Is it time to radically rethink and redesign food production and the urban ecosystem? Mokena Makeka and Rory Williams recommend that Cape Town gets serious about urban farming; not in the futuristic sense of grand vertical farms, but in the form of realistic low-barrier-to-entry subsistence farming that we can all participate in.
Where would we be without bees? Those hard-working insects give us honey, but more importantly they make agriculture possible. Without the pollination service they provide, we couldn’t grow fruit and many other foods.
Along with birds, worms, plants, water, sunshine and everything else that makes up a healthy ecosystem, they are at the heart of the economy. Their productivity contributes to ours. And yet they are ignored completely in the planning that goes into ensuring a healthy economy.
Farmers do use bees quite deliberately, of course, but our point is that when we consider the things that enable us – especially city residents – to be productive, we tend to have a very narrow focus.
Buildings themselves are productive if they support economic activity. Even a road or a taxi rank contributes to productivity by making it easier for us to reach our destinations, and so economists calculate their benefits when choosing projects to set in motion.
When transport, sewers, water pipelines, harbours and other infrastructure is inadequate, cities – or parts of them – stop being productive and go into decline.
These engineered enablers are obvious to planners, but we’re not very good at deciding how to improve the performance of cities in more subtle ways.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, guidelines were produced for the optimal layout of suburbs so that houses could make best use of the sun as a heating source, and architects designed buildings that could tap this free energy. But the crisis subsided and these plans were quickly forgotten.
Like energy, urban food production has been a focus of attention in times of crisis in countries like Cuba, Britain and the US. But when the crisis fades, it reverts to a fringe activity.
There are people and organisations like Abalimi Bezekhaya promoting urban agriculture in Cape Town. This could have significant benefits for our multiple crises of health, education and poverty, but it has failed to catch on.
Our crises, it would seem, are not extreme enough to turn an inspiring but marginal activity into a mainstream form of production.
The public view of urban agriculture is dominated by two polar images: retirees pottering about their allotment gardens in London, growing a few carrots and lettuce, and fantastical designs of high-tech vertical farms of the future.
Expanding food production will be one of the keys to supporting the growing population, which means eventually we’ll need the more intense forms of production that vertical farms provide, and with increasing production will come the ability to locate these food factories in urban areas.
But before we grow upwards, there is much that is possible on underutilised urban sites. Cape Town could benefit enormously from a strong urban agriculture industry that trains residents to grow food in corners of their city, gardens and houses, and educates them in running a business that moves them from subsistence to producing a surplus that is part of the city’s food supply.
It’s an industry with low barriers to entry, and is easy to scale up and develop into job-creating businesses.
Entrepreneurs who start in the city, where there is easy access to support, supplies and markets, could expand to rural areas and contribute to improved success of rural land reform programmes.
Urban agriculture can also be part of building community, and if it is consciously considered in city planning, it can be one of the cornerstones of developing neighbourhoods where people learn to work together to shape their environment.
In her book Hungry City, Carolyn Steel writes that food is “capable of transforming not just landscapes, but political structures, public spaces, social relationships, [and] cities.”
Urban agriculture needs structures and services to support it, such as Detroit's Garden Resource Program Collaborative (GRP), a network of more than 850 thriving Detroit gardens. The director of urban agriculture at Greening of Detroit, Ashley Atkinson, says “these gardeners continue to provide all of the benefits that urban gardens bring to Detroit neighborhoods year after year, such as food access, neighborhood stability, property-value increases, crime reduction, social capital, and youth enrichment.”
Other cities are promoting similar concepts, but ultimately agriculture needs to be economically viable, have policy and regulatory support, and be part of new partnerships among institutions that deal with a range of existing urban challenges.
The City of London has recognised immense public engagement potential, hinting that agriculture could enhance the governance and leadership needed to improve service delivery on a range of fronts. Urban agriculture is something we simply must get serious about trying.
The Men About Town column by Mokena Makeka and Rory Williams is published every Monday in the Cape Times newspaper.