Urban Ag and Feeding the Cities of the World – Next City

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Urban Ag and Feeding the Cities of the World

A small farm in Erdos, China. Credit: SuSanA Secretariat on Flickr

In anticipation of the upcoming 2013 Feeding Cities conference in Philadelphia, Next City will run Q&A interviews with three of the event’s speakers about their work in food politics and food justice. Read the first installment here.

As director of the RUAF Foundation (that’s the Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security, an international network), Marielle Dubbeling has helped more than 20 cities around the world develop urban agriculture programs and policies to improve food security. In 2010, she co-authored Cities, Poverty and Food: Multi-Stakeholder Policy and Planning in Urban Agriculture, which laid out the case for urban ag as a viable economic development strategy. She has also worked with UN-HABITAT to implement urban ag-related programs in countries throughout Latin America.

Here, Dubbeling talks about integrating agriculture into slum improvement programs, initiatives that help make local food inexpensive for lower-income people, and why we should view urban farms as resources similar to parks.

Next City: Last week, I interviewed another Feeding Cities speaker, Barry Popkin, who noted that food in the developing world is becoming more Americanized — that is, more widely available, but also more processed and unhealthy. What does this mean in terms of providing food for the urban poor in the Global South, where you’ve done much of your work?


Marielle Dubbeling: Basically, after the 2007-2008 food crisis, we saw a new surge of attention for urban food issues, and a new realization that urban food issues are of concern to city governments, whereas often it’s a ministry of agriculture that deals with food security at the national level. After 2008, and the food riots, cities again became aware of the importance of looking at the issue, of the fact that city government should take responsibility in responding to the issue. And in light of that, urban food production, or urban agriculture, is one of the strategies for moving toward a more resilient urban food system, next to other strategies like transport, affordability of food, etc.

You see that there’s more demand from cities to work on it, there [are] more initiatives — civil society initiatives, consumer groups, NGOs — and slowly there’s an increasing response to those demands. Coupled with that, the link between urban food security and climate change is one of the trends we saw in past years, which basically aggravates the food crisis: If rural production is affected by climate change, food prices go up, so you have a double effect. In that sense, cities are looking to become more resilient.

NC: In many instances, urban agriculture flourishes in more affluent communities with the resources to support it, and locally grown food is generally more expensive. How can we begin to make the practice more equitable?

Dubbeling: It’s true that a lot of short-term initiatives, like farmers markets or food boxes or direct sales in supermarkets, target the middle- or high-income class for reasons of buying power, as well as reasons of awareness and interest in the issues. But there’s an increasing number of interesting initiatives that specifically target the poorer class, either by the producers themselves — who might have a double-track price policy, so part of the produce goes to the high-end markets and part of the produce goes to the low-end markets — or by initiatives like agreements with food banks, in which food growers have relationships with food banks to donate part of their produce; by municipal initiatives like Belo Horizonte in Brazil, where they offer local food in popular restaurants for 1 [Brazilian] Real, which is less than a Euro, so as to make it accessible to everybody who wants to enjoy a locally grown, healthy meal. But I agree with you that it’s a challenge.

NC: Let’s talk about urban ag as an economic development strategy. How can the practice help with, say, slum upgrading?

Dubbeling: It’s a change of paradigm. If we talk about slum upgrading, normally people talk about improvement of housing, and improvement of drainage and waste management systems. So why not integrate, into slum upgrading processes, opportunities for income generation?

That can be food growing itself, urban agriculture in terms of production. In Kampala, Uganda, they had an idea, in a slum upgrading project, to say, ‘okay, for every new housing plot, a maximum of 25 percent can be built upon, and the other 75 percent of the plot has to be used for growing.’ In terms of green infrastructure, also in the Kampala project, [there was the] promotion of growing on fences, on walls, on patios, on terraces, and of integrating rainwater harvesting structures in the buildings.

Some micro credits are made available for what is now called “productive housing.” You add to your house productive infrastructure, and in Lima, [Peru] for example, those credits were used by pig farmers in a slum settlement in [the district of] Villa El Salvador to upgrade stalls for pigs. By upgrading the stalls and living conditions, they could ensure a better and healthier product.

NC: A few weeks ago, we ran a story about various efforts to make urban agriculture financially profitable and self-sustaining as a business. Our writer found that with only a few exceptions, most operations haven’t yet found a sure way to scale. Is this a worthwhile goal for urban agriculture, or is it one of those services, like public transit, that doesn’t necessarily have to turn a profit to achieve success?

Dubbeling: I think it’s dangerous to look at profit in terms of economic output per area of land, because in that sense urban agriculture could never compete with housing or industrial uses. Urban ag has multiple functions: Food production, income generation, greening of the city, water infiltration to reduce flooding, social cohesion. I would argue against only looking at it from a profit point of view, because it provides these services to the city. Maybe it should be seen as green infrastructure is seen — there is very little discussion about the costs of green infrastructure or parks. We all seem to agree that there is a need for parks and green spaces and public squares in a city. Urban agriculture might need to fall in that category as well.

On the other hand, if we want urban agriculture to increase its share of food produced for a city… I mean, it will never feed a city, but there are studies that show we might arrive at maybe 10 percent of all vegetables consumed in a city. But to do so, we need higher-intensive and commercial urban agriculture. And that should be profitable in itself, for entrepreneurs to make it into a business.

NC: Off the top of your head, can you think of any cities around the world that have had a particularly successful urban agriculture program?

Dubbeling: There’s a couple. The one often cited is Havana, of course. There’s Rosario, in Argentina, which started in 2000 when an economic crisis hit. They still maintain it today, so it really developed from a crisis response to a program that is part of their sustainable urban development program; Belo Horizonte, in Brazil, where it’s part of an integrated food policy; Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, where they developed a land bank and mapped all potential areas for urban agriculture, linking land owners with people who want to grow; Beijing, in China, where urban agriculture is something that by law needs to be maintained. They have even set targets that 80 percent of certain food products need to be grown in the larger urban area of Beijing.

NC: Among the arguments made in the book Cities, Poverty and Food, there’s one about how urban ag helps contribute to the social inclusion of women. Can you explain this?

Dubbeling: There’s data that shows that 60 percent of farmers are women — it’s an activity that can more easily be combined with household chores — and it has shown that if women grow their food, and they can also manage the income and savings generated by that, that it increases their status within the family, within the community, their feeling of empowerment. So in that sense, it contributes directly to women’s livelihoods.

NC: The notion of growing food in cities really isn’t all that new. People had been doing it in the 19th century, the early 20th century, and it was pretty popular during World War II. But right now it isn’t exactly in the mainstream, and modern consumer habits aren’t doing much to help. What are some ways to move urban ag beyond its niche so that your average citizen is open to the idea?

Dubbeling: There [are] a couple of issues. There’s government recognition that urban agriculture is a [legitimate] urban land use. As long as it’s not recognized at such, it’s still considered, in some cities, an illegal use, and it cannot be easily integrated into city development plans, into zoning. It’s important to give it that status. Another thing that is lacking is financing, which doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of subsidies. But, as I talked about, existing micro credit schemes, existing slum upgrading programs and existing funds for green space management can include a component of urban agriculture. Thirdly, we discussed paradigm: Does urban agriculture need to pay for the land rent, or is it seen as an area of green space that we need to have to make cities more livable?

There are many initiatives in the U.S., in New York and other cities. If we give room to them, then they will sprout, they will come up. People will start growing, start selling. But there are still many bylaws that still prohibit this, health regulations, this whole normative framework needs to be made more appropriate for urban agriculture.

Next City is a media partner for Feeding Cities 2013.

Tags: zoningurban farmingun-habitatslums