The Intercultural cities programme (ICC) supports cities in reviewing their policies through an intercultural lens and developing comprehensive intercultural strategies to help them manage diversity positively and realise the diversity advantage.
Rethinking Agri-food production in small and medium-sized European cities is the aim of this Action Planning network. Agri-food production is a mature industry that continues to play an important role in terms of GDP, employment and environmental sustainability. That is why new growth potentials must be activated by means of innovation, new business models and strategies. Our vision is to place cities at the core of a growing global movement that recognizes the current complexity of food systems and the links between rural cities and nearby cities as a way to ensure regional development.
To tackle the climate emergency, we must urgently transform the conventional ways we produce, transport, eat and dispose of food worldwide. Cities are crucial drivers for this cultural, social and economic change: their residents consume 70% of the world’s food, and the policies they design and implement impact millions of people. URBACT cities and networks have understood this and are seeking to make their own contribution to the global challenge.
Focusing on the topic of ‘Growing Resilience: Sustainable Food to Tackle the Climate Emergency,’ this event was an opportunity to (re)connect, exchange experiences, challenges, knowledge, and best practices, to inspire and get inspired with the shared goal of fixing urban food systems, while addressing the climate emergency.
The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, launched at the initiative of the City of Milan, at the Milan Expo 2015, has now been signed by more than 200 cities. It is an international protocol aimed at tackling food-related issues at the urban level, to be adopted by as many world cities as possible. By signing this agreement, cities not only declare their commitment, but also benefit from practical guidance including 37 recommended actions – in the areas of Governance, Sustainable Diets and Nutrition, Social and economic Equity, Food Production, Food Supply and Distribution, and Food waste. Each recommended action has specific indicators to monitor progress in implementing the Pact. The Milan Pact Awards promote examples of successful food policies that cities are implementing in all six Pact categories.
Each year now (except for 2020 because of the pandemic), a global forum organised in a signatory city is a chance for cities to exchange knowledge, build partnerships and celebrate progress in implementing improved food policies through the Milan Pact Awards. Dialogue and technical exchange among signatories are enriched by the participation of relevant international organisations and institutions.
Current food systems have strong negative impacts on climate.Production, distribution, loss and waste of food account for around 30% of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. This in turn leads to biodiversity loss, extinction of species, deforestation, soil erosion, freshwater scarcity… At the same time, climate impacts all affect food systems: for producers affected by the lack of predictability of yields and food prices, incomes are increasingly volatile.
The distribution chain is becoming less and less reliable with strong concerns about city autonomy. All these affect rural areas’ survival. And problems have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Socio-economic and health inequalities are booming, with threats to food quality and food safety, with malnutrition as a key risk factor for hunger and disease.
An integrated food ecosystems approach
An ecosystem approach is key to ensuring that food provides access to healthy diets and nutrition for all, agroecology and regenerative agriculture, circular economy and the provisioning of just livelihoods. Such an approach involves understanding the range of stakeholders and complexity of their interactions; it is a crucial framework to identify, analyse and address synergies and trade-offs between various climate change responses.
Integration is another key competent of any transformation toward a sustainable local food system, and is vital in tackling multiple challenges such as technical gaps, behavioural changes and market failures. Integration is also embedded in the URBACT method, as follows:
Transversality: food is linked to agriculture, trade and industry, health, labour, environment, international cooperation… All these should be taken into consideration simultaneously when improving food systems.
Multi-actor: relevant departments from cities, regions and states covering the above-mentioned policies need to work together, as well as with stakeholders from the private, civil society and academic sectors.
Multi-level governance mechanisms: innovations take place at the local and regional levels. They should be supported and incentivised by international and national governments.
Territoriality: food ecosystems should be linked to each other with a strong focus on urban and peri-urban linkages. Rural areas should be further interconnected with cities of different sizes.
Infrastructure and social innovation: combining investments in tools, products, building with experimentation and people involvement and interaction is crucial to ensure a smooth transition of all to a sustainable food system.
Several entry points for a local integrated ecosystem
Many URBACT cities are frontrunners, inspiring others to act locally for more sustainable food systems. Their actions also provide insights into various possible entry points for cities to start developing their own sustainable local food ecosystem. For example:
Mollet Del Vallès (ES) is putting justice and health at the heart of integrated local food policies;
Mouans-Sartoux (FR) is using school canteens to develop a resilient territory – a solution they showcased at the recent COP26; and
URBACT cities are showing that much can be done to adjust local food ecosystems to fight climate change, based on each city’s priority, whether it’s canteens, health, governance... In addition to the three cities presented in Barcelona, the URBACT Food Knowledge Hub showcases many other inspiring initiatives for all interested cities!
Held just before the COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, the 7th MUFPP Global Forum was strategic in raising cities’ voices on the food-climate nexus. It launched the Barcelona Challenge on Good Food and Climate: a call for cities to engage in the transformation of food systems to tackle the climate emergency, drawing on the C40 Good Food Cities Declaration and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Framework for Action. With URBACT represented at COP26 by various cities, including nearly all partners in the Urb-En Pact network, commitment to sustainable, integrated city solutions looks set to grow.
In this article, URBACT Programme Expert Marcelline Bonneau shines a light on several URBACT partner cities making the transition towards more sustainable local food ecosystems – and some of the practices they have developed in the process. She concludes with a reminder of the importance of integrated food policies at city level.
A multitude of local food solutions in URBACT cities
From food to health, supporting social justice and fairness
The Covid-19 pandemic has made increasingly obvious the need to ensure that nobody is left behind when considering one of our core primary needs, food. Amongst others, Atheniou (CY) Mollet del Vallès (ES), Milan (IT) and Mouans-Sartoux (FR) have been particularly active in readjusting their food systems during the pandemic, embedding solidarity in the further integration of their local food systems.
In Mollet del Vallès, food justice has been on the agenda for quite a few years, as shown in the city’s involvement in the URBACT networks Diet for a Green Planet and Agri-Urban. The “Eat Well in Mollet” strategy promotes healthy dietary habits by giving citizens access to nutritious, local, organic and sustainable food, while educating them to make healthy food choices. Support under the strategy for vulnerable populations includes social allotments in an agro-ecological park.
To achieve food sovereignty and ensure local access to food, many cities have realised the importance of more locally based production, while supporting organic cultivation (including in urban gardens), as well as more sustainable distribution chains (supermarkets, markets, cooperatives…) and processing and preparation of food (catering, canteens).
The LAG Pays de Condruses (BE), part of the URBACT Agri-Urban and BioCanteens networks, has implemented an agricultural incubator model, combining food production, training and sale – the first such project in Wallonia (Belgium). Called ‘Point Vert’ (Green Point), the project offers access to organic land and streamlining of infrastructure and tools over six ha (including six greenhouses of 700 m2). Trainees can experiment with different crops and cultivation techniques and receive technical, entrepreneurial and selling support. It also provides a meeting and networking space for farmers.
In addition, ensuring adequate urban planning and land use have also become key concerns. While still in its infancy, the URBACT Food Corridors network is seeking to reinforce rural-urban linkages, at the level of cities and (micro) regions.
Food tourism as a key driver for cities
Other cities focus on the attractiveness of their territory by increasing and improving local production, the processing and preparation of food, and the branding and promotion of their local products. This is the focus of Amarante (ES), part of the BeePathNet network, which focuses on urban beekeeping in relation to local environment, biodiversity and food self-sufficiency challenges. The city is developing a ‘Bee Path’ platform to promote its bee and honey-related products and attract tourists. The city works with beekeepers as well as schools, and, obviously, everybody takes part in World Bee Day!
Many cities have a focus on the need to change consumer behaviour: inviting their citizens to consume more organic, seasonal, local and plant-based diets, while strengthening local community engagement.
In Krakow (PL), member of the URBACT RU:RBAN network, this is done via the ‘Gardens with Class’ programme for Community-building and schools. This programme supports the set-up of gardens in primary schools, a method that is educational both in terms of form and content, with a direct experience of nature. The ultimate goal is to open these gardens to the community and to reward school teachers with prizes for their engagement and achievements. Around 50 teachers are involved in 18 schools (one per district), with benefits expected for local communities, health, teachers’ careers, and new ways of learning.
Public procurement as a leverage for supporting local organic consumption
Cities can also work to turn legislative and market frameworks from obstacles to enablers in encouraging a shift towards more sustainability. Public procurement is one such tool which has proven to be extremely useful for European cities.
For example, Mouans-Sartoux (FR) – lead partner of the URBACT BioCanteens network – has opened the debate for elected representatives and civil servants to adapt legislation so that public procurement can effectively improve food provisioning for school canteens. The key principles applied by Mouans-Sartoux are:
Separating out previously large food ‘lots’ to enable local mono producers to submit proposals;
Systematic and organised inclusion of organic produce;
An increase of organic food lots;
Introducing questionnaires to increase understanding of local suppliers and their produce; and,
Defining selection criteria to better take into account quality and environmental issues.
As such, collaboration with local suppliers has become more realistic and efficient than ever.
These are just some of the many stories we could share from URBACT cities across Europe. Overarching all these specific and individual examples is the importance of cities developing an adequate policy framework to ensure a coherent and structured, but also transversal and integrated way of supporting food and urban agriculture-related projects. This is especially challenging as food policy is still addressed by multiple ministries and departments across local, regional and national levels. We don’t have Food Ministries in Europe yet!
A great example of such a policy approach and one of the flagship outcomes of the URBACT Sustainable Food in Urban Communities network is the Brussels Good Food Strategy. Working within the network, the region developed a local participatory process, gathered knowledge, co-created a vision, and planned measurable actions.
The resulting strategy was launched in 2016 along the principles of inclusion, local authorities leading by example, partnerships, behavioural change and increasing stakeholder ability to initiate their own projects. The strategy includes 15 actions structured under seven thematic headings:
Increase local sustainable food production;
Support the transition to a re-localised and sustainable supply for all;
Support the transition of demand [towards more sustainable food products] for all;
Develop a sustainable and desirable "good food" culture;
Reduce food waste;
Design and promote the food systems of the future; and
Ensure strategic implementation.
After the success of this strategy, a new, more ambitious strategy is on its way for 2022, co-created once again by all the stakeholders of the Brussels’ food ecosystem.
We look forward to the outcomes of the ongoing URBACT networks related to food and to seeing their partner cities’ journeys towards better access to local high quality products for their citizens.
Interested in more sustainable urban food policies and approaches? We invite you to dig into the information already shared by our cities and networks and check out future URBACT articles on the theme of food.
Cities have shown how agile they can be in addressing increased needs of their local population in terms of access to (healthy) food. As the economic crisis unfolds and hits the most vulnerable first, it is important to think about what cities can do to sustain and transfer such good practices and what support they need at national and European levels.
“The idea behind all initiatives is not to leave anybody behind during the Covid-19 crisis.” Josep Monras i Galindo, Mayor, Mollet de Vallès (Spain)
Assessing the Covid impact
For many of the most vulnerable people, Covid-19 has not only meant immediate health risks and threats to their income, but a significant worsening of their access to good-quality food. This has put them at increased risk of hunger and malnutrition.
At the same time, we have heard some positive impacts of the crisis on other aspects of the mainstream food system, for example with the development of healthier eating habits, more cooking at home and shorter food supply chains. Citizen solidarity has also been visible in many local areas to meet food needs of the most vulnerable.
In this article, I therefore ask: how have cities supported emerging citizen-led initiatives for food provision to those in need during the lockdown? How have they re-organised food aid systems, such as subsidised meals in canteens or charity-run food distribution schemes?
And as the lockdown measures are lifted across Europe, what lessons can be learnt from the responses to the crisis for building resilient food systems and local food policies for everyone? How can such learning continue to ‘feed us’ and provide us with a roadmap for action post Covid?
New types of food aid distribution
Associations and charities have faced a number of challenges during the lockdown. On the one hand, they lost the critical support of their senior volunteer workforce at risk of catching the virus. On the other hand, they faced increased demand with more people than ever in need of assistance, beyond their usual list of ‘beneficiaries’.
This required significant outreach efforts. Some structures re-adjusted their model by recruiting new volunteers, adapting to new health and safety measures, or even changing their food provision and distribution patterns, whilst others simply had to temporarily close down.
In some cases, the government assumed more responsibilities for distributing food aid, often leading to positive effects – for example, more cross-departmental cooperation and social innovation within city administration, more promotion of short food supply chains and organic food.
The Italian large city of Milan(1.3 million), which is an URBACT Good Practice for its Food Policy, set up a new food distribution system (“Dispositivo aiuto alimentare”) to offset the impact of the closures of several associations and charities and therefore centralised the entire supply chain until the end of the crisis. Food hubs were created at 10 locations across the city to prepare food aid packages for vulnerable families and fragile persons identified as being in need by Milan’s Social Services and non-profit operators.
Around 180 people and many stakeholders have been involved, including retailers, volunteers, municipality employees, drivers and others active in the food donation system. In the first two weeks, since 16 March, the Dispositivo Aiuto alimentare reached almost 1 900 families and after 15 weeks, the food aid system reached more than 6 000 families, a total of 20 744 people. The municipality opened within the municipal grocery market – ‘Foody’ – a specific food hub where fresh fruits and vegetables were collected and distributed to the food hubs and ultimately added to the food aid packages. Therefore, this action has not only improved access, but also quality of the food aid.
Milan’s Municipal grocery market (@Milan Food Policy)
Municipalities supporting citizen-led initiatives
Whilst the senior volunteer workforce has been impacted, many other groups have found themselves with more time on their hands and more reasons to engage in mutual aid. The result has been that many URBACT cities have seen a surge of volunteerism during Covid-19.
The small town of Athienou in Cyprus (6500 inhabitants) has a long history of supporting volunteering. Recognised as an URBACT good practice, Athienou is now leading the URBACT network Volunteering Cities. As Kyriacos Kareklas, Mayor of Athienou, likes saying, “The spirit of help and volunteerism is something that gives extra power to people in charge, who want to help people in need.”
The municipality reacted quickly to the crisis by calling upon volunteers to help the elderly and people with disabilities with their grocery shopping. They also supported the engagement of various actors in the food supply chain through the Social Welfare Program and Volunteering Council.
The urgency and logistical challenges of providing access to food led in many cases to federated efforts at the neighbourdhood level. For some cities, this represented a unique opportunity to strengthen territorial cooperation. Authorities played a crucial role as facilitators, for example, by making connections, setting up platforms, making spaces and resources available, or helping with communication.
This was the case, for instance, in the bigger and more densely populated city of Naples, the Lead Partner of the CivicEstate Network, which is exploring new forms of collective governance of shared urban spaces (unused building, parks, squares etc.) through an ‘urban common’ approach. This approach helped a wide network of associations, cooperatives, soup kitchens, community centres and other urban commons in Naples to rapidly organise food solidarity.
As Gregorio Turolla wrote in this article, “The extraordinary situation faced by cities like Naples during the pandemic has highlighted the essential role of self-managed or co-managed spaces of aggregation and mutualism. This confirms the important role of urban commons as social infrastructures, producing public services of social impact through solidarity, creative, collaborative, digital and circular economy initiatives.”
Meeting the needs of vulnerable children
Lola Gallego, manager of health and social services at Mollet de Vallès, stressed that “the health issue is a priority, but now the social crisis is beginning, and the basic social services provided by the municipalities must be the cornerstone of the forthcoming policies, plans and actions. To provide money is not enough. What is crucial is to accompany people in need.”
As one important example of this potential social crisis, a major risk factor for many vulnerable children, up to 320 million children worldwide, has been the disappearance of their only daily meal from school.
As part of a wider regional programme between the Catalan Government and La Caixa Bank, the Spanish medium-size city of Mollet de Vallès (52 000), partner of the URBACT Agri-Urban network, has contributed to a scheme providing credit cards for each child eligible for publicly funded school lunches (1 087 cards in Mollet). This scheme is supported jointly by the government and the city. Families were asked only to use the cards to buy food in the city where they live.
Andrea Magarini, Milan Food Policy Coordinator, is adamant that having “an effective local food policy has helped overcoming situations of crisis like the one we all are facing since the end of February.” In the case of Milan, their existing work “on issues such as food waste and school canteens has helped in the identification of successful actions to ensure access to food for many vulnerable groups during the lockdown,” points out Andrea Magarini.
In the small French city ofMouans-Sartoux (10 000), partner of Agri-Urban and Lead Partner of the BioCanteens network, their URBACT-awarded ‘good practice’ is rooted into a territorial eco-system with strong food sovereignty. In that context, the crisis has only further entrenched their long-lasting efforts to guarantee food sovereignty on their territory.
Mouans-Sartoux plans to continue the activities initiated during the lockdown, such as the a newly set-up NGO helping homeless people. They will also launch new initiatives to support self-production and redistribution to those most in need, education on sustainable food for everyone, improvement of the quality of the food being delivered at home, and strengthening citizen participation in the food policy.
The ‘food lever’ – how to scale up action from the bottom up?
So, what cities can do to sustain such good practices and what support do they need at national and European levels?
As Gilles Pérole, Vice Mayor for education in Mouans-Sartoux said, “it is at local level that we need to act now. State centralism does not provide us with the quick and efficient answers we need. Within these first two months of crisis, the administrative burden has disappeared as we had to quickly react and adjust ourselves. The Covid-19 crisis has showed us what could happen as a result of the climate crisis and there won’t be any vaccines to save us from it…”
As part of the Farm to fork strategy which was published in the midst of the crisis, the European Commission is focusing, amongst others, on “Mak[ing] sure Europeans get healthy, affordable and sustainable food”. Yet, it puts little emphasis on the role of cities except in the conclusion stating that “the transition to sustainable food systems (also) requires a collective approach involving public authorities at all levels of governance(including cities, rural and coastal communities), private-sector actors across the food value chain, non-governmental organisations, social partners, academics and citizens.”
As such, URBACT (and its partners) have a strong role to play in providing grounded evidence and cases from cities, offering additional and counterbalanced views to those of mainstream lobbies, further continuing to facilitate exchange of learning and accelerating change towards more food solidarity at local, national and European levels.
Cities are intervening in novel ways to support frontline health services, food supplies, the local economy and people’s mental well-being. Several are building directly on capacity built during their experiences in URBACT networks, showing that the programme’s principles of local stakeholder engagement and transnational exchange can support cities to achieve their objectives, even in times of crisis.
Volunteers in action in Altea (ES)
We asked some of our URBACT experts what examples of city responses had caught their attention. Read their thoughts, then check out the interactive map of other great city examples that the URBACT Programme is collecting from across Europe. More in-depth analysis will follow in the next few weeks so stay tuned!
Cities supporting front-line health workers
Cities are finding novel ways to support hospitals and health workers. “Right now, cities are throwing everything at the short-term problem,” stresses Eddy Adams. “That means supporting the medics, like in Pireaus (EL), whose Blue Lab has repurposed 3D printers to make protective faceshields for health staff.” This initiative builds on the experience of the city in supporting local innovation through the ‘BlueGrowth’ competition, recognised by URBACT as a good practice in 2017 and currently the focus of the URBACT Transfer Network BluAct.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, Ivan Tosics highlights that “despite the increasing centralisation of government in recent years and severely restricted local budgets, the city of Budapest (HU) has reacted by ordering medical instruments from abroad and is distributing these to health institutions, homeless shelters and elderly homes. The city also signed agreements with private health institutions to test employees in key professions for the functioning of the capital.”
Citizen-led solutions have also been an important aspect of the human response to the crisis affecting health services and city authorities can still learn more about how to support and encourage such initiatives. Laura Colini has been impressed that the URBACT Transfer Network Volunteering Cities - based on the experience of the Athienou (CY) Municipal Council of Volunteering (MCV) – “is now sharing how volunteers are engaged in different cities to provide first necessity products, producing masks or any other needed materials.” Also from the Volunteering Cities network, a volunteer in Capizzi (IT)
Cities supporting the local economy
Given the impact of lockdown policies on people’s economic activities, many urban authorities have swiftly introduced measures to freeze rents and business taxes, and are helping local companies to access support. Ivan Tosics flags that Budapest has “increased the wages of employees of municipality-owned enterprises and introduced a moratorium on rent payments for small and micro enterprises which rent space from the municipality. The local authority has also offered free signs to shops in the city to call attention to the right distance to maintain between customers.”
Many cities are looking at opportunities to extend their digital service provision, including to local companies who cannot access traditional support in the current circumstances. Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, the URBACT network TechTown was stressing the importance of the digital economy and its Lead Partner Barnsley’s (UK) Digital Media Centre was identified as an URBACT Good Practice - going on to form the basis of the current URBACT Transfer Network TechRevolution.
Sally Kneeshaw has seen how the city has built on these experiences to step up its response to the current crisis: “Barnsley’s Digital Media Centre last week pivoted to virtual delivery to support businesses with chat and call centres, and made a commitment to bankroll the Government's grant scheme for those in the most impacted sectors of retail, leisure and hospitality.” The platform is also providing tips and guidance for more secure remote working.
Supporting the local economy also means supporting families most affected by job losses and loss of income. Whilst many national unemployment schemes are being adapted in response to the specific current challenges, Laura Colini highlights that exchanges within URBACT’s Volunteering Cities network have also included “brewing ideas and exchanging practices on the involvement of local companies or individuals in offering products or financial aid to families in need”.
Cities ensuring local food supplies
Many European citizens are concerned about ongoing supplies of food as production and distribution systems come under strain from threats to workers’ health and restrictions on movement. The URBACT network AGRI-URBAN was addressing ways of improving local food supply in urban areas back in 2016. The AGRI-URBAN partner city, Mouans-Sartoux (FR) saw its collective school catering recognised as an URBACT good practice in 2017 and became the Lead Partner of the Transfer Network BioCanteens in 2018.
Marcelline Bonneau has kept in touch with their response to the current crisis: “The municipal farm - initially producing organic fruit and vegetables for three school canteens providing a thousand lunches per day - has diversified its distribution channels to meet broader needs and protect jobs. A part still goes to the canteens providing food for the few dozen children of health workers and municipal agents who can still access school, a part is processed and frozen, and another part goes to the social grocery of the city.”
The municipal authorities are already thinking about how to respond to the ongoing food supply challenges. “Soon-to-come lettuces, which cannot be frozen, will probably be given to the neighbouring hospital in Grasse,” continues Ms Bonneau. Meanwhile; the city is exploring ways “to increase production in the next plantation schemes in order to anticipate potential issues in conventional food supply chains” in the near future.
Eddy Adams observes that ‘cities are throwing everything at their short-term problems’. In Vic (ES), this “means supporting communities.Lead Partner of the new URBACT network Healthy Cities is mobilising closed food-market vendors to feed isolated vulnerable individuals”. Such targeted approaches can be crucial for bridging the gap between supply and demand in the context of a lockdown.
Mouans-Sartoux’s municipal farm (FR)
Cities supporting education and mental well-being
National education systems are struggling to rapidly adapt to the situation of students' confinement. Mirella Sanabria, Lead Expert the URBACT Transfer Network On Board tells us: “This is keeping some of our partners - in particular in big cities - busy and stressed. On the positive side, however, some local initiatives are putting into practice innovation related to the use of digital tools in education projects, which is a central aspect of the Educational Innovation Network that On Board is working to transfer.”
For example, the On Board Lead Partner Viladecans (ES) has developed a dedicated School at Home! webpage which provides new creative and educational activities for children and families every day. Meanwhile, in the partner city of Halmstad (SE), a vocational school is now teaching cooking classes online. The municipality delivers grocery baskets to the students who prepare the meals, which are then supplied to people in particular need.
Beyond education, Sally Kneeshaw is keen to highlight that “We are all learning, if we didn’t already know, how much we need culture to sustain us. I love that the librarians of the Tallinn Central Library are reading books on request via Skype or phone for children at home. Meanwhile, Zaragoza (ES) has launched a photography competition #DesdeMiVentana (From my window) open to people aged between 12 and 30, targeting young people who find it the hardest to stay indoors.”
Marcelline Bonneau flags a different example from the city of Mollet del Vallès (ES) which “has created a Leisure at home programme proposing leisure activities to its citizens who are totally prevented from leaving their home without good reason. Launched on Friday 27 March, anyone interested can enjoy a selection of proposed activities alone or in the family. These range from physical classes to memory exercises and from cooking to robotics. The platform is updated and expanded regularly.”
Laura Colini also highlights the work that the URBACT Transfer Network ON STAGE - working on introducing new curricula in schools based on music and arts - is doing in “keeping people together through music. They recently shared a video performance of young students from the school #ZsOsmec from the partner city of Brno (CZ)”. Such initiatives are a reminder of the importance of keeping our spirits high in these challenging times.
Don’t forget to check out the interactive map of other great city examples that the URBACT Programme is collecting from across Europe.
Have you seen another city response that has inspired you? Help us to share it by tagging @URBACT in a tweet or sending it directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
Antonio Zafra and Raquel Moreno Vicente were part of the coordination team of the AGRI-URBAN project which was led by the Town Council of Baena. They work in ADEGUA, an association which brings together town councils, civic associations, entrepreneurs and others who want to promote sustainable development in the surrounding region. They talked to the political journalist Jamie Mackay about the organic movement, the unique features of small cities and their experience working with URBACT.
How did you get interested in agriculture?
Antonio Zafra (AZ): I could say I am a rural man but at the same time I love cities. I don’t live in Baena but in a small village of 500 inhabitants with all the demographic problems you can imagine. Most of my family abandoned rural work to go to university, but my roots are in the rural way of life. I love living in small villages. I run a small olive oil production and am involved in organic consumer and producer groups, so I’m a bit of an activist too.
Raquel Moreno Vicente (RMV): I was raised in Baena so I’ve always been surrounded by olive trees and the countryside that produced our food for generations. It wasn’t really until I became a mother, though, that I realised we were buying so many things from far away rather than eating what we were producing. This was a personal revelation. From that moment on I became more aware of food in society, in health, in art, and I saw the potential for change.
How has the food industry around Baena evolved over the past decades?
: Today Baena is a monoculture area, but it wasn’t always like that. In twenty years we’ve lost around 200 hectares that used to be cultivated with fruit and vegetables. The agri-industrial system has won the battle of food production. Most of our olive oil is sold in big containers to other countries, or taken to other cities to be put in bottles. The result is a terrible paradox. This high production rural area is now dependent on food from all over the world to feed its people. Maybe it’s a successful industry, but it’s not a successful system for the population’s health.
RMV: Another big problem is unemployment. Because of automation, fewer agricultural workers are needed, and when they are, it’s only for a few months a year. This trend demands a reaction. If we want to keep people in the territory and halt depopulation - not only in agriculture - some changes are needed to better balance globalisation and local initiatives.
What has Baena done to promote alternatives?
AZ: One of the earliest steps was an analysis of the composition of the oil which we did with Cordoba university, to map and analyse the territory. Then we created some spaces – including a museum– so visitors and the local population could engage with the culture of olive trees. With the 2008 crisis our priority shifted to the social dimension of the problem. We supported the creation of small social gardens which were really successful at reconnecting people and food at the local level.
How did URBACT help your efforts?
AZ: There are lots of problems when trying to innovate in small cities. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a department or even a single professional working on a topic in a small town or village. Occasionally you don’t even have a councillor in the area. Through AGRI-URBAN we wanted to share expertise. We had 11 cities in our network, but all coming from different starting points. Over time, though, we managed to find a common interest in the food system. We also wanted to promote the importance of the rural urban connection. Lots of small cities are connected with big cities around them so we wanted to discuss how they might interact more effectively.
RMV: The URBACT methodology was an inspiration for us too. If you don’t connect networks with local realities you can’t promote grassroots change. In AGRI-URBAN our local stakeholders had direct access to the experience in other cities, to understand how they might be applied here in Baena. Seeing that connection, coming from European to local and back to European level has been really important in allowing us to make changes.
What were the most inspiring practices shared in the network?
AZ: 40 years ago the municipality of Mollet Del Vallès (ES), in the suburbs of Barcelona challenged the industrial expansion of the city by creating an agrarian area. Today they have a protected natural park of around 500 hectares where they promote organic food and food start-ups. They’re even developing social governance and researching with Barcelona University how to protect biodiversity and collect seeds.
RMV: Fundão (PT) have been really successful in uniting the food sector and promoting change. Their producers have support from a central unit where they can try new things in the way they pack and present their food. We need something like that here. We’re actually working with them now on another project, promoting the use of new technologies in relation to food.
Your plans include social orchards, a food hub and a farming incubator to support young businesses. Which look the most promising at this stage?
AZ: At the moment only 5-10% are being implemented, though some of the proposals just need a small commitment to get going. Making organic canteens in high schools, for example, only needs the school staff and the municipality to be a little more proactive.
RMV: All the political parties in the town council support our plan. There’s no majority at the moment, but some of the manifestos in the elections last month actually included AGRI-URBAN initiatives. What happens next depends on political willpower but also on individuals. If someone has the interest and engagement they can really make things happen.
AZ: We’ve developed a pilot action to remind the politicians of what they approved. It’s a kind of social garden, not for just families but on a bigger scale involving NGOs, ecologist groups and other organisations. There’s a plot in the very middle of the city so nobody can forget about us!
Have you got a message for other small cities working to tackle big issues like these?
AZ: Some intellectuals say the spirit of Europe was created in cities. From a historical point of view maybe it’s true. But many important values in Europe - freedom, sociability, care for the environment – are rooted in rural areas. Personally, I like the idea of a Europe in which we are able to ruralise urban areas and urbanise some rural areas, to exchange the good things we have in both directions. Small and medium sized cities have a unique capacity to connect the two worlds and food is one of the best interconnectors we have. In this age of new communication, I think we can redefine both areas together.
Agri-food production is a mature industry that plays an important role in terms of GDP, employment, environmental sustainability and social integration. Here we share the knowledge of Agri-Urban and Semear projects.
Food is actually one of the main urban challenges, but food is also at the centre of the debate on sustainable development. Food systems are essential for sustainable development: they are at the nexus that links food security, nutrition and human health, the viability of eco-systems, climate change, and social justice.
More than 7 500 million people need to be fed healthily, equitably and affordably while maintaining the ecosystems on which life depends. The evidence of the impact of diet on the health of people and the planet has grown enormously during recent decades, yet changing consumer eating habits, even for public health alone, not to mention planetary health, is proving difficult.
Power in the food system is becoming increasingly concentrated with mega-mergers in the seed, agri-chemical, fertiliser, animal genetics and farm machinery industries; this reinforces the industrial farming model, exacerbating its social and environmental costs. Globally, farmers are increasingly reliant on a handful and suppliers and buyers, squeezing their incomes. There is an urgent need to connect research and policy around an innovative and more integrated sustainable food security agenda.
That is why innovation, new business models and strategies must activate growth potential. Small and medium size European cities, especially those located in rural areas and with a local economy linked to agriculture and the agri-food system can play a leading role to face this urban challenge.
Visit to the SEMEAR agricultural land in Oeiras (ES)
As part of a workshop during the festival, the team went out onto the field - literally - and visited Oeiras, near Lisbon.
The SEMEAR team (SEMEAR - Exploração Agrícola SEMEAR - Terra de Oportunidades at Oeiras), Joana Santiago, Raquel Monteiro and Cecilia Duarte, explained how their sustainable program of social inclusion for children, young people and adults with intellectual and developmental difficulties works through training and development of skills, employability and socio-professional insertion, as well as agricultural production and transformation.
The preparation of the land took some months to be ready for agricultural production due to the lack of water. With the first crops consumed by local workers, a B2C approach was adopted, and it still works very well. SEMEAR doesn’t foresee a business agreement with retailers because of the lack of capacity to supply the market on a regular basis.
“Agricultural production is a tool to facilitate people’s integration into society, commercialisation and profitability is not a final goal” insists Joana Santiago.
Sustainability is always a key issue for organisations like SEMEAR and the participants tried to understand how the operations work in terms of financial sustainability. The revenue streams for SEMEAR were summarised by Cecilia Duarte and are based on a strong network with local donors, public grants from regional or national funding schemes and by selling their products to families around SEMEAR.
“It’s a goal to move to an organic production, but at this stage the transitional period is preparing the land”, says Raquel Monteiro.
The main outcome of SEMEAR is the social inclusion for young people and adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD), through professional training, developing soft skills and promoting employability in agricultural and food industry trades
The agri-food sector as social integration
SEMEAR and Agri-Urban both work on social integration in agriculture for the young population, addressing the capacity of agriculture to promote (or to generate) therapy, rehabilitation, social inclusion, education and social services.
Agri-food to increase urban-rural links
Small and medium-sized towns are key in providing a meeting point between urban and rural businesses, turning into hubs for employment, entrepreneurship and training for rural youth.
One can look more specifically at the examples of Fundão (PT), Mouans-Sartoux (FR), Petrinja (HR), Mollet del Vallés (ES) and Baena (ES). These cities’ Integrated Action Plans intend to improve links between urban centres and smallholder farmers and their organisations. Enhancing links between smallholders and market opportunities across agri-food value chains, creating decent employment in them, and fostering shared sustainable arrangements between urban and rural groups are necessary preconditions to create inclusive and sustainable rural-urban linkages.
Practical take-aways from SEMEAR and agri-urban experiences
Open agri-business to young people
Youths can become “agri-preneurs” along agri-food value chains, from production and aggregation to processing and marketing. Supporting their access to productive resources can help them invest in profitable smallholder agricultural activities.
Invest in hard and soft infrastructure
Access to energy, roads, communications and water infrastructure is essential, as well as facilitating the flow of goods, labour, money and information.
Operate both on labour supply and demand
Youths need access to quality training in order to develop relevant skills for the labour market (supply), and decent farm and non-farm employment opportunities within agri-food value chains (demand).
Integrate decent work aspects
Policies should improve working conditions of young women and men employed in agri-food value chains by extending social protection, workers’ rights, occupational health and safety, and rural workers’ groups.
Share and learn with successful case studies
Here are some Portuguese initiatives of the social and solidarity sector:
PROVE: creating jobs and bridging the rural-urban divide;
FRUTA FEIA: adding social value and reducing food waste;
CABAZ do PEIXE: between the sea and the city, delivering fish protein and reducing fish waste;
BIOVIVOS: tiny urban spaces can produce simple, healthy and nutritious food.
The engagement and commitment of local policymakers, social organisations, entrepreneurs and retailers is a key aspect for the sustainable development and the resilience of small and medium sized European cities.
Overlooking rolling countryside just 9 miles from Barcelona, the city of Mollet del Vallès always had a tradition of eating well and protecting the land. But there was never a city-wide food policy linking producers and consumers.
That was until 2013 in the midst of economic crisis when the City Hall set up an International Relations Department to look for innovative ideas on public services and networking opportunities through EU programmes like URBACT. At that time, Södertälje in Sweden, a Good Practice city leading an URBACT pilot transfer network called ‘Diet for a Green Planet’, was seeking Transfer Cities just like Mollet del Vallès with whom they could share their good practice.
The city of Södertälje, with 95 000 inhabitants, has a reputation for promoting sustainable local farming as a solution for feeding people while reducing agricultural pollution. Unlike Spain, Sweden has a national law that puts municipalities in charge of public canteens. With a municipal Diet Unit employing 250 people – including cooks – the city buys food directly from producers. Providing 24 000 free school meals a day, they have reduced meat consumption by 30% since 2010, and reduced leftovers by up to 40%. About 60% of Södertälje’s schools are supplied with local, seasonal, organic food.
By joining the ‘Diet for a Green Planet’ beginning of 2014, Mollet agreed to be part of a city network with Södertälje, and other two transfer cities Łomża (PL) and Molėtai (LT) to explore how to put local food production to the benefit of the population. As required by URBACT, Mollet’s Head of EU and International Department, Albert Garcia, set up an URBACT Local Group, a local multi-stakeholder group composed of 14 people, an elected representative, council officers, school principals, cooks and local producers to meet at local level and to visit the other network partners.
After their first trip to Södertälje to discover if and how Mollet could transfer the Diet Policy to its local context, feelings were mixed. “When we came back from Sweden, the suitcases we were carrying were packed full of ideas,” says Garcia. “But we also had doubts. Our cities were so different in terms of food tradition and management, human resources, budget : where to start transferring and adopting what we’d learnt? How would we make it work?...”
In the Spanish town of Mollet, where the whole task of supplying and running public canteens is outsourced to private companies, this central approach to food was unheard of. “Reading about Södertälje, I was amazed to discover how diet could even exist as a concept for a city council! For us, Södertälje’s Diet Policy and Unit was like a UFO!” recalls Albert Garcia. “The municipality wanted to create markets for local food as foreseen in the city strategy for 2025 but the public canteens had never been seen as a solution for agri-urban growth! Yet, we have this fantastic agro-ecological park of 734 hectares, Gallecs, making up 50% of our territory, a culture of enjoying good food, and a climate for growing tasty produce year round” says Garcia.
Just after the first visit to Sweden, Mollet carried out a baseline study , an URBACT network requirement, with its first ever quality audit of the food served in its public canteens. The results were double-sided: while children and parents seemed happy with the quality and taste, the audit revealed that much of the food that children were eating had been frozen, pre-prepared and brought in from far off places. Some said: “Why change the system if people are happy and we don’t have any complaints?” But Södertälje’s inspiring results, and the prospects of local economic growth and a healthier way of living in Mollet pushed the council forward to reform.
Adapting rather than copy-pasting a Good Practice
As it was impossible for Mollet to set up a Diet Unit purchasing directly local food in canteens, the city adapted Södertälje’s Good Practice to its own standards and specificities. Council officers Nuria Duno and Antonio Martinez transformed the old public procurement system to a new model, this time based on quality rather than price to transform supply, enabling hundreds of children to eat food from nearby farms – without increasing prices for families. This new public procurement system was drawn up in 2014 based on Södertälje’s ‘Diet for a Green Planet’ principles – Tasty and healthy food, Organically grown, Less meat, More vegetables and wholegrain, Seasonal food, Locally produced, Reduced food waste.
Rather than choosing companies on price alone as in the past, under the new model the council sets a fixed price for running its canteens, and then uses a points system to select and monitor the winning company based on quality. Tendering companies are compared according to their scores on areas such as: Nutritious and tasty food (factors here include “Not use pre-cooked and fried food”, “At least 10 different vegetables per week”); Ecological foodstuffs; and Local fresh produce (which includes “average distance from vegetable suppliers <30 km (19 miles)”).
“It wasn’t easy to find good companies that could meet these criteria. We also needed legal advice to comply with EU public procurement regulations. This was a bit complicated,” says Martinez quietly. “We’ve made a few adjustments. Other towns are now showing interest, as well as private schools outside our direct control.”
Some of these adjustments were on costs. Organic fresh produce from small producers costs more than industrially produced, re-heatable meals. To keep prices down for the families, the council has limited other costs, by reducing the cooks’ working hours for example, and encouraging providers to lower their profit margins.
Benefits for the Transfer City and its local community
Today in Mollet, children from three public kindergartens and from the two municipal centres for people with disabilties eat healthy lunches, prepared with lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, carrots and other veg from Gallecs – the 700-hectare agro-ecological park on the city’s doorstep. A steady supply of other fresh food, including meat and fish is ensured thanks to an agreement with a regional association. Parents in three of the 10 publically run primary schools have followed suit to transform their canteens, and yet more schools are showing interest – in Mollet and beyond. The food served in Mollet’s public canteens is now, on average, more than 80% organic, and 100% seasonal. All the vegetables travel less than 30 km (19 miles) from field to fork. Even the bread is baked locally with flour from stoneground spelt, an ancient variety reintroduced in the agricultural park of Gallecs thanks to the research programmes that the Consortium of Gallecs and the University of Barcelona run together. Surplus vegetables are processed in the agro-ecological park’s shared kitchen, right next to the farm shop and a quaint stone chapel – now a much-coveted wedding venue.
All this activity means more jobs and economic development. In Gallecs, there are about 20 local producers today, some of them employing about twice as many people as in 2013, and numbers are growing. Gallecs now counts 7 exploitable hectares, compared with 2 hectares before the project started, and local producers now supply 14 public canteens in other cities of the region. “We’re attracting young people back to the fields. There are a lot of new initiatives, all on a small scale,” says Gemma Safont, who manages the “Consortium for Gallecs”, a body set up in 2005 by Mollet, the surrounding cities and the Catalan Government, to encourage organic farming, protect the environment, and improve lives. Growing up here on her family’s farm, Safont has watched the area become a haven, not just for plants and wildlife – but also for some 750 000 people who visit every year from surrounding cities.
Changing habits and overcoming difficulties
Adapting the good practice of local, seasonal organic school meals from Södertälje to Mollet required a change of rules and attitude.
For Garcia, the secret was to find “allies”, get the right people on board from the start. As every URBACT city, Mollet set up its own URBACT Local Group of enthusiastic teachers, local farmers and cooks, politicians, kindergarten managers, and civil servants- mirroring the one already existing in Södertälje. The council also linked up with the Ecological School Association of Catalonia, who gave advice on reorganising canteens, and carried out audits. “This URBACT Local Group was the perfect platform for bringing local actors together. The sense of belonging, a joint commitment to a shared cause… it’s the only thing making these changes sustainable,” says Garcia.
Exchanges and visits between Södertälje and Mollet brought a feeling of responsibility and change of mindsets in decision-makers. After a three-day visit of a political delegation from Södertälje, Josep Monras, the Mayor of Mollet, realised the potential of using food as a way of reaching environmental, health and economic goals. Food suddenly became the mayor’s favourite subject.
There have been a few hiccups along the way, including cultural differences about the virtues of meat. Some parents are unhappy that meat is sometimes replaced by vegetable protein. One mistake, dubbed “the great burger crisis” by Garcia and his colleagues, was to serve each child with half a large burger: people thought they were being swindled by authorities putting cost-cutting above their children’s health.
Similarly, in the Gallecs-based Can Vila, a school for 157 children of all ages with special needs, cooks have to be particularly careful about allergies and other dietary requirements – some children are fed via gastric tube. Autistic children in particular found it unsettling to adjust to wholegrain pasta and bread, and meals without meat. Troubles eased slightly when lentils were made to look like meat. The principal, Montse Tarres, says the shift to new ‘green diet’ menus could not have gone ahead without close support from the parents.
Overall, teachers and principals here, and at a local nursery, say the system is working. With food – sustainable production and healthy eating – as an integral part of the educational programme, the experience has been “very positive” for the families, and professionals.
Mireia Oliva, principal of the pioneering Can Besora school, has been part of the local group all along, visiting Södertälje and helping Mollet Council. It’s given her energy to renew her school’s commitment to healthy, local food. Has this exchange been a useful experience, with positive effects on the children? “Molt, Molt, Molt” – A lot, a lot, a lot.
Benefits for the Good Practice city
For Södertälje, exchanges with Mollet was not just a one-way transfer process. Thanks to meetings and study vists to Mollet and the other two transfer cities, Södertälje itself benefitted from the ideas, suggestions and experience coming from their peers and reflected on how to improve and upgrade their own policy.
The main partner in Södertälje was Head of Public Meals, Sara Jervfors. She was particularly impressed by the relaxed, positive approach in Mollet, the nutritional potentials of delicious year-round Mediterranean food, and the strong culture of sharing and enjoying meals.
“Mollet were really advanced in the way they cooperated with the vegetable farmers. They had good ideas for linking schools with local producers. We learnt a lot about the concept of a consortium for sharing management of agricultural parks – and now we’re developing one too”, said Jervfors.
Thanks to these mutually beneficial exchanges, Mollet and Södertälje are now part of another URBACT network, Agri-Urban, to foster even more the economic potential of sustainable local food chains.
Mollet has made progress since the Diet for a Green Planet exchanges in 2013-15. The local group has evolved and now meets regularly to discuss municipal actions related to food. This ‘food policy group’ helped set up the city’s 2015 diet policy- voted in Swedish-style, with cross-party consensus- was a real milestone for the council and a clear asset for the city’s future. Today, they are continuing the city’s strategy to turn Gallecs into a major local supplier of seasonal, organic produce.
Part of this is a project to convert an old farm into an e-commerce storage and delivery centre next to the school for children with disabilities. Having secured investment at local and regional level, the idea is to scale up local food businesses, giving some adapted jobs to people with handicaps.
There are also plans to link the food and health sectors, with Mollet Hospital, to fight diseases associated with poor diets and obesity, and encourage diets with less sugar, salt and meat, and more vegetables and non-processed foods.
In the council offices, Antonio Martinez reflects on what would be different if Mollet hadn’t met Södertälje. “Everything!” he exclaims. “There’s a chance we’d be right where we were five years ago, facing budget cuts, but no way to improve our services. We’ve managed to introduce something new – without increasing costs.”
Representatives from small and medium sized cities in the URBACT network Agri-Urban met recently in Fundao to exchange ideas about improving the food infrastructure in their cities. They got together to ask: How can we work more effectively with producers? How can we stimulate innovation in the supply chain? How can we optimise public sector procurement in schools and care homes to reshape our local food supply lines - and consumption habits?
Around the table, Agri-Urban brings some heavyweight experience. Among the partners is Sodertajle from Sweden, with its trailblazing work in public procurement. There is also Mouans-Sartoux, a small French city punching above its weight and challenging city decision-makers on key questions of land use.
Fundao itself has overcome its apparent vulnerability to dependence on one product by diversifying its local cherry economy in highly innovative ways. Its “Fablab” enables local producers and creatives to collaborate using state-of-the art facilities. One local business is cultivating mushrooms in used coffee grounds, exploiting commercial waste to generate value – a great example of the circular economy in action.
In the fading sunlight of a long productive day the international group visited the Naturaglamping site, glamorous camping to the uninitiated, where Agri-Urban’s city partners planted a row of trees – cherry trees of course – on a ridge overlooking the valley.
In this network we can see the URBACT integrated principles at work, truly encompassing environmental, economic and social activity. And Agri-Urban is not working alone in this sphere. Food has become a hot topic for cities.
Main course: URBACT’s food adventure continues
At the recent Unusual Suspects Festival in London, Agri-Urban had the chance to connect with a global audience interested in their work. With inputs from across the city, participants from as far afield as Canada and South Korea assembled at the wonderful Calthorpe Project to exchange ideas and inspiration.
Albert Garcia, representing Mollet de Valles (Spain), another URBACT food pioneer, had some interesting take-aways from the event. He noted the important role of food in helping reach some of the goals cities have today – including meeting health, social and economic priorities. He said: “What I really thought in the plane is that I will commit as a civil servant to make the unusual more usual. To work hard to convince the main actors that making innovative contributions to their city with unusually good initiatives or approaches is possible. From the city hall we have to struggle to create the right framework to let the unusual grow and become usual as a major achievement for the city. A long way to go but lot of unusual suspects full with energy and commitment.”
In Mollet, as in many URBACT cities, the food theme remains strong. As well as Diet for a Green Planet, which was Mollet’s first programme experience, we have had Sustainable Food, led by Brussels, as well as URBACT Markets exploring the important role of city markets, led by Barcelona. The recent announcement of the URBACT Good Practices continued this food-related momentum, with labeled cities including Mouans Sartoux (France) and Turin (Italy). Mouans Sartoux confronts city planners with key questions about how urban land should be used in the 21st Century. Many cities are under pressure to accommodate growing populations and provide additional housing. But where will the land come from – and how can we ensure a balanced approach where cities retain green spaces, not only for recreation but also for cultivation?
One of Turin’s two URBACT Good Practices taps into Italy’s integral relationship between food and local communities. In recent years the city has supported the redevelopment of its network of neighbourhood markets, giving each community access to local produce within walking distance of home. This helps sustain hyper-local micro-economies. It also provides a valuable social forum at a time when there is much talk of the increase in loneliness and isolation in our cities. Additionally, the fact that these markets are a short walk from home discourages driving and promotes cycling and walking which are not only low-carbon activities but also ones more open to chance encounters with neighbours and other shoppers.
Food in the wider urban family
A short hop from Turin, Milan has almost 30 square kilometres of agricultural land within its municipal boundary. On the back of its 2016 Food Expo, there is a variety of food-related activity in the city. Their URBACT Good Practice focuses on peri-urban agricultural activity, exploring the role of the food sector in driving entrepreneurship, innovation and employment. The city is also among the first wave of Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) cities, with this project building on their growing wealth of food-related experience. The potential crossover between this and some of the URBACT projects is clear, helped by the fact that this UIA and URBACT’s Agri-Urban project both have support from the same expert, Miguel Sousa.
In the initial cluster of 18 UIA cities, two others also have a food dimension. Pozzuoli, in the greater Naples metropolitan area, focuses on encouraging zero-kilometre food production in a part of Italy that is the victim of its own gastronomic success. Local producers are more likely to export their mozzarella to New York than produce it for the local market. The domino (pizza?) effect is that the food for sale locally is often imported from North Africa. This may reflect an effective market at work – but it’s an environmental own-goal. Addressing this imbalance, with the aim of stimulating local production and consumption, is one of Pozzuoli’s UIA goals.
And the UIA focus on food doesn’t stop at the Alps. In the north of France, the city of Lille is also embarking on an approach that puts food at the centre of its anti-poverty activity. Their intention is to transform a well-known local brownfield site, Fives Cail, into a variety of food-related initiatives. Their proposed Halle Gourmande will be a hub of food-related activities, providing opportunities to learn, share and enjoy. In doing so the project’s transformation of this old heavy industrial site will be emblematic of Lille’s post-industrial shift.
So, when did food and cities hit it off so well?
Why the big buzz around food? One clear reason is food’s role as a social connector. In an increasingly polarised world, where tribal behaviour and bubble living keep us apart from those who may think differently from us, food can act as a bridge. The inspiring Zipbob social dining project in Seoul, for example, brings neighbours together through food. This is important in a booming megacity where traditional neighbourhoods are fast disappearing with socially unsettling effects. Back in Europe, early findings from an ongoing OECD study on migrant integration in EU cities have underlined the importance of creating shared spaces where locals and new arrivals can meet. Sharing food is an obvious way to do this. For example, it is exactly what Options Food Lab does, linking migrants with cookery skills with Athenians willing to host food sharing events in their homes. As well as the evident social benefits, this has also created a pathway into employment for a number of new arrivals in the city.
In this same space, we can also see initiatives like Conflict Kitchen using food as a platform for the building of mutual understanding and respect. This project, which initiated in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, runs a restaurant offering the cuisine of a country with which the US is at war. Over the years, the culinary offer has included Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Currently, it is focused on Palestinian food and the restaurant also provides a platform for cultural events including poetry and theatrical performances. The overall idea is to give Americans an insight into cultures that are often widely misrepresented in the mainstream US media.
Afters: How do we maintain this momentum?
One of the best things about this new urban food movement is its organic spontaneity. Innovative projects, often run on shoestring budgets, are popping up all over the place. Energetic young people with an interest in food and a commitment to social change are developing many of them, like Options Food Lab. Spark York is another example - a new social enterprise on a temporary site, modeled on London’s Pop Brixton. This will create an attractive pop-up facility where a diverse range of food outlets will each have a strong social purpose.
We have also seen some of the biggest names in the food industry getting involved, investing their own funds and attracting support from others. The UK’s Jamie Oliver is one well-known example. Another is the French chef Thierry Marx, through his Cuisine Mode d’Emploi. Perhaps most impressive of all is the inspiring work of Modena super-chef Massimo Bottura, with his ambitious attempts to feed the homeless in his Reffetorio Ambrosiano in Milan. Superstar chefs can’t drive the structural changes our cities need, but they can draw attention to the issues and mobilise support across the political spectrum. This includes underlining the food sector’s long-standing role as a route into the labour market for people facing multiple barriers.
The Botturas of this world don’t need much municipal support. But most social entrepreneurs do, and city administrations can help in lots of ways. They can ensure their cities have space for agriculture, as Bristol has done, through their innovative Food Plan. They can also help by supporting access to premises, even on a temporary basis – particularly when so many spaces lie empty in our cities. And, of course they can provide the financial and business support that all enterprises need.
In the URBACT Good Practices, municipalities have played a key role which can inspire others. The URBACT Festival, in Tallinn on 3-5 October, will showcase these – and all the other good practices. URBACT will also be supporting a new generation of good practice transfer projects and, who knows, there may be some food projects amongst them.
V Lizboni se bodo 13. in 14. septembra na URBACT Festivalu mest srečali izvoljeni predstavniki, urbani praktiki in strokovnjaki iz vse Evrope, kjer bodo sodelovali, razpravljali o ugotovitvah 20 akcijskih omrežij ter proslavili 15. obletnico programa in vse večji vpliv mest kot nosilcev sprememb v Evropi.
It’s the feeling in the Agri-Urban network that no one - national governments, donor agencies, sectoral associations, or the knowledge community - is doing enough to defuse the ticking time bomb of youth unemployment in European medium-sized cities.
Europe’s agri-food industry provides 46 million jobs in 15 million businesses, accounting for 6% of the EU’s GDP. In 2015, around 10 million people were directly employed in the EU agricultural sector, representing 5 % of Europe’s workforce. In most member states, agriculture is still dominated by family farms, where the bulk of the work is carried out by members of their family. At the same time, the farming population in the EU is rapidly getting older. Recent figures show that only 6% of the total farm managers in Europe were under 35 years of age. Agriculture as a source of employment is declining in Europe. Between 2000 and 2015, around 5 million full time jobs in the sector disappeared (source: Eurostat).
This article intends to give a flavour of what Agri-urban cities are doing to reduce youth unemployment.
Farming and food industry in small and medium-size cities: context
Farming and the food industry sustain a significant proportion of employment and income in many small and medium-sized towns throughout Europe. However, this complex of activities from both the primary and secondary sectors is categorized as a mature industry which has reached peak employment and business levels. Indeed, in recent decades, a number of trends in Agribusiness have reduced the capacity of those activities to sustain employment in towns.
Unemployment rates are generally significantly higher in rural than in urban regions. In rural areas, it is estimated that “hidden unemployment” (involving underemployed farmers and farm workers) is higher than in urban areas.
The economic structure of rural regions is in transformation: the share of the primary sector in GVA declines continuously, while the share of the tertiary sector grows. This is a general trend in all regions, but it is more pronounced in rural regions. The growth in tourism illustrates the growth of the tertiary sector. It is increasing in all regions (especially in Southern European countries) and is found as a main driver for growth and employment. Thus, those urban economies in transition to more sustainable models are finding opportunities in re-thinking the agri-food production, which is especially relevant in the so-called agro-cities of the European area. More widely, a number of tested initiatives which are dealing with job creation in agribusiness in urban and suburban contexts are already showing their potential, e.g. community vegetable gardens, local markets, municipal land banks, farming spaces for young entrepreneurs, e-commerce, technology parks in the food sector, rising of short distribution channels, green markets, agro-ecological suburban belts.
Agri-Urban cities have in common the fact of being small and medium-sized cities with strong links between the urban and the rural environment. For this reason, they are exploiting the opportunities offered by rural areas to create jobs in the agri-food sector and improve the overall sustainability of their ecosystem, while injecting in their urban fabrics elements of rurality such as food production. These cities and towns are creating the conditions to offer real opportunities to foster job creation in farming and agri-food production as a beneficial impulse for the urban unemployed population.
Why the local economies of rural towns have become narrow
There was a time when each rural community had its own diverse local economy. Food would be produced and processed; non-food products from agriculture, fisheries and forestry covered a great range of needs; goods would be made and repaired locally by a range of craftsmen; services would be provided locally. Changes since then have tended to discourage local processing of food, timber or other raw materials, replacing rural craftsmen with distant urban industries, and causing services to relocate to larger towns.
These developments have also resulted in a brain-drain from small medium sized rural cities. Thus, the local economies of many rural cities have become narrow and relatively weak, with an overdependence on economic decisions made in distant cities. Without incentives to create alternative employment, the brain-drain of young jobless will continue.
The Agri-Food Production: an opportunity
Agri-food production still plays an important role in terms of GDP, employment and environmental sustainability. When implemented successfully, a local food system can have a positive impact on three critical levels: environmental sustainability, economic viability and social equity. Acting on these three critical levels generates opportunities for young workers to start up new business, create qualified jobs, improve their quality of life and wellbeing, strengthen their sense of belonging and integrate them into the community.
The recent alarms regarding the health risks for consumers or the negative effects on the environment stemming from certain intensive production practices have resulted in new demands for quality food products and regional specialities. A decentralisation of food processing, packaging and marketing functions could bring new employment to rural cities creating local value-added.
The main economic challenges for young entrepreneurs and small farms are access to farming resources (such as land and capital) and access to markets, particularly in terms of bargaining power in the food chain. A food system is a complex web of interconnected entities that takes food from its source to our plates. Heavy and complex supply chains give a competitive advantage to large wholesalers instead of smaller, local farms with small quantities of products. Many small farms also lack the entrepreneurial skills to improve their business models, or to identify new business opportunities.
The new communication technologies and infrastructures, like the Internet, have made numerous jobs independent of the place they are performed. These technologies also give access to knowledge, consultancy services and to the world market. Rural cities, or individuals living in rural areas, can thus offer their products, skills and services to a broader market.
An increasingly important sector of services concerns tourism and local gastronomy. In many countries, successful initiatives of wine and gastronomic fairs and festivals have brought new life to entire regions, promoting local cultural (e.g. music, costumes, dances) and gastronomic traditions. Such developments are reviving market towns traditionally providing important services and employment for their rural hinterland.
Leisure activities, such as fishing, hunting, walking, skiing, cycling, horse riding, golfing, etc, attract an increasing number of people to spend their holidays in rural surroundings. The creation of nature reserves, or sites of special scientific or historic interest, and areas of outstanding natural beauty, have added interesting products to the countryside as an area for recreation and learning. The necessary maintenance work creates new employment for countryside stewardship and a range of other activities surround these new "products".
Some small iniatives have a huge potential for boosting employment
More recently, small initiatives with an important potential for boosting employment in the sector have begun to emerge. We, at Agri-Urban, are collecting evidence of this transformation at different levels:
Cooperation between farmers: Often the challenges of the local food model outweigh the benefits when farms work independently. By developing strong partnerships, local producers can engage in 'cooperation', or the sharing of resources from equipment to ideas while operating as competing individuals. The city of Fundão, created the Fundão Producers’ Club in the scope of the work developed by the municipality of Fundão, in broad partnership with a group of farmers and entrepreneurs in the agri-food sector. The brand aggregates a set of endogenous products of excellence in the region. The strategy includes participation in national and international fairs, creation and development of new integrated products, opening shops, training plans for entrepreneurs, business missions, inverse missions and the development of partnerships, among many other initiatives.
Alliances between farms and food businesses: The highly consolidated industrial food markets make it difficult for small-scale producers to enter. Alternative marketing strategies will entail developing partnerships between traditional retailers and local producers through alternative channels, policy incentives and word-of-mouth. In Cesena, the main industry sectors are companies focused on the production, manufacturing, processing and distribution of fruit, vegetables and meat products (mainly poultry). Besides this important sector, which is positively impacting on the employment in the city and province, there are a consistent number of small family owned enterprises. They are the evidence of the agricultural background of the territory linked to the agribusiness production and today they represent a sector which is suffering from an economic point of view, due to the abandonment of lands, sprawling urbanization and the straggling effect of the large retail/distribution sector.
Raising skills and competences: offering a combination of academic and on the job training which provides the skills necessary for advancing the industry and meeting the expectations of young people who are looking for career opportunities. Starting with the skills necessary for agriculture and food manufacturing, but going further to address the wider challenges facing the sector, including a growing global demand for food in a limited space and the threat of climate change. At LAG, a non-profit organization that promotes employability, called Devenirs, offers training about organic gardening for unemployed people. This training lasts one year. During this period, the trainee is invited to find a work experience placement in a vegetable farm or in a greenhouse. Another programme is the CAP Job in the Liège Province, financed by the European Social Fund. The project provides training for market gardeners and high graduates (Masters in Agronomy) on different topics like greenhouse management, growing planning, agri-ecological method, etc.
Capitalization on local competitive advantage: There are many attributes available in local urban products that industrial food products lack, including freshness, seasonality, variety, and healthiness. Farmers must promote theirs as "value-added" products with a story to tell, highlighting the contrasts between their products and those of their industrial competitors. Pyli is characterized by a mountainous or highland (percentage 87.38%) landscape. Furthermore, a minority of the area is managed for food production (9.9 % cultivated and 12.6 % grassland, while woodlands cover 75.95% of the total area. The area has special cultural features that attract thousands of tourists annually. Local economy and employment are mainly based on agriculture and forest products and its interdependence with the livestock production in the mountainous areas of the region, by creating a strong relationship for the productive sector of the local economy. The local competitive advantages of Pyli are the mountainous areas that can provide important solutions for creating job opportunities and promoting social cohesion by contributing to the preservation of the natural environment and the cultural heritage of these areas.
Nurturing talent: Farmers incubators: In June 2013, the LAG launched the first incubator for young farmers in organic gardening in Wallonia. It offers a field (from 10 ares to 1 hectare), greenhouses, and access to water for irrigation. The young farmers are coaching by Creajob (for business planning, marketing, accounting, and so on) and a truck gardener (a mentor) for technical advices. The goal is to promote self-employment in agriculture and support the entrepreneurs in growing their business.
Engaging with policymakers: Policymakers are important players in designing food policies, which are closely related to many other urban challenges and policies, such as poverty, health and social protection, hygiene and sanitation, land use planning, transport and commerce, energy, education, and disaster preparedness, it is essential to adopt an approach that is comprehensive, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional. Some good examples can be found in the city of Mollet del Vallés, the city of Södertälje that are implementing innovative public policies aimed at introducing organic and local food in nursery schools of the city as well as in a special education center. It is a complex process that the municipalities had the opportunity to learn during their participation in the project DIET FOR A GREEN PLANET, led by the city of Södertälje in the framework of the URBACT II Programme.
Towards inclusive, coherent and reflexive urban-rural food governance systems
Agri-Urban is collecting evidence to confirm the potential of thousands of jobs that can be created in the agri-food sector when cities implement smart policies to exploit in a sustainable manner the rich resources of small and medium sized rural cities in order to produce a favourable effect on employment. We intend to generate a better understanding and deployment of all tested tools and initiatives, inside and outside the partnership, which open new perspectives and opportunities for food production in and nearby our cities.
The search for evidences with impact on job creation cover different themes as; Short Circuits (Urban Markets, Online Shops, On-farm Shops, Food Hubs), Smart Land Use (Urban Land Use, Rural Land Use), Business Development of SMEs (Entrepreneurship & Incubation, Business Skills, Digital Transformation, Awareness Campaigns, Food Tourism) and Public Procurement (public plate).
So far, the evidence collected makes it clear that reinforcing the links between the urban and the rural environment opens opportunities offered by rural areas to create jobs in the agri-food sector and improve the overall sustainability of their ecosystem, while injecting in their urban fabrics elements of rurality such as food production or the creation of farming spaces.
In the public agenda, food is no more considered just as a commodity or as a nutritional necessity; it is an emerging multidimensional policy challenge, which crosses ecological, social, economic and spatial dimensions. A sustainable and integrated urban approach is being implemented in Agri-Urban to deal with the main issues that must be addressed: an inclusive, coherent and reflexive urban/rural food governance system; a more solid social and physical infrastructure to reduce the distance between producers and consumers, and to promote circular economy; reliable markets for quality food producers, resulting in new opportunities for SMEs development; the need for experimenting new forms of entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector, and for creating new jobs and skills.
Employment and job creation, along with competitiveness, is our main focus, in terms of international cross-learning and action planning at local level. Most of the evidence herein mentioned are proving to be useful in terms of job creation, under various forms, especially by encouraging self-employment and creation of small and medium-sized family and social enterprises. Furthermore, these small initiatives, albeit embedded into proximity networks, host a potential for scaling up.
This article was co-writted by Miguel Sousa, Raquel Moreno and Antonio Zafra.