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Metropolitan Agriculture's 'Innoversity'
Alison Killing, 15 Oct 10

Metropolitan Agriculture is an organization dedicated to creating better links between metropolitan areas and food production. They hosted their first global summit and launched their 'Innoversity' at the end of September. They currently bring together six cities: Amsterdam, London, Detroit, Flint, Johannesburg, Sao Paolo, and Chennai to work on issues around sustainable food production, exchange ideas and best practice. The phrase 'metropolitan agriculture' quickly conjures up images of urban farming, food production on large vacant lots in otherwise heavily built up areas, and this model is certainly represented amongst the cities contributing to the conference. In actuality, however, that kind of urban farming is appropriate to a minority of cities. Much of the potential for urban agricultural reform is hidden further from view -- for example in reconfigured supply chains, or in policy focused on poverty reduction or better nutrition.

Detroit and Flint, in Michigan, have become the archetypal urban farming cities, with agriculture now taking place there at a range of scales, from commercial farms to community gardens and the organisations to support them. Their populations are famously shrinking: Detroit's ha dropped from a high of 2 million in the 1950s to 850,000 today, while Flint's population has roughly halved to 110,000, as the jobs associated with the big car manufacturers located in these cities dried up. One of the most visible results of this has been the large scale abandonment of buildings and the proliferation of vacant lots.

In response, the University of Michigan has produced this study [PDF] on the possibilities for non-residential uses for these buildings and open spaces, with agriculture featuring high on the list of potential uses. At the same time, the city has a serious problem of food poverty. A workshop held by Metropolitan Agriculture earlier this year flagged up the incredible fact that not a single national supermarket operated a franchise in Detroit, limiting access to healthy, cheap food. The abundance of available land provides a good opportunity for beginning to address this problem.

In Johannesburg, food insecurity is also significant and is closely aligned to the widespread poverty in the city. In the past, interventions around food poverty have focused on rural areas and the problems of the rural poor, but as the country has urbanized, this poverty has been exported to urban areas, with the attendant food insecurity. Addressing access to food has therefore been identified by the Southern Africa Development Bank (SADB) in this report [PDF] as a potential focus for improving the overall well-being of urban populations. Local food production is seen as having the ability to create employment and hopefully reduce the cost of food, through the elimination of transport costs, whilst also leading to better health through better nutrition. At the moment however, while around 5% of the urban poor do engage in urban agriculture, only a third of these people rely totally on what they grow. This suggests that growing one's own food is a last resort, rather than an attractive choice. The SADB does not offer concrete policy suggestions here, but concludes that looking at the wider issues of developing sustainable cities could be usefully seen through the prism of food security, since it brings together so many issues of economy, health, land use and the links between cities and their rural hinterlands.

The work in the Netherlands, represented here by the city of Amsterdam, has been running the longest. Since 2005 Transforum have been working to transform existing agricultural practices. They've covered a wide range of issues, often dealing with food distribution by introducing changes to supply chains, for example. One project involves the creation of a cradle-tocradle agropark, another works with one of the large supermarkets in the Netherlands to bring sustainable produce into the supply chain and establish stronger links with producers, another project makes links between different businesses which are able to recycle or reuse each others waste products.

Metropolitan Agriculture has identified a huge range of problems within the food system, but also great potential to address problems of sustainability in metropolitan areas, with 'sustainability' defined in its widest sense, to include not only the environment, but also livelihoods, health, development and more. Its scope is incredibly ambitious, but they have also begun to establish a framework whereby several problems can be looked at simultaneously and in a fresh light.

The results of the conference will be online soon, but for now they have posted a series of videos from the conference.

Alison Killing is an architect and urbanist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Recent articles by Alison for Worldchanging:

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