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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Urban agriculture digs in: ploughing ahead, in the city

In the last decade, urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) have resurged in the North: in most European cities, waiting lists for allotments have grown, and city farms and school farms blossomed. However, most UPA still blends the frugal and the recreational, with a few financially viable urban farms getting by through the mutual benefits of employing special-needs patients in 'care-farming'. However after a recent launch conference of the Greater Liverpool Food Alliance (GLFA) in north-west England, urban agriculture is being seen as a tool of resilience for crisis-hit Western economies.

In the early 2000s, a World Health Organization report claimed that the commercial farmers of Greater London, plus its registered individual 'allotment' plots, produced some 9,400 tonnes of fruit and vegetables annually. Representing a mere two per cent of London's minimum recommended intake (FAO: 2 pieces of fruit, 200 grams of vegetables daily), it bears no comparison to the 80 per cent of all vegetables grown and consumed in Accra or Hanoi.

That such statistics are hard to find today for Liverpool, the fourth city of a major OECD country is a legacy of when food security had fallen off the agendas of most city managers. Few Western cities can actually answer the innocent query "how big is your city's harvest?" with either ease or pride. In North America, interest is richest in cities with high eco-awareness (the north-west) or in the coping strategies of places knocked down by recession, such as Detroit.

Mainstreaming urban agriculture

This is not really the foundation stone of a resilient, pro-active, food-secure city in a century of untold variabilities and vicious vulnerability - a notion much used at the GLFA conference held in July, 2010. Max Steinberg, CEO of sponsoring agency Liverpool Vision, made clear that the city's economic development company has no doubts about the core strategic role of UPA. "Most current urban agriculture projects focus on achieving social objectives. What differentiates this initiative is its focus on economic viability. Urban agriculture needs to become part of the mainstream economy, one of the key industries for a low-carbon, post-industrial society."

Aware that Liverpool is no early-adopter of UPA, the conference allowed practitioners (and bankers, community care agencies, business counsellors, dieticians, traders, retailers plus procurement agencies) to exchange experiences and aspirations. "The 85 attendees had enough ideas for ten times that number," smiled one organiser in UrbanAg. This community-interest company is co-funded by Liverpool Vision who, incidentally, describe their highly adaptable city as being "on the up". External reports of a soaring coriander crop, thanks to recent Somali immigrants, testify to this.

Lessons from the South

 Input from Southern cities fed much of the agenda, their case studies in UPA falling on very fertile ground. The prime areas to address were: a) health and hygiene; b) land ownership and accessibility; and c) economic and ecological viability.

Accra was praised for its all-important 'institutional base' for UPA in the form of a municipal department, just as in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and Rosario (Argentina) - the latter two also highlighted as world leaders in land-lease deals. China's record in backing UPA cooperatives showed how to integrate UPA, whilst Dar es Salaam's GIS inventory of all land potential enables sound planning. The way the Brazilian trinity of government, supermarkets and farmers conquered space in the retail trade was valued for its business and hygiene models.

Cuba won praise for reducing basic foodstuff prices by 300 per cent through UPA, and for agricultural research on UPA-suitable varieties. One Northern example was highlighted: the new Dutch Agromere neighbourhood of 5,000 people in Almere City, with 70 per cent of city space allocated for crops, livestock and social infrastructure, providing 20 per cent of its basic foodstuffs.

A tool for resilience

It is as if UPA is following the same path - ten years later - as renewable energy. Born in the 1960s, it has become a cornerstone of energy policy today. Its pioneers and prototypes have, mainly, made way happily for the mainstream. The emphasis now is on standards and quality; access to required resources (including land and technology); marketing and viable supply chains; and - critically - the evergreen set of reliable data for assessing economic and ecological viability.
Together with the rest of Merseyside, Liverpool is well-known for its energy, ideas and stamina - and has land. It is clearly keen to mobilise all of them for the long haul, to create a food-secure city with a sturdy agricultural sector. Just how it does this, creating the critical mass to grow what exists and launch new initiatives, could well provide encouragement to other communities that, like this joined-up city, are recognising how UPA is part of their future resilience.

Written by Paul Osborn, a GLFA associate and communicator on climate change and food security

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