Looking Within and Beyond City Limits

Cities and their urban populations are rapidly growing, concentrating people and resource use geographically. Last Friday brought our second Landscapes Roundtable, this time focused on urban food systems, to a close. Over the course of the two weeks, the cast of experts took us from the broader perspective of reaching beyond city limits for sustainable agricultural production and food security, to the specific role of urban agriculture in achieving these goals and linking to the larger system. As guest author Rafael Tuts explained, cities must ”…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.”

Two central issues emerged from the guest authors: that planning for food systems at the city and region level is crucial for sustainability and food security, and more narrowly, that urban agriculture can play an essential role in achieving both. All of the authors positioned urban food production as important to addressing the impacts of food shortages and high prices especially on the food security and incomes of the poorest. Marielle Dubbeling noted how urban and peri-urban agriculture contributed to resource recovery and efficiency. In fact, Mary Njenga and Nancy Karanja illustrated this point with an example of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. In Africa in particular, Njenga and Karanja demonstrated how urban agriculture can recycle waste water through irrigation systems, use inorganic materials for construction of garden infrastructure, and provide raw materials for alternative fuel sources. Taking a ‘systems’ perspective, and integrating across different sectors allows for efficiency and reduced waste in a closed loop food-energy-water nexus.

Though urban agriculture is of course a key piece of the puzzle, the authors also discussed how resilience in cities and urban food systems ultimately requires looking beyond the city limits, and adopting a landscape perspective in which the urban and rural are linked and the full suite of land uses impacted by cities are considered. Laura Shillington hearkened back, noting the the urban-rural divide is largely a recent phenomenon stemming from the creation of abstract boundaries. In fact, as Mark Redwood argues, land directly around cities is some of the most productive and intensely cultivated, and therefore must be on the radar for city and regional planners and a centerpiece in planning process.

City-region planning, to call on a phrase used by many of the authors, can make strides in terms of zoning and tenure regulations that dictate land use and development patterns within and abutting urban boundaries. Authors also discussed elements of integrated landscape management, particularly in terms of coordination mechanisms that could help bridge sectoral or stakeholder divides. Policy councils in cities are beginning integrate different perspectives into the codes and standards that dictate how cities grow and operate. Marielle Dubbeling posited that ”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.” These policies and planning procedures apply to operations within cities themselves, but also dictate the development and infrastructure bordering city limits, the restrictions on flows of agricultural goods into and out of urban centers, and the two-way exchange of vital resources such as organic matter between rural and urban environments.

These thought-provoking posts, however, leave a number of important questions for us to consider, including: 1) What is the appropriate balance of focus on urban versus surrounding rural land uses for sustainable food systems and food security within cities? 2) What can a landscape approach bring to the ability for urban and peri-urban communities to weather change and build resilience to food price spikes, climate changes, and other shocks? 3) And finally, more thinking is needed to really hone what it means to take an integrated landscape approach in the context of urban food systems. Who are the essential stakeholders and how do different land uses interacts within and beyond the city limits?

Many thanks to contributors Mark RedwoodLaura ShillingtonRafael TutsMarielle Dubbeling, and Mary Njenga  and Nancy Karanja. The next Roundtable, taking place in September, will focus on increasing agricultural production while maintaining ecosystem health and services. Please contact us if you have questions/comments or are interested in contributing.

Read the full series:
Growing Greener Cities – Introduction to the Roundtable

Taking Root in Cities: An Urban Green Revolution – Mark Redwood

Food and Urban (Socio-Natural) Metabolism – Laura Shillington

Urbanization, Food Security, and Role of City-Regional Planning – Rafael Tuts

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

A Systems Perspective for Urban Agriculture: Food Security, Livelihoods, and Sustainable Environment – Mary Njenga and Nancy Karanja

Photo credit: Marielle Dubbeling (RUAF Foundation)
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One Response to Looking Within and Beyond City Limits

  1. One of our contributors commented: I agree that urban and peri-urban agriculture will by itself not be able to feed entire cities, nor will it provide all food that households need. I came across an interesting slide that places its potential contribution in relation to other strategies needed to raise food production. See the illustration by Jeb Brugmann in his presentation to the recent Megacities Programme (Hamburg, April 2013; http://future-megacities.org/fileadmin/documents/konferenzen/Megacities_in_Action_2013/evening_lecture_brugmann.pdf).

    Thanks to Marielle Dubbeling for the additional insight.