Urban sustainability initiatives and the gentrification of food systems

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Today, as we strive for more sustainable ways of living, we also need to be conscious of environmental justice issues relating to the inequity of some communities being exposed to more environmental “bads” than others. Often, the needs of socially and economically disadvantaged communities are disregarded due to a lack of recognition and respect for their rights, and a lack of inclusion in decision-making, and this is the case for environmental justice issues surrounding urbanisation, food production and consumption.

What has urbanisation got to do with it?

The inequities surrounding sustainable living has become even more apparent within urban environments, with the majority of population and capital growth taking place in cities (Lee, 2006). Urbanites are major drivers of the demand for food, and urban food systems are considerable sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Changing our urban food production and consumption patterns is crucial in attaining equitable food and nutrition security. The rate of urbanisation over the past decades has had catastrophic impacts on humanity and the environment due to climate change, natural disasters, loss of arable land, and pollution of natural resources; all of which impose stress on urban communities and create tension within and between these communities (Gould and Lewis, 2012).

What are the impacts of gentrification?

Sustainable living is often considered as a luxury that only the rich can afford. Urban sustainability initiatives, such as eco-urban redevelopment projects that reclaim brown- and greyfield precincts, can “richen and whiten” neighbourhoods, remaking cities for the sustainability class (Holden and Li, 2015). This phenomenon is referred to as green gentrification, whereby the process of greening up the local environment increases the desirability of real estate and costs of living, resulting in the displacement of poor and disadvantaged residents (Gould and Lewis, 2012).

In Sydney’s inner city, gentrification has become a strategy for redevelopment of brownfield sites by the state and capital interests (Bounds and Morris, 2006). Therefore, Sydney city is increasingly attractive to affluent residents with soaring house prices and increased living costs, unaffordable for most (Gould and Lewis, 2017). Urban environmental inequity is a systematic issue in Sydney, and conscious anti-gentrification strategies need to be prioritised on its urban planning and policy agenda.

Without appropriate equity-oriented policy intervention that take the needs of residents into account, the net effect of urban greening is negatively redistributive, as shown by the High Line in New York City and the Cheong-Gyecheon Waterway in Seoul. These projects were linked to urban sustainability and ecological development, but caused nearby property prices to soar and introduced a barrage of high-end food mirages, all catering for the more affluent residents and displacing nearby working class (Anguelovski, 2016)

What is the relationship between urbanisation and gentrification?

Urbanisation and gentrification impact food and nutrition security in significant ways. First, urban development leads to more arable land used for housing, which increases our dependence on food transported from outside the city, and therefore our risk exposure to food supply shortages and price fluctuations. Gentrification creates food deserts, where fresh and nutritious foods are expensive, and foods that are calorie-rich, nutrient-poor are cheaper and widely available (O’Kane, 2011). Disadvantaged communities often have fewer food choices and are in some cases, dependent on highly processed foods to meet their daily needs due to its affordability. With limited access to nutritional food and food education, communities living in food deserts can experience the cumulative effects of the poverty cycle across generations (Alders, 2016).

What are some possible solutions?

Food and nutrition systems stakeholders need to work together towards sustainable urban food production and consumption at an equitable level across the whole population (Newton, 2012). Local governments can enforce anti-gentrification policies, tailor planning to local needs, protect local businesses, and play a part in local food production and consumption by encouraging urban agriculture and influencing consumer behaviour. Additionally, consumers can choose low impact, local and seasonal agricultural produce, reduce their food waste and adopt nutrient recycling strategies (Alders, 2016).

Finally, it is necessary for us to recognise, champion and address the connection between malnutrition and economic hardship and poverty. Our food environments need to support high-quality diets with more nutritious crops and with foods that are reformulated, labelled and processed to increase their nutritional value and safety, and need to be accessible to socially and economically disadvantaged communities.

While many of the solutions outlined are already being adopted, the actions taken so far are not nearly enough to make a significant difference. More must be done, and by more people, to move us towards a healthier, just and sustainable world.


Lee, K. N. (2006). Urban Sustainability and the Limits of Classical Environmentalism. Environment and Urbanization, 18(1), 9-22.

Gould, K., Lewis, T. (2012). The Environmental Injustice of Green Gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Research Gate, 1(1), 113-146.

Holden, M., Li, C., and Molina, A.  (2015). The Emergence and Spread of Ecourban Neighbourhoods around the World. Sustainability, 7(9), 11418-11437.

Bounds, M., and Morris, A. (2006) Second Wave Gentrification in Inner-city Sydney. Cities, 23(2), 99-108.

Gould, K., and Lewis, T. (2017). Green Gentrification: Urban sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. New York:  Routledge.

Anguelovski, I. (2016). Health Food Stores, Greenlining and Food Gentrification: Contesting New Forms of Privilege, Displacement and Locally Unwanted Land Uses in Racially Mixed Neighborhoods. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research,39(6), 1209–1230.

Wolcha, J. R., Byrneb, J., Newell, J. P. (2014). Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’. Landscape and Urban Planning, 125 (1), 234-244.

O’Kane, G. (2011). What is the real cost of our food? Implications for the environment, society and public health nutrition. Public Health Nutrition, 15(2), 268-76.

Alders, R. (2016). ‘Approaches to Fixing Broken Food Systems (132–144).’ Chapter in M. Eggersdorfer, K. Kraemer, J.B. Cordaro, J. Fanzo, M. Gibney, E. Kennedy, A. Labrique and J. Steffen (eds.), Good Nutrition: Perspectives for the 21st Century. Karger Publishers.

Newton, P. W. (2012). Liveable and Sustainable? Socio-Technical Challenges for Twenty-First-Century Cities. Journal of Urban Technology, 19(18), 1-102.

Nai-Ying Kuo is an agile practitioner in software delivery, and a part-time student studying Master of Sustainability at The University of Sydney. Nai-Ying’s interests in sustainability are focused on urbanisation and environmental justice issues, and how renewables, automation and digital disruption play their part.