Smart cities: Eating fair and local

Food’s role as essential urban infrastructure – inseparable from transport, health services, water and green spaces – should be on the minds of city planners and urban developers.

The recent global attention to food in cities is based on some hard evidence. According to the United Nations, the urban population of the world has grown rapidly from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014. Sixty-six percent of us will likely live in urban environments by 2050. The number of megacities – those of more than 10 million inhabitants – is also escalating, from 10 in 1990 to 28 in 2014, totaling more than 453 million people. There are anticipated to be 41 more by 2030.

While it is difficult to imagine Australian cities reaching this dizzy scale, Sydney’s population will exceed five million in 2016. Its inner suburbs are the most densely populated in Australia and the cost of living is among the highest in the world. While apartments blocks rise and transport networks sprawl residents are faced with a rapidly changing food environment. How are their needs being met?

In cities there is lots of consuming but little deliberation on the act of doing so. Other stages of the food chain – production, distribution, waste disposal – tend to disappear, if they were ever considered at all. The bigger the city, the less visible the food chain – the food chain is “too big to see”.[i]

The complex foodways of growing cities range from the giant logistics exercises required to stock retailers’ shelves daily to the food relief networks that support the hidden hungry. Food’s role as essential urban infrastructure – inseparable from transport, health services, water and green spaces – should be on the minds of city planners and urban developers. Yet, paradoxically, food is often a “stranger” in urban planning, revealing a vacuum in policy agendas.[ii]

The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact provides a roadmap for meeting the food needs of growing cities in equitable and sustainable ways. Importantly, the Pact recognises that family farmers and smallholder producers “play a key role in feeding cities…by helping to maintain resilient, equitable and culturally appropriate food systems” and are a means to “reconnect consumers with both rural and urban consumers”.[iii]

Recommended actions include mainstreaming rights-based approaches and appointing food policy advisors and multi-stakeholder platforms such as food councils that represent the diversity of urban residents, including those living in low-income or under-served neighbourhoods. Further, the Pact emphasises the need to protect access to and tenure of land for sustainable food production in urban and peri-urban areas for community gardeners and small-holder producers.

This has benefits to both producers and residents in many ways. As David Suzuki claims “cities needn’t be wastelands of car-choked roads and pavement. Incorporating food production into ever-expanding urban areas makes cities more liveable and enhances the natural systems that keep us alive and healthy. “ [iv]

The ecological and health benefits of urban agriculture include its potential to mitigate heat island effect, food waste and storm-water runoff. Canadian food advocate Wayne Roberts argues that urban agriculture’s “ability to generate spaces for the development of social skills and adaptability is likely more important than its ability to produce food”.[v]

The Turin, one of 12 “Food Smart Cities”, is applying food sovereignty as a key concept in their open and inclusive process of re-orienting the food-city relationship. Using the term “food autonomy” to describe the application of food sovereignty at a local level, the architects of Turin’s policy are negotiating how local authorities can promote food social policies in spite of incongruous national and regional legislative guidelines. Thus the concept of local food autonomy “is the point of contact between those of food sovereignty and local self-government”. This will, ideally, enable the City of Turin to “exercise the right to self-determine its own food purposes and, in particular, to decide which functions of food to enable, whether they are designed to achieve social purposes [as in food relief] or promote economic and civil development of the Turin community [as in the case of farmers’ markets]”.[vi]

This vision will ultimately lead to right to food oriented food policies that suit the specific needs of urban residents and support the livelihoods of local growers. How local governments in Australian cities with unique urban food geographies can develop similar guidelines is an exciting challenge but one that requires research, public engagement and advocacy.

If food is “a fundamental component of a city that is inseparable from citizens’ basic rights and needs, individual lifestyles and cultures, the socio-economic structure, and the city’s relationship with the surrounding environment”[vii] we need to assess how Australian cities measure up and look to urban food policies pioneers here and overseas.


[i] Carolyn Steele, http://www.hungrycitybook.co.uk/

[ii] Kameshwari Pothukuchi and Jerone L. Kaufman, http://www.cityfarmer.org/foodplan.html

[iii] Milan Urban Food Policy Pact http://www.milanurbanfoodpolicypact.org/

[iv] http://www.straight.com/news/763011/david-suzuki-how-much-food-can-cities-produce

[v] Wayne Roberts, 30 ways cities can prepare for global warming, http://us12.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ab7cd2414816e2a28f3b35792&id=453dce9237&e=70b743f571

[vi] Toward the Turin Food Policy http://ojs.francoangeli.it/_omp/index.php/oa/catalog/book/156

[vii] Calori and Magarini, 2015, Food and the Cities, Edizioni Ambiente, Milan.

Image: Ken + Julia Yonetani The Last Supper, 2014, salt, 900 × 75 × 125 cm image courtesy of the artists