urbanization and food security, and we can aim for great impact through scaling up urban food security planning from neighborhood to city-region level.

Photo Credit: luxomedia
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