May 25, 2020

Why municipalities should invest in resiliency to ensure food security

Resilient Communities

Article By
"人口" Renkou - Population

The Chinese word for "Population" consists of two characters that reflect the relationship between people and food consumption.

In my 2018 article on how to ensure food security with sustainable design, I raised a question on how we can make informed design decisions that promote healthier lifestyles at home and in our communities. The key outlines of the article include:

  • Tackling the problem of food deserts and nutritional needs in suburban sprawl.
  • Establishing an integrated approach like the Food-Sensitive Planning and Urban Design Framework in Australia.
  • Looking at innovative urban farming solutions in land-scarce countries, such as Singapore and Tokyo.
  • Exploring the concept of an off-grid eco-village and eco-home designs with innovative methods in food production.
  • Looking at by-laws and community groups to encourage edible gardens in households.

Reflecting on my 2018 article in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has clearly exacerbated food security issues faced by millions of people worldwide, the following questions to mind:

  • What are some of the recent new policies and technologies in this field?
  • Why is it increasingly important as part of urban resilience for Municipalities?
  • Most importantly, what is the COVID-19 pandemic teaching us about food security?

In recent years, I have observed many countries enhancing their policies on food supply and improving their food production to be more sustainable and resilient. In an article about urban resilience, I touched on three distinct threats: climate change, natural disasters and terrorism, and the urgent need for cities to function as highly complex adaptive systems. The resulting goal is for city planners and community developers to look at a variety of best practices and coping strategies to build urban resilience, citing Japan's social resilience through the cultivation of better food planning and practices in their cities as an example.

Climate change has a direct influence on our food supply and the way we produce and manage our crops. One effective solution is crop diversity, which not only ensures food and nutrition security but also adapts to climate change and reduces environmental degradation.

For decades, crops grown in monoculture may be susceptible to the loss of an entire harvest due to a single disease. Crop diversity helps to ensure better biodiversity through the genetic diversity among the crop species, protecting against crop failure and economic impacts, and ensuring that the world's human population works in harmony with mother nature.

Many of us can agree that 2019 was an important milestone for the green movement (thanks to advocates like Greta Thunberg) addressing environmental issues on a catastrophic note. We also continue to learn how climate change has a direct influence on our food supply and the way we source our food and nutrition within our communities.

Twenty-nineteen was also a reminder of the fragility of our populations where pandemic-related issues within the global food supply chain are of concern, including the decrease in demand for produce due to restaurant closures; shortage of migrant workers due to closed borders and inadequate housing and working conditions; and closures of meat plants due to widespread virus transmission could affect meat prices, to name a few.

Moreover, worldwide panic has people "buying and hoarding food and seeds, leaving others without enough." Situations like these are very similar, or worse, in many nations across the world. All of a sudden, community gardens and farmer's markets are declared essential services, and the spotlight converges on urban farming initiatives and community concepts centred on urban farming.

Growing up as an urbanite in land-scarce Singapore, we relied heavily on food imported from neighbouring agricultural countries. In times of global disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, this small island nation of 5.5 million people could potentially face unprecedented challenges, including border restrictions, economic recessions and impacts on food security.

However, Singapore announced its 2030 vision in 2019 to include strategies on how to achieve greater stability in its supply of food. One of the goals is a '30 by 30 strategy' whereby the government plans to raise the country's food self-production level from the current 10 per cent to 30 per cent of total food needs by 2030.

While 30 per cent may not seem like much, it would reduce the country's vulnerability, especially in times of crisis when trade borders are shut due to global pandemics or political instability. Other goals for the vision also include:

  • Tapping technology, such as agri-food production in high-tech controlled environments, efficient water and energy use, smart systems, sustainable farming, etc.
  • Exploiting alternative spaces, such as vacant state buildings, rooftops and the deep sea.
  • Grooming experts in the field, such as multi-disciplinary expertise in the sciences, engineering, information and communications, robotics and energy, and waste and business management.
  • Choosing homegrown produce, such as farmers' markets and advocacy for organic produce.

These suggest that planning for urban resilience should include land use planning that promotes better synergies between food science industries and agri-food production as well as design strategies to explore adaptive reuse for urban farming and community infrastructure supporting farmer's markets.

Smaller and/or rural municipalities potentially have a much more direct source of food production. Therefore, we may also consider them our frontline workers in terms of responding to the ill effects of food demand and supply caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Canada, there is an alliance of organizations and individuals working together to advance food security and food sovereignty (food sovereignty is defined as the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.)

Known as Food Secure Canada (FSC), its role "has been to harness the power of the collective to build a food system that is more healthy, sustainable and just," while also addressing the deep inequities in our current system that have been highlighted by COVID-19.

Food Secure Canada is an example of a regional/federal entity that provides community networking and resources for rural municipalities, community food centres and farmers associations. I highly recommend checking out their webinar on using food policy for transformative change, entitled "Where is the momentum right now, and how can we use it to build a better food system in the long-term?"

One of the item's on the webinar's agenda showcases the organization, Food for All NB, which is tackling New Brunswick's low level of local (produce) supply, currently at eight per cent, as well as other food security issues. The organization accomplished this by investing in better collaborations among key players and improving food supply chains and farmers markets.

This and other issues such as public health, food systems and emergency responses can help the municipalities understand different practices and policies across provincial and grassroots levels. From an urban designer's perspective, a post-COVID-19 world forces us to not only rethink potential social distancing spatial requirements but also to be more attuned to best practice in resilient planning and innovative developments through food security.

At Nadi Design, we have a long-standing track record of clients, who are rural municipality officers, crown corporations and others involved in the planning decision making process. For example, our work for the Rural Municipality of Rockwood included some of our design aspirations such as community gardens centred within multi-family townhomes and apartments and commercial amenities at strategically accessible locations.

Our team can provide a combination of skillsets, ranging from urban planning to landscape architecture. Our very own Rebecca Henderson, in her article about the green roof, touched on the potential of rooftop urban farms to provide food and nutrition, as well as increase recreational opportunities and build social capital.

Meanwhile, our practising philosophy to "Design for A Better World" is what drives all of us to provide efficiency, value and innovation in our four practice areas: Innovative Housing Solutions, Green Infrastructure, Public Space and Land Art, and Resilient Communities. This ultimately reinforces our belief that by understanding and application of best practice tools like those mentioned in this article, we can help our clients to create places that contribute to healthier, thriving communities.

Food security will continue to play an essential role in ensuring sustainable food supply and nutrition, as well as urban resilience to climate change, global pandemics and the most basic of public health and well-being.