November 13, 2015

Why we can’t all live in cities

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

Humans are anything but predictable. Yet one social trend has been consistent enough to seem inevitable: urban migration. But there are important reasons why we should seek to stem the tide of urbanization, and they don’t get talked about enough.

Since the first human settlements, society has undergone a slow, seemingly inexorable process of concentration. In 2007, this process reached a notable landmark; the world went from majority rural to majority urban. Whatever your definitions are for urban and rural, and these terms present problems, the trend is occurring.

After over 5,000 years of precedent, it would be easy to accept such a consistent process as fact and move on. Yet, by-and-large, we don’t ask often enough whether it should be happening. On the contrary, our overwhelming emphasis on urban development suggests that our policies seem to promote urbanization. This urban bias is predicated on the assumption that urban life is desirable because cities currently generate the most GDP, or because urbanization is linked to growth in the middle class. However, let’s take a moment to consider the consequences of an urbanizing world and whether we should simply accept this trend as law.

People-less Farming: The Logical Extreme of Urban Immigration

Of all economic activities, farming is, justifiably, associated with rural areas. The recent popularity of urban agriculture notwithstanding, society depends on rural agricultural regions for the overwhelming majority of food resources. However, national and international policy promulgate the notion that rural regions are nothing more than food factories for the benefit of urban centers.

For instance, even a United Nations Food and Agriculture report on sustainable agriculture and feeding a growing population bluntly states that policies “must facilitate the gradual transition to non-agricultural employment” and that agriculture must be able to produce “more with fewer hands.” The underlying assumption of this position communicates what Wendell Berry describes as an “exploiter” mentality, which views rural agrarian landscapes as resources to be mined efficiently. Following the precept of industrial efficiency through mechanization, agricultural landscapes would be made more efficient by reducing the number of people needed to “manage” them.

However, if we carry such agricultural “efficiency” arguments to their logical extreme, people would be removed almost entirely from farming. In such a setting, farmers would serve only machine maintenance roles, like mechanics in a modern mechanized car manufacturing plant. Yet, such efficiency models, in addition to demeaning the work of farmers, externalize or ignore non-agricultural production roles of rural regions and in so doing contribute to soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss. Such consequences strongly suggest that a change in farming practices is needed.

The Dual Needs of Agriculture and Cities

Unlike economically “efficient” farming, sustainable farming requires careful and knowledgeable attention to the ecological particularities of its location. Furthermore, such farming requires a keen eye for positive synergies and creative application of those observations. As someone who grew up on a farm, these skills demands exceptional knowledge, care, and creativity. Moreover, speaking from experience, such farming cannot be effectively exercised over too large an area; it requires careful attention to smaller land areas, as John Ikerd explains. The products of such farming are not just agricultural products, but healthy ecosystems and vibrant communities. No matter the advances made in technology, these are intrinsically humans skills necessitating human knowledge and attention.

Thus, we find ourselves in the perplexing position of accepting a rural exodus during a time when more careful attention to rural land husbandry is needed. Simultaneously, urban growth is placing increasing strain on the infrastructure and facilities of urban centers. If cities are strained by too many people and rural agriculture needs more, then why again are we promoting urban immigration?

“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

Burdened by enlarging populations and struggling with urban food insecurity and malnutrition, the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil saw opportunity beginning in the 1990’s to solve two problems at either end of the food system. Through it’s Abastecer program, part of its phalanx of food system policies, Belo Horizonte’s Secretariat for Food Policy and Supply (SMAAB) provides affordable access to fresh fruits and vegetables across the city while improving the economic viability of its surrounding smallholder farmers, thereby helping to stem the influx of residents to its swelling favelas (shanty towns). More recently, a growing number of cities, from Calgary to Seattle and many more have begun to adopt similar food system policies.

Food policies are a good starting place. Yet solving the interconnected problems of employment, environmental health, cultural preservation, social equality, and manageable urban development – among others – requires a more fundamental change. As policy makers, development professionals, and planners, we must disenthrall ourselves from the belief that urbanization is both an unavoidable fact and a desirable end. Urbanization may have a consistent track record, but that is not sufficient rationale accept it as a natural law.


Photo by Trocaire on Flickr.

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