Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture for Resilient City-Regional Food Systems

By Marielle Dubbeling, Director, International network of Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF Foundation), The Netherlands

Food security in urban settings is a critical issue at present and moving into the coming decades. And as we saw last week, there is a strong role for better ‘city-regional’ planning is building a more robust and sustainable food system. On Monday, Rafael Tuts pointed to examples of where this planning could contribute to cities that more effectively respond to shocks related to climate, natural disasters, or food availability. Today, we continue along this theme with insights from Marielle Dubbeling on the role of urban and peri-urban food systems, and specifically agricultural production, in creating urban environments that are more resilient to shocks and better able to provide for their populations. What do you think? What role does urban agriculture play in food security and resilience?

In an increasingly urbanising world – characterised by growing urban markets, urban poverty and food insecurity – rising attention for city-regional or urban food systems is responding to the need to place food higher on the urban agenda. Urban food systems also respond to current and projected increases in food prices, as well as the increasing consumer demand for local/regional food and control over their own food system (e.g. Slow Food or the Buy Local, Eat Local campaigns). In this context, proximity enables frequent contact between farmers, traders, and consumers, and makes it easier to monitor the production process. For example, in Paris, the persistence and success of farmers’ markets has largely been a cultural phenomenon. However, since the food safety crises of the late 20th century, mistrust in the globalized agri-food system has resulted in ever greater attention and consumer demand for these so called ‘‘alternative food chains,’’ providing people with local quality products, mainly through short food supply chains.

Sustainable city-regional food systems are in their turn an increasingly important component of more resilient cities, and a driver for many other urban policies related to health and nutrition, education, economic development, environment, and social cohesion. Urban and peri-urban agriculture are seen as one of the strategies to contribute to more resilient urban (food) systems.

Resilience in urban food systems, building upon planning in other sectors, requires multiple and diverse sources of food. Urban and peri-urban agriculture are recognised as one of the (but by no means sole) sources, increasing food security at household level and buffering shocks to food price hikes, market distortions, and imported supplies. Poor city-dwelling families may resort to growing food for home consumption and to generate some income to purchase additional food. Especially peri-urban agriculture may increase food self-suffiency at the level of the city-region, thus reducing its dependency on imports. Localised food systems also help retain expenditures within the city-region.

The role that urban and peri-urban agriculture can play in enhancing the sustainability and resilience of urban food systems is, however, not only limited to its role in enhancing food security and nutrition. Attention for urban and peri-urban agriculture as part of sustainable urban (food) systems is also triggered by recognition of its (potential) multiple co-benefits and contributions to community organisation, city greening, waste management, income and employment generation, and more recently city resilience and climate change adaptation.

Debates on resource recovery and efficiency increasingly consider urban and peri-urban agriculture for its potential to close nutrient loops and make productive use of waste, wastewater, and urban open spaces, as well as built-up areas. As a result of its proximity, urban and peri-urban agriculture naturally shorten the food chain, allowing for savings in transport and other post-harvest expenses, and reducing related GHG emissions. Factors other than distance give specific advantages to urban agriculture. In certain cases the hinterlands of cities are especially favourable for agriculture, and there are many cases when a city was established in a given location because of a rich agricultural hinterland. Furthermore, reliable availability of urban resources, especially waste and water, may explain why urban production tends to be less seasonal than rural production, which is an important factor for guaranteeing food security in urban areas. Urban agriculture as well as urban forestry can also have beneficial effects on urban temperatures and related energy needs for cooling and heating.

Setting up short supply chains, which encourage local consumption of local products, acts in favour of food self-sufficiency, because it brings down the level of reliance on imports. One such call for increased food self-reliance and reduced dependency on food from far off was heard in several countries and cities after the 2007-2008 food crises, spurred by sharp increases in food prices that provoked food riots. In addition to the food crisis, economic, fuel, and energy crises, political acts (strikes and conflicts), natural disasters, and climate change may all increase the risk of food shortages and call for food self-reliance. As such, urban food production reduces vulnerability of poor households to such shocks.

With all this in mind, why then do urban food systems need to look beyond city boundaries? First of all, land and water availability and use, production options and volumes, economic and population development patterns, infrastructure and markets (e.g. supermarkets, farm-to-school or table, etc.), business prospects, political relations, and climate variation all best play out and are addressed at the regional level. Working at a city-regional level allows for better balancing and linking of the urban and rural food supplies. A growing body of evidence supports the geographic and economic complementarity between rural and urban production in their contributions to urban food supply. This complementarity should take into account that in reality rural and urban farming systems exist on a continuum with multiple types of flows and interactions between them.

Urban and peri-urban production, however, should logically concentrate on those activities in which it has such comparative advantage, such as the production of fresh, perishable foods (vegetables, milk, eggs); the production of foods that can be grown under space-intensive conditions (vegetables, small animals); and on those production opportunities where its multiple functions (production next to recreation, education, landscape management) can be promoted. In doing so, the challenge for urban agriculture is to demonstrate that it does not pollute the city environment, but rather that it produces safe food products despite a sometimes polluted urban environment.

To make optimal use of the potential contribution offered by urban and peri-urban agriculture, city regions need to spatially plan for it, analyse current city food flows and their vulnerability to externalities and promote localised food production, processing and marketing in order to address these. Many innovative examples of cities doing so already exist. Larger-scale financing and up-scaling are however often still lacking. Local and regional city-governments have an important role to fill this gap.

Read More:
De Zeeuw, H. and M. Dubbeling. 2010. Cities, food and agriculture: challenges and the way forward.

Dubbeling, M, H. De Zeeuw and R. Van Veenhuizen. 2010. Cities, poverty and food: Multistakeholder policy and planning in urban agriculture.

 Photo credit: Marielle Dubelling (RUAF)
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2 Responses to Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture for Resilient City-Regional Food Systems

  1. Labour Aspects of Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture (UPA) -

    While the literature on UPA is booming, it hardly covers the labour aspects – apart from the obvious statement that the expansion of UPA will generate jobs. But what kinds of jobs? To whom? Are they decent? How to make them decent? How to make the most of UPA for the benefit of the urban poor in terms of income-generation?

    The ILO’s (International Labour Office) Sectoral Activities Department has been working on the labour aspects of UPA. An information and training manual is being prepared and will be piloted in Harare
    (Zimbabwe).

    Another (broader) manual has already been published. It approaches UPA within the broader context of the built environment, with special attention to green jobs: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—sector/documents/instructionalmaterial/wcms_190918.pdf

    Activities related to urban food markets are being piloted through a cooperation between Maputo (Mozambique), Durban (South Africa), Belo Horizonte (Brazil) and Barcelona (Spain).

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