Today we live in cities which have (with some exceptions) in the name of “production efficiencies” and “higher and better land uses”, driven the production aspect of our food cycles out of the cities, often to rural areas in countries thousands of miles away – the typical Australian basket of food has travelled in the order of 70,000km to get to our stores.
This production-by-proxy has not only contributed to our reliance on oil and the creation of GHGs (28% of our CO2 per capita is food related) – but it has also deprived us of what was once a healthy and rewarding association with our food.
We now find ourselves as a nation, running out of oil, running out of water (up to 65% of Australia’s water consumption is food related), running out of soil (in the past 200 years Australia has lost about 70% of the nutrients in its soil), running out of farmers (the average age of farmers in Australia is now 62), and running out of phosphates (researchers say we will see severe phosphate shortages within the next 30 years).
Returning agriculture to our urban spaces would allow us to remedy or avoid some of these problems and return a raft of other benefits, including: re-using waste; recycling water; closing nutrient loops; reducing energy consumption; acting as a catalyst for urban regeneration; enabling rehabilitation of ecosystems damaged by industrial agriculture; contributing to a city’s green spaces (thereby reducing heat island effects, improving amenity, and providing eco-services); providing employment and skills development opportunities; contributing to local character and sense of place; improving the physical health of society; fostering a stronger connection between people and the environment.
What is holding us back?
So, what is holding us back? There are a number of challenges that other cities worldwide have faced, including:
- lack of understanding of benefits and financial feasibility – specifically, there is lack of data on life-cycle financial feasibility of UA compared to traditional agriculture
- lack of access to suitable land
- lack of secure land tenure
- restrictive planning provisions which hinder rather than encourage UA efforts
- lack of leadership, co-ordination, motivation – such as development incentives and ongoing support
- lack of system facilities in place, such as distribution networks
- the need to manage and design for amenity impacts (noise, smell, etc) and transfer of zoonotic diseases
- an ongoing stigma attached to agriculture, and subsequent NIMBYISM.
Above all else, as Kirsten Larsen of Melbourne University explains, “we need to change our understanding of cities and start to see them as productive, not consumptive spaces”.
By overcoming these challenges we can ensure that urban agriculture initiatives (whether backyards, rooftops, public parks, vertical farms or other types) are developed as an integral and equitably accessible part of our urban fabric and socio-ecological systems, a fundamental element of our green infrastructure, and the medium through which citizens can reconnect with their environment.