Food and the New Urban Agenda

September 27, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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For this week’s dispatch from the field, I’d like to take you to Quito, where an exciting UN conference will take place in mid-October around a new urban agenda. I’d like to, but I can’t. So the next best thing is to introduce you to an excellent website that tells you all about the Quito Habitat 111 conference and takes you to a draft document on a “New Urban Agenda” statement that will be discussed there.

This newsletter is a commentary on that document, designed to help you understand where it’s coming from, and prod you to think of ways you can use it to make the case for your own new urban agenda where you live.

I believe the New Urban Agenda has the potential to start a whole new conversation about food and cities and bring a whole lot of new people up to speed with where the early adopters have been — left out standing in their field, looking for someone to talk to – for some time.

Part of being a good advocate is knowing when and how to name a moment. I believe a moment has come to put the ideas we hope to promote in our itty bitty hometowns into a global perspective and lift up the whole discussion.

To be frank, we are used to being ignored — or at best treated as people who have some “would be nice to have” proposals, if only they were affordable, and didn’t get in the way of a whole slew of things we “have to do right away.”

We should now start acting like we expect our governments to act like the European governments that make it a habit of starting policy discussions with the question: how do our proposals fit with the international obligations our government signed onto. Once we pose our advocacy that way, I think, our ideas might get more of the respect they deserve. We should make it a habit to have officials acknowledge that international agreements and obligations are a parameter of all city decisions, regardless of other pressures and deadlines.


There’s enough good proposals and formulations, 145 in all, in the New Urban Agenda to sink a ship. There are times when that style of listing items gets to be a bit of a dirge, and I admit I did find myself nodding off from time to time. But almost all the ideas are in the “early adopter” stage, and the fact that they can win UN support puts them in the “early majority” stage of advocacy – which is about as good as food advocacy gets these days.

This is especially so for the way food is treated as an urban and Habitat issue, which is a significant breakthrough. Lauren Baker, a food studies prof at University of Toronto, filled me in on a May, 2016 session of the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where people from the Food and Agriculture Organization made their pitch to include food as a priority urban issue at the Habitat 111 conference.

It has to be said that the FAO made their case pretty well. As a result, the mantra that all the senior city planners repeat, the line they learned in planning school (amazing they can remember that far back!!) to the effect that food discussions do not belong in city planning, are now officially obsolete.  

Food denial is no longer more forgivable than climate change denial.

Where I come from, which is a lot further back than most senior planners, that shift makes for a red letter day!

We need to forgive UN document writers for their dirge style of proclamations. I finally figured out, in discussions with Lauren Baker, that it’s part of the deal that makes aspirational statements possible. If you understand that many things in life have to be negotiated, you can imagine how this goes down.

In an aspirational document for the UN or a city (a city food charter, for example), the early adopters get to say their piece about the things they’d like to see in the future. In return, they need to stop complaining about the fact that the document has no force in law, because if it did, it would never be adopted, and never become part of a new conversation.

To give an aspirational document any hope of seeing the light of day, advocates need to bite their tongue a bit, and not name the people they are cussing out between the lines. They can talk pie in the sky about some future when equity and food security and affordable housing are the norm, as long as they don’t say anything about the SOBs who are fighting to push us in the opposite direction right now.

I know this self-discipline violates a basic principle of good writing: you can’t have a protagonist without an antagonist. But what the hay! Who doesn’t like the odd day without antagonists?

If you’re a grown-up advocate and want to start a new conversation and dialogue, you’ll put up with the negotiation deal. Everyone has to pay their dues listening to Pomp and Circumstance. Aspirational documents are what they are, so let’s work with what’s there.

That’s my harangue for the week. Now, let’s take a look what’s in, and not in, the New Urban Agenda.


One thing that is not in is specific statements about what needs to happen in and for poor countries. Mercifully, those days have been over at the UN since the (very recent, just to put it into perspective) days of the Millennial Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals.  It’s now the norm in our globalized world that all UN declarations are universal and relevant to all countries, not just poor countries that are too undeveloped to get it.

Be grateful for this progress!!

The other thing that is not in the document is a dump on cities as a terrible place that cause all sorts of pain and problems for the poor people who left the countryside behind. Thanks to wonderful books such as Welcome to the Urban Revolution, cities and “the urban advantage” are embraced in this New Urban Agenda. Yes, there are many problems to be solved, but cities are at last seen as exciting places to solve those problems.

The big thing that is in the new Urban Agenda is lots of references to food – to food security, urban-rural linkages that will inevitably feature food, farmers markets, urban agriculture, genetic diversity of seeds – and for good measure, item 51: “strengthen food system planning.”

When evaluating the document, keep in mind that the Sustainable Development Goals are presented in one and two lines, without many hints of details for implementation. The New Urban Agenda is intended to fill in some guidelines for potential implementation.


Alas, a lot of gaps are left open when it comes to food.

To get an idea of what is missing, and what still needs to be promoted before getting into the mainstream conversation, check out the Milan Urban Food Pact, which remains the gold standard for city-food statements.

What’s not in the New Urban Agenda are references to the indispensable role of creative public purchasing by local governments, which is critical to the ability of local and sustainable food movements and food producers to really have an impact and engage in market transformation.

The central role of food policy councils that can stimulate and mobilize popular interest in food policy is not in the New Urban Agenda.

There’s no substantial reference to youth, the prime movers of an urban food agenda. There’s no reference to educational institutions, despite the facts that all students eat, elementary and secondary schools are usually governed by local governments, and all schools and universities have a strong tie to the city they are based in. There’s barely a hint of the need for cities to become intercultural, an objective that food can really contribute to.

Above all, there is no reference in the New Urban Agenda to the ability of food to become a driving force and tool for change – not just an object of change — in all sorts of action areas highlighted in the document. There’s no reference to the dynamic role food and food production can play in providing vital green space that shades and cool and pumps fresh air into a city, in effect serving as green infrastructure. There’s no word on food as a source of  job creation, poverty reduction, public engagement, public transit, waste recovery, and so on.

In a word, food needs to be seen as a lever for change. In a phrase, food needs to be understood in the same way as agriculture – as a force for multifunctionalism.

This is an area that really needs to be – pardon the pun, especially if you’re vegetarian – beefed up.

I encourage people to follow the conference, to spread the word through social media, to use the document in advocacy efforts, to celebrate what has happened in terms of accommodating food issues, and to foster dialogue on the need to deepen understanding of just what food can contribute to cities. 

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, changemaking, food policy, urban planning policy