Urban agriculture initiatives have a better chance of success if the city provides structural support and if a balance is struck between economic feasibility and improvement of social equality in the urban area. Those are the conclusions drawn from the doctoral research of Charlotte Prové, ILVO-Ghent University researcher, where she compared urban agriculture in Ghent, Philadelphia and Warsaw. The model of food policy councils, popular in the USA but new to Europe, can give urban agriculture a boost – but only with committed participation and a well-thought-out vision appropriate to the individual city.
On 2 February, Charlotte Prové defended her doctoral thesis, “The politics of urban agriculture: an international exploration of governance, food systems, and environmental justice”.
Promotors were Prof. Joost Dessein and Dr. Michiel de Krom.
Urban agriculture: no shortage of attention, actors and formulas, but little success and growth
Roof Food in Ghent, PAKT in Antwerp, Abbatoir in Anderlecht: innovative enterprises in urban agriculture can be sure of lots of media attention. It’s an easy sell to say that cities should take more responsibility for providing healthy and sustainable food. The many initiatives growing in cities now show a variety of practices and profiles: professional farmers, new entrepreneurs, researchers, architects, social, cultural and educational institutions, governments, and also citizens.
Supply and demand are both present, but still growth is slow. Charlotte Prové says, “Despite the great willingness, I don’t see a large-scale development of urban agriculture in the bigger Flemish cities. Development is slow, many projects are temporary or experimental, and often, only the middle class benefits.” A key observation is the importance of the role of the local government.
Structural support from city policy makes the difference
ILVO-Ghent University researcher Charlotte Prové went to Ghent, Warsaw and Philadelphia to get insight into the barriers. She examined the role of the city in supporting urban agriculture. Based on interviews with citizens, entrepreneurs, and policy-makers, analysis of documents, and participation in activities, debates and meetings, including those of food policy councils, she compared the varying degrees of success of the local government. “I discovered a number of ways that city governments can support urban agriculture, ranging from promotion to funding to structural supports such as offering space and setting up a food policy council.”
In Warsaw, urban agriculture is not supported by local government. As a result, the projects are informal and temporary and urban agriculture stays under the radar. In contrast, Ghent and Philadelphia have a formal urban agriculture policy, which opens doors for urban agriculture. In Philadelphia, a “land bank” is set up where public and unused lots can be designated for urban agriculture. Many organizations are included in the set-up of the land bank, which expands support. The advantage of permanent space for urban agriculture (in contrast to temporary initiatives) is long-term thinking, investment in the soil itself, and the embedding of urban agriculture in the city.
In Flanders, the notion of a food policy council appears to be promising. All of the actors from government, market and society gather around the table to develop and promote a local food strategy. Healthy, sustainable and/or local food are key to this model.
Four challenges in food policy
“Using food policy councils, networks are formed, the local level is taught how to look at all of the links in the food system, and actors needed for systems change can find each other,” says Charlotte Prové. “That sounds fantastic, but in reality food policy councils are often limited: not all city ag practices, actors and goals can be mirrored at the same time. As a result, some practices are excluded in the policy or decision-making processes. There are still many challenges regarding the setup of an integrated city food policy.”
- Urban agriculture can only work when the principle grows from the individuality of the city. In Warsaw, for example, the relevance of urban agriculture is shown by temporary demonstrations and experiments – but the historical “people’s gardens” are forgotten. In Ghent performed a spatial study and Philadelphia, a socio-economic study, before starting the actual work. These are important insights to build on for future initiatives.
- The importance given to the goals of the food policy council clearly have a great influence on the development of urban agriculture. In Philadelphia, a strong focus on access to food and social inclusion have led to exclusion of professional farmers in meetings and activities. In Ghent, the opposite happened. The focus on local and sustainable food systems has shifted the focus to production and scaling-up of local food, and has led to ignoring other problems such as access to food, poverty and social inclusion.
- When creating local policy around food, the participation of different actors is essential. “My study reveals that urban agriculture does best when economic and social goals in mind. Both are needed to give urban agriculture an identity,” says Charlotte Prové. One example is the farmer’s markets in Philadelphia, where people receiving food stamps are encouraged to buy vegetables, fruit and dairy products.
- In Ghent, Philadelphia and Warsaw, promotional videos, pictures and reporting give the impression that urban agriculture and related policies are creating a more social and inclusive city. In reality, urban agriculture practices and food policy councils – often without realizing it – have difficulty with a broad participation base, diversity, decision-making, and new power relationships. Therefore, food policy councils need to put time and energy into their organization and keep continual and balanced recruiting in mind. In Philadelphia, besides the practical working groups, two working groups focus on participation and communication.
The future of urban agriculture
To make urban agriculture a permanent feature, existing activities must be supported, but even more importantly, a critical analysis of how the local policy is addressing initiatives and how it can provide broad support for them. There is plenty of willingness to put time, energy and even financial resources into urban agriculture – so experiments need to be given the room to grow. Ghent is a leader in this area, by giving land to a new professional farmer with a social function in the area, or providing funding for research projects about scaling-up local food markets such as community-supported agriculture.
Given that food policy councils play an important role in the development of urban agriculture, they must also develop their strategy in a (more) critical way. Which innovative ways can be found to develop a local food strategy in a truly participative and inclusive way? What kind of food system do we want? How can we best divide the scarce resources of a city? Who do we give access to urban agriculture? “Urban agriculture is not just for farmers and environmental departments,” says Prové. “To truly reap the harvest of all aspects of urban agriculture and thus also to correctly assess the relevance of urban agriculture, policymakers have to take all city functions into account and approach urban agriculture in an integrated way.”
Greet Riebbels, ILVO Communication: email@example.com, 32 486 26 00 14
Charlotte Prové, PhD: firstname.lastname@example.org, 32 478 78 71 33