What will we eat? Why Habitat III needs to rethink urban food systems

Mmm. Tasty. Image: Getty.

The year 2016 is crucial for both food and cities. In October, UN member states will convene for the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, to discuss guidelines for sustainable urban development for the next 20 years.

In relation to food, 2016 has seen increased interest in bringing food to centre stage of many non-traditional domains. For example: this is the International Year of the Pulses; food waste is getting more attention, such as the announcement of the first global standard to measure food loss and waste; and food and agriculture lie at the very heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the 2016 Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

Ensuring that everyone in expanding urban areas has access to nutritious food is critical to achieving the goal of zero hunger set out in the 2030 [SDG] Agenda.

Sustainable diets are gaining traction, and many governments are demonstrating high-level commitment.

Will the new urban agenda put food on the table?

But on the road to Quito, the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda bears only oblique references to food systems.

Food (security) has been “sprinkled” over physical and social infrastructure, natural resources and ecosystems, sustainable consumption, resilience, urban planning, land and mobility. It is conspicuously missing from urban basic services and altogether from heritage and culture.

This omission has occurred despite common knowledge of food’s profound impacts. It shapes rural landscapes, provides spaces for buying, selling and eating food in cities, and is integral to everyday individual and collective identities.

If the New Urban Agenda carries a promise for change, sustainable and equitable food systems in cities will perhaps only be a side dish at Quito.

Cities' role in food systems is growing

The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact is testament to the increasing realisation of the need for urban planners to make food systems central in city planning. More than half of humanity lives in urban areas.

According to the UN, nearly 70 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2050, making urbanisation one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.

Increasing recognition of the multiple dimensions of food in cities is driving the urban food debate. It encompasses nutrition, ethics and social justice, and sustainability.

In Canada, the US, South America, the UK and a few cases in Australia (notably Melbourne), municipal governments are increasingly seeking ways to promote synergistic relationships between food consumers and producers. But this process remains sporadic and non-systemic.

Australian cities are complacent about food

Australians are predominantly urban dwellers. More than 80 per cent of the population lives in the 20 largest cities.

As well as the horde of other issues for urban food systems, Australia has one of the most concentrated food retail sectors in the world dominated by the supermarket duopoly, significant health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and a serious and growing issue of food waste.

All of the SDGs have targets that are directly or indirectly related to the daily work of regional and local governments, the closest administrative units to communities. In 2015, there were 571 local governing bodies across Australia. This is the level of government best placed to link the global goals with local communities.

It is at the municipal level that the socioeconomic and environmental problems associated with food systems first become evident. In Queensland, for example, the 2011 floods showed the potential impact of disaster on urban food systems.

Despite a renewed national focus on cities in Australia, food systems remain a secondary consideration. Neither the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) nor the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) has food for the cities in their strategic plans. Researchers such as Paul Burton and Meg Montague allude to the “complacent attitude” to urban food systems in Australia.

The City of Melbourne is notable in promoting integrated local government planning on key factors that influence food systems – transport, housing, economic development and land use. Several local governments have trialled micro-level initiatives to improve health and reduce inequities, or reduce ecological footprints. Most cities are lagging, though, when it comes to food systems.

Battle will be won or lost in cities

Food systems are perhaps not as visible as other areas of urban development. They are, however, an essential element that involves many aspects of cities. These include:

  • transport and infrastructure (connecting consumers, retailers and producers);

  • housing (access to affordable nutritious food);

  • recreation;

  • economy (food sector businesses and employment); and

  • culture and identity.

Food is a new policy arena for city governments, but cannot be separated from housing, water and sanitation, energy, employment and all the other rights related to a life of dignity that local governments promote. Urban food systems are poorly understood, though. Often there is no clear jurisdiction or mandate by which city planners can manage these systems.

The challenge is to broaden the scope of policy debates beyond food supply chains and urban agriculture, to include strategic plans and reforms to tackle food systems.

This could help to identify strategic leverage points that can affect the way food business is done in cities and have significant impacts on diet-related diseases, large urban carbon footprints, food waste, social injustice and the negative impacts of supermarket power.

Indeed, the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.The Conversation

Grace Muriuki manages the food systems programme at the Global Change Institute, and Geoffrey Lawrence is emeritus professor of sociology, both at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.

School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.