In truth, most urban development today still harms nature. But designing, planning, building, renovating and managing cities with nature-positive interventions is arguably one of the most feasible approaches for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, argues Elizabeth Mrema, Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
How urban agriculture can hardwire resilience into our citiesArgentina's third largest city has created an urban agriculture program which has evolved from an approach to put food on the table, to a tool for job creation, and more recently to a strategy for tackling climate change.
The residents of Rosario, Argentina’s third-largest city, are no strangers to crises.
When the country’s economy collapsed in 2001, a quarter of Rosario’s workforce was suddenly unemployed; more than half of its population dropped below the poverty line. Faced with skyrocketing food prices and shortages, some residents resorted to looting supermarkets for food.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t have jobs and, when you are unemployed and you have nothing to do and you have no food, it makes you sad and it makes you sick,” said resident Tomasa Ramos Celia.
While residents struggled with an economy in freefall, another crisis loomed in the background. Climate change was heating up the city and making rainfall more erratic, leading to both flooding in Rosario and fires in the nearby river delta.
The Municipality of Rosario responded with the Urban Agriculture Program, a finalist for the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities, which spotlights innovative approaches to tackling both climate change and urban inequality. The program, which gives low-income residents access to underutilized and abandoned public and private land to cultivate food, was originally intended to alleviate food scarcity and provide economic opportunities. Over the years, the municipality evolved the program into a cornerstone of its inclusive climate action planning.
Rosario’s urban agriculture provides healthy food to eat and sell
Prior to the economic crisis of 2001, many farmers in Rosario’s state of Santa Fe, an agricultural hub, were cultivating soybeans for export. By the early 2000s, Rosario had started to depend heavily on imported agricultural products cultivated with extensive use of pesticides to meet its own food demand.
The city’s Urban Agriculture Program (Programa de Agricultura Urbana, or PAU) began supplying local groups with tools, materials, seeds and training on agroecological production — growing produce without chemicals — in 2002. The program quickly expanded to cover 75 hectares of the city, including seven Parques Huerta, or Vegetable Garden Parks, and various smaller neighborhood plots that were formerly underutilized or abandoned land.
To establish urban farming as a source of livelihood, the municipality also created spaces throughout the city for several permanent and pop-up markets, where urban farmers could sell locally grown produce and homemade goods like pickled vegetables, sauces, syrups, organic cosmetics and preserved fruit and jams.
“Consumers benefit because our produce is fresher and more affordable, since it doesn’t have to travel 500, 600 kilometers,” said Marisa Fogante, owner of two small agribusinesses selling in Rosario’s markets. “There is a virtuous circle where local producers grow produce that they can sell here, and consumers can easily access these foods by foot or on a bike.”
Today, almost 300 urban farmers have temporary ownership of public and private land. About 65% are women who grow produce and sell it in Rosario’s markets.
The municipality has also expanded urban agriculture into public spaces, schools, marketplaces and a variety of social programs, especially those for youth and elders, establishing a culture around food production. Vegetable Garden Parks in low-income communities have become critical locations to carry out other social programs, including those for education and youth development. For example, municipality staff trained more than 2,400 families and 40 schools on agroecological production, which have since started their own vegetable gardens.
Reducing food miles and climate risks
Besides giving people jobs and new sources of livelihood, there are important climate benefits gained from the Urban Agriculture Program. When monoculture triumphed over diversified food production, the city started sourcing food from more than 400 km away, creating a supply chain that generates considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Today, almost 2,500 tons of fruits and vegetables are agroecologically produced in Rosario each year. Localizing vegetable production creates 95% fewer GHG emissions than produce imported to Rosario, according to a study by the National University of Rosario and RUAF Urban Agriculture and Food Systems.
The urban agriculture program has gradually expanded into Rosario’s peri-urban areas, just outside of the city. To institutionalize this expansion, the municipality created the “Green Belt Project,” a new land use ordinance in 2015 that permanently designated 800 hectares of peri-urban land to be used for agroecological fruit and vegetable production.
“That’s one thing that makes Rosario different from other places, that it has permanent spaces for urban agriculture,” explained Antonio Luis Lattuca, an agrarian engineer and one of the creators of the Urban Agriculture Program. “[This] allows agriculture to improve the soil with time. When we work with these [agroecological] techniques, the soil becomes spongier and more absorbent. Instead of sliding and creating floods, water penetrates.”
Land is often thought of as a city’s most valuable commodity. Yet Rosario’s approach of reserving underutilized and degraded land for urban agriculture shows that the goals of density and equitable urban development can be compatible and mutually beneficial. New green spaces within the city and outside it boost the density of the inner city by preventing further urban expansion, while sustaining livelihoods of low-income residents and yielding climate benefits.
Hardwiring social, economic, and environmental resilience
Over the years, Rosario’s urban agriculture program evolved from an approach to put food on the table, to a tool for job creation, and more recently to a strategy for tackling climate change. It is now fully integrated into several of the city’s plans, including the Urban Plan of Rosario in 2007, the 10-year Strategic Plans of 2008 and 2018, and the Environmental Plan of 2015.
“Every public policy improves with continuity,” said Rosario’s Mayor, Pablo Javkin. “If you have continuity, you add to it. You add work, you add experience.”
By weaving urban agriculture into strategic plans, the municipality has hardwired resilience into Rosario’s future. Because the program shrinks carbon footprints, increases resilience to climate risks, and generates jobs and social inclusion, urban agriculture is as much an environmental infrastructure initiative as it is a social and economic one.
“If there are some things that we’re clear about the future, even within all this uncertainty, is that the local and the sustainable are going to have a great value,” said Mayor Javkin. “I believe this is a program that addresses many of the issues that will become a priority in the cities of the future.”
This article was written by Anne Maassen, Urban Innovation & Finance Associate, WRI Ross Center For Sustainable Cities & Madeleine Galvin, Research Assistant, WRI Ross Center For Sustainable Cities. It was first published by the WRI.
Responsible for nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions, the built environment is proving to be a driving force behind global climate change mitigation efforts.
Cities can support the transformation needed in food systems to tackle global challenges like hunger, poverty and climate change, says Mayor Giuseppe Sala of Milan, UN Food Systems Champion and Chair of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.
Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy and the Greater London Authority; Catherine McGuinness, Chair of the Policy and Resources Institute at the City of London Corporation; and Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council discuss the monumental challenge and opportunity of a net zero London.