Urban Food Gardens and the Sustainable Development Goals: blooming opportunities for local governance?

By Tainan Messina

One of the first things that called my attention in Lisbon, when I first arrived from Brazil, was the amount of used and unused green areas available within city limits. As I disembarked straight from Rio de Janeiro, a city that struggles with land scarcity, real estate development and gentrification, Lisbon’s land availability confused and amused me at the same time. On my everyday commute, I would think about all the possibilities these areas had to offer to local communities` improvement, for food production enhancement and for the overall promotion of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Worldwide, cities have the challenging task of how to pursue multiple SDGs, and Urban Food Gardens (UFGs) may present an interesting window of opportunity, with numerous options. These gardens, where ‘open spaces are managed and operated by members of the local community in which food or flowers are cultivated’ within urban or peri-urban limits, have the potential to address both municipal specific issues or wider regional goals if properly integrated in local/regional policy frameworks, boosting Lisbon’s food security, food systems’ design and overall social well-being.

When we look at urban planning strategies and policies, food systems are less visible and seem to be less of a priority than other systems, like housing, transportation and employment generation, and Lisbon is, in this sense, no different. However, as urban populations grow and climate change impacts become more frequent, food systems need to be looked at more comprehensively, and different institutional arrangements must be considered in order to tackle key food security and urban challenges.

Figure 1.Soil improvement and planting activities (Source: Circular Schools Project)

Even though UFGs are not a new element within wider urban structures, they are beginning to play a novel role. It is now acknowledged that they can play an important role in reducing urban food chains’ emissions, while encouraging local and organic urban agriculture. While I believe UFGs touch most of the multiple SDGs (directly or indirectly), four of them in particular allow for a more thorough discussion: 2 (Zero Hunger), 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and 13 (Climate Action); These, if understood from an holistic integrated way, help us identify the full potential of UFGs.

To illustrate my point, I will break down a fundamental issue such as famine. Can you imagine a world where no one goes to bed with an empty stomach (Objective 2)? I can’t. But while I romanticize about it, I also believe that moving towards urban subsistence may create alternatives for vulnerable people and openings for obtaining cheaper high-quality food. By developing options WITH people and not only FOR people (e.g. public soup kitchens, food stamps, etc.), we empower communities regardless of the social, economic and political individual status. In that context, UFGs are well known for connecting multicultural groups, promoting social interaction and inclusion, while empowering local residents. Additionally, UFGs provide local capacity building opportunities, that could be channeled by local agencies to promote urban agriculture activities, as well as encourage sustainable practices in urban metabolisms, such as food composting, water saving, soil protection, and so forth.

A shift to sustainable cities and communities (Objective 11) is ever more urgent as over 54% of the world’s population already resides in urban areas (2014), and by 2050, this figure may reach 66%. Therefore, solutions to promote more resilient neighborhoods must be experimented and incentivized by local authorities; Concurrently, urban agenda’s targets are growingly focusing in nature based-solutions, in the greening of cities, in vegetation regeneration and in the promotion of UFGs. Without plants there is no life, hence, by supporting UFGs not only plant biomass increases within urban limits, but it also enables more absorption surfaces, attracts biodiversity (e.g. pollinators), as well as it attenuates heat island effects. This is particularly significant as the global Climate is changing and its impacts are more severe in inadequately designed urban areas, worsening climate change risks such as flooding, sea level rise and droughts. This inevitably compromises Earth’s capacity to keep its equilibrium.

Climate action (Objective 13), through local adaptation and mitigation efforts is thus fundamental. However, we must make sure that the “solutions” don’t become themselves part of the problem. This is particularly important as local actions can displace issues to other sectors or into the future. So, we have to first connect the dots. By dots I mean people, by people I mean neighborhoods and by neighborhoods I mean cities, and by cities I mean countries. For every action there will be a severe reaction and we have no more time to pretend we are alone in this planet and that one’s action won’t harm the whole system.

A good way to start is to focus on responsible consumption and production (Objective 12), aiming to reduce ecological footprints (from individual to country’s level), by improving the way we manufacture and consume goods and exploit natural resources. In that matter, proper implementation and policy making for UFGs locally, could strategically allow these areas to become important parts of the city’s food system; to promote awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles; and could also integrate circular economy agendas (e.g. by supporting composting practices, waste upcycling, etc.). The promotion of composting in UFGs might decrease the amount of solid waste directed to landfills or treatment facilities, closing loops and re-nourishing the soil. It could also get people to consider their own waste production.

Figure 2. Preparing the composter (Source: Circular Schools Project)

Thus, with so much land still available, Lisbon could take a big step further to pursue SDGs, by promoting and up scaling food gardening activities around the city, throughout less bureaucratic ways than those in place. For that, local stakeholders , such as city and borough-level authorities need to foster new ways of thinking, planning and implementing local sustainability policies. To do so, we should listen to what people have to say, involving residents in transformation processes and decision-making; also by letting them aware of individual consequences of disconnecting the dots. It might take longer, but it might bring more fruitful outcomes, such as more participative and less administrative approaches in policies in the long run.

All in all, current food policies fail to address the problematic nature of food systems, since they give citizens no sense of the many relations that exist between the parts and among food and other systems. Above all, they fail to outline the food system as an important urban system that city planners and policies should consider transversally. In this respect, UFGs may work as laboratories for multidisciplinary studies and policy experimentation, allowing more holistic methodologies to be tested, bridging different public sectors and enabling a more systemic look into city’s food systems and how their parts interconnect.

Tainan Messina is a PhD student at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, in the Programme Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies. tainan.messina@ics.ulisboa.pt


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