21 March 2017
Melbourne tram: iStock/ TkKurikawa
Melbourne tram: iStock/ TkKurikawa

Urban Food systems – a renewed role for local governments in Australia

“How to feed cities in a just, sustainable and culturally appropriate manner in the face of looming climate change, widening inequality and burgeoning hunger is one of the quintessential challenges of the 21st century.”   Kevin Morgan 2015

Grace Muriuki1, Lisa Schubert2, Karen Hussey1, Sonia Roitman3


Urbanisation is one of this century’s most transformative trends, with over half the world’s human population now living in cities. City governments are increasingly aware of their potential role and responsibilities in managing the increasingly complex urban spaces in the face of rapid population growth, climate change, high ecological urban footprints, rising inequalities, and profound nutrition transitions. This profound urban shift has significant implications for governments, individuals, urban households, and rural communities.

All 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are interconnected, and like urbanization, food is at the heart of all civilization and prosperity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO 2016), SDG2 (to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) in a large way encapsulates the vision driving most of the Agenda on Sustainable Development. Agriculture, diet, nutrition, public health and environmental sustainability are very intricately connected. This is clearly reflected in SDG2 which while promoting a global vision to end hunger, also rises to the challenge of nurturing the planet through its core targets. To tackle the multiple challenges of food and nutrition security, rising global environmental risks and climate change whilst at the same time promoting more human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG11) calls for progress in virtually all SDGs. It is widely acknowledged that much of the success or failure of the SDGs will take place in cities, and SDG11 emphasizes the transformative power of urbanisation for development.

Recent years have seen increased activity and international interest aimed at influencing urban development, climate, food and nutrition; the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition and other innovations that are emerging from city leaders, civil society and the private sector all aiming to build sustainable, resilient and inclusive better cities. The New Urban Agenda (NUA), adopted at the Habitat III Conference (Quito, Ecuador, October 2016), is perhaps one of the most concrete and relevant initiatives to the role of cities and local government action. Bringing cities to the centre of the UN international discourse, the agreements on a set of non-binding guidelines and strategies is fundamental to achieving SDG Goal 11 on creation of cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. With respect to food security, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, a voluntary international protocol, is perhaps the largest organisation of world cities focusing on the role of cities in developing sustainable food systems and promoting healthy diets. This commitment has been subscribed to by mayors from 133 global cities. A unifying theme in these global agreements is the need to strengthen multilevel governance, build capacities of local players, and garner political support.

While food security is not as visible as other areas of the urban transition, it is nevertheless a critical dimension of sustainable cities, and one that is gaining attention. Food is intricately woven with transport and infrastructure (connecting consumers, retailers and producers), housing (access to affordable nutritious food), recreation, economy (food sector establishments and employment), as well as culture and identity. It is virtually impossible to achieve SDG11 ‘to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ without considering food security.

Where they exist, successful interventions in urban food systems are often sporadic, non-systemic and not documented, reviewed and/or shared. These efforts will remain partial and symbolic, unless cities build their capacities to leverage the momentum from international initiatives with local partnerships to deliver sustained reforms in their food systems that are well integrated into the larger urban fabric (Pothukuchi et al. 2000; Morgan 2015). Despite recent changes, predominant constructs that support and perpetuate the conceptualisation of agriculture and food as primarily rural activities and issues persist (Schiff 2005; 2008).

Central to urban transition is the role of local governments. City government involvements on food range from complete non-intervention to tight regulation and control through a diversity of economic, policy and legal instruments. To accelerate transition towards sustainable food systems requires a paradigm shift on the role of city governance in the urban food space, and may require different partnerships approaches. Opportunity now exists to build on the momentum of recent international initiatives to position food security within local government planning agendas. This could include embedding synergistic actions to existing land use planning, business and commerce activities, and supporting inclusive participation by a wide range of stakeholders.  Such action could in turn demand significant paradigm shifts, including policy change, and importantly, innovative and collaborative pathways to start and support such transition. A large number of global cities both in developing and developed countries are already engaging in transformative systems that embrace food security within their planning blueprints.

Despite most Australians living in cities, there is considerably less attention on food within city planning domains, a loose integration of food issues in policy (despite national commitments to international agreements), and a substantial degree of incoherence on food-related initiatives in cities. As a result, the capacity to anticipate and mitigate sudden as well as incremental risks (such as the rising burden of non-communicable diseases and climate change), as well as the opportunities for growth in the urban food sector may be hindered. The manifestations of the need for change are clear, and there is no better time for action than now, riding on the momentum of international agreements which have opened up windows for transition towards more inclusive governance of urban spaces and resources. Against this background, this discussion paper seeks to highlight the unique roles that local governments in Australia could play to mobilise change that integrates food security into urban planning and to leverage on a rising number of innovative but hitherto disjointed activities. This is the first in a series of discussion papers on urban food systems in Australia, with a particular focus on the risks, opportunities and roles of local governments in driving the transition towards sustainable urban food systems in Australia.

Read the discussion paper here.

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