Today, 54% of the global population resides in cities and the figure is expected to rise to 68% by 2050 according to data from United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs (UNDESA). Africa has the least population living in urban areas at 43% with over 70% of this living in urban slums and the figure is expected to double by next year, if governments do not take action. Until recently, most urban planners concentrated on public services and decent housing leaving a critical element of food security and nutrition for the city dwellers. With cities and urban areas being the center of civilization, it is important that access and utilization of food be incorporated in urban planning.
A number of challenges have emerged and need to be considered by urban planners and in particular those dealing in food. Urban poverty is a major obstacle to access and affordability of food. Most urban low-income areas are characterized by unemployment/ underemployment, low irregular earnings, informal sector, overcrowding and poor sanitation. The residents of such areas spend much of their earnings on food and sometimes rely on street food with negative health implications. Urban planners, therefore, need to devise ways of improving affordability and accessibility of nutritious and healthy diets to the poor.
Access to land for farming in urban and peri-urban neighborhoods is also a major concern. Urbanization and expansion of cities are taking up arable land for agriculture and water catchment areas. Take for instance Nairobi City, the surrounding counties of Kiambu, Kajiado and Machakos are on expansion spree by developing multiple residential flats. Planners have a role to preserve such lands for food related activities and design effective and sustainable food systems that will enhance urban food security. This includes determining what crops are grown in an effort to shift from modern industrial agriculture that focuses on cash crops for international trade to food crops that meet local demand and needs.
There’s need to recognize and support the informal food sector and street food trading particularly in low income households. This can take various forms like food prepared at home and sold in the streets or food prepared and sold in outdoor public spaces. It is important for local authorities to understand informality originates from barriers such as overtaxation, harassment and confiscation of merchandise by authorities, limited access to infrastructure and public spaces and complex registration and licensing procedures. In addition, informal food trading requires little capital and little or no formal training. Local authorities should therefore integrate informal food sector in planning as it plays a huge role in creating employment and alleviating poverty especially among women. Furthermore, it promotes urban food security since it’s more responsive to the needs of the poor such as buying in small quantities and accessing food on credit.
Planners must also integrate climate change and environmental issues in designing sustainable urban food systems. Agriculture and food related activities contribute to about 25% of the global greenhouse gas emissions according to World Resources Institute. This implies that an effective food system could play a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change by reducing the emissions. How food is grown/ produced, distributed, consumed and food waste management are key elements of a sustainable urban food system. One of the ways this can be achieved is by linking rural agricultural neighborhoods to urban areas through infrastructure such as roads and markets. This would localize and shorten food chains and therefore reduce gas emissions during transportation and storage.
Sustainable urban food systems will play a critical role in delivering the sustainable development goals. As architect and author Carolyn Steel suggests, “without farmers and farming, cities would not exist”. Governments need to create an enabling environment through evidence based policies in areas such as physical and spatial planning, procurement, energy and agriculture to ensure city dwellers can access and afford healthy diets while conserving the environment and ensuring sustainable livelihoods for the farmer. This is possible through mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships between the farmers, local businesses, government agencies and civil society organizations.
Ps. Photo credit, FAO