October 29, 2015

Resurrecting the regional in urban and regional planning

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

Overcoming an urban fixation.

In 2002, UN Secretary-General at the time, Kofi Annan, in a speech to the Moscow conference on urban development, stated that “the future of humanity lies in cities” and ten years later, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed this statement. Doubtless cities are dominant components of the landscape. For instance, despite occupying only one to three percent of the earth’s land area, they contribute an estimated 70 percent of global greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere.

Yet fixating on these domineering statistics obscures a greater truth; namely, that cities do not exist in a vacuum. While urban sustainability is important, urban planning desperately requires, and is slowly undergoing, a resurrection of “regional” planning if it is going to facilitate and orchestrate sustainable solutions to urban dilemmas that are more than just bandages covering deeper problems.

The Notional City

Despite the confident references to “urban” and its antithesis, “rural,” the terms are, in actuality, almost entirely fictional. These terms have become classifications born out of little more than poorly outlined stereotypes. The result of this oversimplification is a dualistic perspective on two apparently separate systems – “urban” development, and “rural” development – that are inextricably connected.

To be sure, the landscape of human civilization is not a single uniform environment. Some places are more densely populated than others and have different economic activities than others. Moreover, human population is, demonstrably, concentrated more and more in urban centers. By 2050, when the global population is projected to peak at between 9 and 10 billion, an estimated two-thirds of those people will live in cities. What is fictional is the concept of a dividing line between less densely populated places and more densely populated places.

As they are used in society and policy, “urban” and “rural” are classic examples of, “you know it when you see it,” driven by stereotypical ideas of high-rise-filled downtowns contrasting with open country. The reality, however, is that urban and rural differences are not necessarily obvious. In peri-urban areas, where urban cores dissipate and “mix” with rural countryside, land uses, economic activity, and density demonstrate a variety of both urban and rural characteristics and social, cultural, and economic ties between urban and rural areas are so numerous as to render the delineation meaningless. Tellingly, nearly every nation represented in the UN employs a different definition of what constitutes “urban,” ranging from measures of economic occupation to the density of living conditions. No consistent definition of “rural” exists at all. This fact may seem trivial, but it has practical consequences.

The Rungis International Market in France offers wholesale bulk foods.

The wholesale food markets on the edges of large towns and cities demonstrate every morning how inextricably linked the urban and rural really are. Photo by Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Stepping Back and Seeing the Connections

The most prominent example of the problems with the notional urban-rural dichotomy is food. Despite the obvious importance of food, the subject of ‘food planning’ has only recently appeared on the planning scene, notably with the American Planning Association’s publication of its Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning in 2007.

However, even with the dawn of food planning, solutions have tended to focus on supply in urban areas rather than the system as a whole. On the other end of the spectrum, agriculture has been considered the prerogative of rural areas, entirely separate from distribution and consumption that has been left to private industry. The connections between production and consumption are fundamental and the impacts of considering them separately range from economic unemployment in rural areas to health concerns in communities urban and rural.

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn and researchers and practitioners increasingly emphasize food systems as a central area of planning. Examples include the time tested policies of Belo Horizonte, Calgary’s recent food action plan, and research by EcoAgriculture Partners on city regions. Yet a century of urban-focused planning has developed artificially separated systems and policies. Our first task, as planners and policy makers, in the effort to revitalize the connective tendrils that make for healthy people, economies, and ecologies in and around cities, is to resurrect the “regional” in urban and regional planning.


Top photo by I, Seeteufel via Wikimedia Commons

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