A nexus
of urban food systems

The relationship between city and countryside, each with its own functions, inhabitants, and challenges, is more relevant than ever.

How are we to feed the growing urban population, and at what level should urban and rural areas work together to achieve this? In this special feature, we examine the changes in this relationship in the light of today's urban food issues.

Which came first, the city or the countryside?

The first cities came into being about twelve thousand years ago, when nomadic hunter-gatherers gave way to sedentary farmers, making it efficient to build communal settlements that would later develop into cities. In these early days, city and countryside were interdependent. The growth of cities was limited by geographical conditions: if they became too large, it was simply not no longer possible to feed everyone. In the eighteenth century, only just under three per cent of the Dutch population lived in cities.

The city is
shaped by food

The end of the cycle
between city and countryside

In those early days, supply from the countryside and demand from the city were directly linked. All incoming and outgoing product flows were linked in a cycle. City dwellers ate produce from the surrounding area, and their excrement, together with animal manure, was returned to the farmland. Food waste was also collected for use as cattle feed.

The food supply was limited, especially by today's standards. The diet of those days would now be described as seasonal and local: the only things traded on the international market were grains and spices.

The industrial revolution in the nineteenth century broke this cycle. The arrival of railways and steamships meant that the food supply and international trade could grow and change. Refrigerated transport allowed food to be prepared outside the city. These technological developments marked the beginning of our modern food system, and changed not only cities, but also agriculture.

The arrival of artificial fertiliser at the end of the nineteenth century was another major innovation. Human and animal manure had been in short supply for decades, and people were plundering nutrients from elsewhere to maintain soil fertility. Artificial fertilisers allowed farmers to increase their harvests, and boosted the trade in primary food products. But they also brought an end to the closed food cycle, since human and animal manure became superfluous. The advent of better toilets and sewers also broke the cycle between the cities and the countryside. In the second half of the twentieth century, things moved quickly. The modernisation of European agriculture after the Second World War, and the globalisation that followed, completely changed the relationship between city and countryside. Today’s food chains are longer and more complex than ever.

The distance between city and countryside

When a city loses its dependence on its hinterland, it must feed itself through the global food and agricultural system.

On the one hand, global trade has opened up new opportunities, and European supermarkets are full of safe and cheap food. On the other, there is growing concern about the sustainability of the current system. The liveability of the countryside and farmers’ incomes are high on the political agenda. Global trade ensures that products are available all year round, and consumers take this luxury for granted, knowing little about how potatoes and other crops grow. The world needs to adopt a new perspective on the relationship between urban and rural areas.

The gap between farmers and city dwellers is at the root of the biggest food issues of our time. To get a grip on the problems and come up with solutions, we need to bridge that gap.

But how should we do so, and whose job is it?

Where city and countryside meet: the region

Perspectives on how to reduce the distance between city and countryside can be found at micro level (neighbourhood initiatives in the city) and macro level (the global food and agriculture sector).

But the meso level is also essential in shaping the city of the future. This provides cohesion and connection between micro and macro: it’s the local region where city and countryside, consumer and producer meet. Because this is where the gap between these actors is bridged, meso solutions are important in making our food system more sustainable.

Who designs regions?

Urban planners include all the necessities of life in their designs – air, water, shelter – but always seem to overlook food. This is a missed opportunity, because what we eat has a direct effect on our health and wellbeing. When food starts playing a bigger role in urban planning policy, it affects not only what people eat, but also public health, equality, and the environment.

How is the Netherlands bringing cities and farmers together?

The role of urban agriculture

Over the years, the city and the countryside have become two separate worlds. Urban farming is a form of production that tries to reduce the distance between them.

The essence of urban agriculture is that it brings together food, locations and people. Whatever form it takes, it seeks a connection with the city in one way or another: with the people who live there, a building or a site, or even with waste used in the production process.

Rotterzwam

The edible mushroom from Rotterdam: a fresh, environmentally friendly local product that grows on coffee grounds in a former tropical swimming pool.

rotterzwam.nl

Stadsboerderij Almere

A biodynamic farm near Almere with cows, arable land, and vegetable crops, where visitors can buy products directly from the ground.

stadsboerderijalmere.nl

Het Sieradenbos

The residents of the Sieradenbuurt in Almere have created a neighbourhood food forest full of edible plants, trees, and shrubs.

sieradenbos.nl

All these examples focus on the micro level, but there are also many opportunities for urban agriculture at the meso level. Its connection with the city makes it different from other types of agriculture. Initiatives that connect city and country can be very important in the transition to a sustainable food system, which is about increasing production at the micro level and making it more sustainable on a macro scale, but above all about shaping systems at the meso level. This means moving from a combination of a single global food supply and local initiatives to a set of urban and rural systems.

A new perspective

The Chief Government Architect of the Netherlands, Floris Alkemade, has stated that treating the city and the countryside as two separate areas is an outmoded concept. He points out that cities are expanding so much that the literal boundary between city and country is becoming increasingly blurred. "When you look at the country from space at night, all you see is a vast patch of light in which the Dutch Randstad appears to connect seamlessly with the four biggest cities in Belgium and the Ruhr in Germany. This spot of light indicates where the most urban areas are located. Seen in this way, the Netherlands is part of a huge city state."

If we look at urban agriculture from this perspective, city farms are not standalone initiatives, and all agriculture is essentially urban. If farms can match supply to demand from the cities, they can become less dependent on the world market and create new urban food systems that reconnect cities to the agricultural cycle. This is crucial if we are to find sustainable solutions to the food problem. It is reminiscent of the reciprocity that used to exist between city and countryside, but is now taking place on a whole new scale.

The Dutch metropole emerging today is comparable in population to metropolises such as London and Paris. The difference, of course, lies in the density of this population. The region’s patchwork of urban and rural food systems is more spread out than the surroundings of London and Paris, and its size provides an excellent quality of life, both economically and spatially. If we in the Netherlands can get the hang of harmonising city and country, this could be crucial knowledge for growing metropolises elsewhere in the world.

The community as food planner

The community also plays an important role in the new way of thinking about food. Research has shown that in order to succeed, large-scale urban agriculture initiatives must be conceived and implemented not only from the top down, but also, to a large extent, from the bottom up. In practice, it is the residents and citizens themselves who can take the lead in finding solutions to the major issues facing cities and regions worldwide. It was also the community that formed the basis for the successful struggle against water. That battle has made the Netherlands what it is today

Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University London and a well-known sustainability thinker, emphasises in his search for the missing link in area development that the community as a whole should take on the role of food planner:

““Anyone who is working in, or engaged with, the food system with the aim of rendering it more sustainable with respect to its social, economic and ecological effects. The ‘food planning community’, in other words, is a profoundly diverse and multidimensional community, composed as it is of every profession which has a food-related interest and composed as it is of every consumer, who is voting with his or her fork, three times a day.”

Oosterwold: an example of how a region can act as a food planner

Conclusion

The relationship between town and country was initially reciprocal. Due to a complicated interplay of development, policy, area development, local and global processes and a change in our daily relationship with food, that relationship has become virtually independent and distant. It is necessary that we reconnect our current cities to the hinterland in a sustainable way. This doesn’t mean we have to go back to how it used to be. In our current, modern and urbanized world, we can look in a new way to how we want to design our lives. This is a process that will take decades. A complex interplay of developments will lead to the change of our attitudes towards the way we eat.

This seems to have already begun: new perspectives on the relationship between city and countryside are emerging, the need for food planning is seen, the importance of cycles is recognized and supported in politics and society. Pioneers, such as Oosterwold near Almere, have started to pave the way. The Netherlands can develop into an unique city-state and a model for other densely populated metropolitan areas in the world. The potential is great, but it is important that we dare to take the next step in a meso direction. More research, experiments and entrepreneurs are needed to shape the entirety of urban food systems.