The planned ‘city-region’ in the New Urban Agenda: an appropriate framing for urban food security?

This article presents one of a number of conclusions from a four-year ESRC/DfID-funded project entitled Consuming Urban Poverty, based at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. The project used food as a lens to understand how to alleviate poverty in three secondary cities in sub-Saharan Africa: Kisumu, Kenya; Kitwe, Zambia; and Epworth, Zimbabwe. The project argued that important contributions could be made to debates on urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa, the nature of urban poverty, and the relationship between governance, poverty and the spatial characteristics of cities and towns through a focus on urban food systems and the dynamics of urban food poverty.

During the course of this project we saw the emergence of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with Goal 11 on cities and its related New Urban Agenda (NUA) forming an important new element of this development direction. The NUA was strongly supported by UN Habitat which then commissioned a number of reports and guidelines on how to implement the objectives of the NUA. We noted an important new aspect in the NUA as well as in the UN Habitat reports: a return to foregrounding urban and ‘territorial’ planning as a primary tool to promote the NUA in all parts of the world, along with a nested hierarchy of territorial plans from national to local scales and an emphasis on the role of the city-region and urban-rural linkage.

At the same time the authors of this paper were being invited to international meetings hosted by the United Nations on how to incorporate urban food security and food systems into the NUA. Most of these meetings had a strong presence of the international food security policy lobby groups, many of which had a history of promoting agricultural production as the main solution to food security as well as favouring local (city-region) food supplies over international food supply chains. There were heated debates in these meetings on how to address urban food security and food systems in the NUA and particularly how policy needed to acknowledge regional difference across the world. The paper authors posed a contrasting perspective to these groups based on their understanding of urban food systems in sub-Saharan Africa but the ‘productionist’ and ‘localist’ positions retained dominance, although there were some shifts.

As the draft UN Habitat NUA policy and guideline documents began to emerge we noted how the concept of urban and territorial planning was related to urban food security particularly (although not only) through the concept of the city-region and urban-rural links. We also saw the nature of approaches to city-region planning in these documents and were surprised at the extent to which they appeared to take very little cognisance of the long history of theoretical and policy debate on city-regions – in urban economic development theory as well as in planning theory. Adopting older approaches to city-region thinking allowed a greater alignment with current productionist and localist policies on urban food security, but avoided newer understandings of urban economies in a globalised world, newer regional planning arguments and the importance of contextual difference.

The purpose of this article is therefore to draw attention to these debates. The paper presents shifts in thinking on urban food security policy as well as on the concept of the city-region and shows how these have sought alignment through the NUA and subsequent guideline documents. We then foreground the critiques in both these areas of policy to ask if the concept of the city-region, as expressed in the NUA guideline and policy documents, is really an appropriate approach to addressing the issue of urban food security.

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The above was first published in Town Planning Review 90.5 as the Featured Article.