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Publication defines food sensitive planning and urban design

Publication defines food sensitive planning and urban design

I STARTED ADDRESSING ISSUES of food security and food sovereignty and how these ideas relate to the future of our cities at conferences and seminars and in community education courses some years ago.  A key message I delivered was that the mainstream economy’s food supply chain could be improved to make it more effective and fairer, and that food was an emerging issue and that evidence for this were the ways that communities were intervening in their own food supply by setting their own production and distribution chains.

When I made presentations there was no generally accepted term, no name to frame these disperate initiatives and ideas. The nearest to an inclusive, collective name we had was ‘food security’, but this said little about the contribution to regional economies made by the urban food supply chain and the future of city fringe market gardeners, orchardists and poultry producers. Then, along came ‘food sovereignty’ with its implications of control over one’s food supply and the right to choose to eat food prepared, sold and distributed in a way acceptable to the eater. This introduced a political element and supported fair economic returns to farmers.


Food security… food sovereignty… it might seem that we’re playing with words, and that’s true. But words are important. Naming imparts meaning to a practice or set of ideas and positions it in the social marketplace for ideas. Chosen carefully, the names given to ideas and practices frame them in a context and can create a positive mental image around them. Carefully chosen names makes ideas comprehensible to people, to those in professional practice as well as to those engaged in community-based education and advocacy.

In doing those talks around our food systems, what I needed was a term that gathered together the concept of urban food security and the right of people to make their own food choices—the ‘food sovereignty’ element—added the idea of the need for a secure and resilient food supply for our cities towns—and to link this to the practice of urban planning that plays a role in either disabling or enabling viable, regional food economies and the access that people have to fresh food. The name, the term I sought would have had to be acceptable to those making decisions about urban landuse and economy – local governments and planners – as well as to community and small business food enterprise and to the public interested in such things.

Just as tagging digital files offers up a broad range of material when you make a search on your computer, so should the tag we give to this diversity of practices, planning concepts and community initiatives. Urban food security, nutritional health, urban planning, social and economic innovation and the sustainability and food resiliency of our towns and cities would all have to be included. The tag—the name—would have to offer urban food advocates and sustainability educators in local government and community education a convenient, meaningful and timely term to bring together discussion of the plethora of community-based and mainstream food initiatives and ideas about the food system now starting to vie for the attention of the public.

Something new

Not properly recognised as an important element in our socially and ecologically sustainable future until a few years ago, food and the security of its supply is now regarded as of equal importance to energy, water, transport and waste by a growing number of sustainability thinkers, educators and urban planners.

The importance of food choices to sustainable cities was emphasised by the Victorian Eco Innovation Lab (VEIL), part of the University of Melbourne, in a report a few years ago. The report, Safe and Secure Food Systems for Victoria, made the link between food, waste and resource use. Food choices, the report stated, account for:

  • 50% household water use; this accounts for the water used to grow or produce the food plus that consumed in processing; this volume of water embodied in food has become known as ‘virtual water’; its total can be compared to the 11% of water used in the house and garden
  • 28% household greenhouse gas emissions compared to 20% attributable to direct household energy use and 10% to transport; the total includes emissions from food production and transportation through the food supply chain
  • 40% of household food waste to landfill in Melbourne, made up of food organics.

These findings place food choices as some of the most important to sustainability and turn those seemingly simple choices into keystone choices. Just as a keystone is critical to holding up an arch, so food choice is a keystone consideration in holding up our future sustainability.

Food education

Many local government sustainability educators work in waste education and when they include food in their work focus mainly on food waste. This is not to deny that food waste is a mammoth problem, as the NSW government’s Love Food Hate Waste program disclosed when in reporting that the state wastes 800,000 tonnes or more than $2.5 billion of food a year. Add to that the totals for the other states and you have a major waste of both food and money.

Focusing on food waste is important, especially if we can highlight ways to compost it into fertiliser and return that to the market gardens on the city fringe.

Loal government sustainability educators and their counterparts in community oganisations are doing more than focusing on food waste. Many, such as groups gathered around the Transition Towns idea and Permaculture design, encourage food production for household self-provisioning in home and community gardens. This constitutes a renewal of the long Australian tradition of home gardening… the vegetable patch and chook run in the backyard. In our big cities however, there is diminishing opportunity for this as urban consolidation and higher density living—which are planning responses to curbing the urban sprawl that destroys the city-fringe market gardens that feed the city—reduce the size of home gardens and eliminate them entrely. For urban centres in our big cities, the work of local government and community educators may need to start to include more on food distribution opportinities than food production.

If food really is to become a core component in sustainability education and planning then we need to a whole systems approach that looks at the food system in its entirety from farming, through processing and distribution to consumption and on to dealing with food waste.

There has been no framework for sustainability educators to adopt such a whole food systems approach and no simple way to context their educational work within urban food systems, the structures through which food arrives on the tables and in the takeaway containers of eaters in town and city. Until now.


Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design is a concept that combines food and its acquisition with the planning needs of cities. The name plays on that of Water Sensitive Urban Design, WSUD, which moved rapidly from good idea to adoption by planners and local government. Hopefully, FSUD will follow a similar trajectory.

Enabling this will be a new concept document from the VEIL team called, in a play on acronym, Food Sensitive Planning and Urban DesignFSPUD. Get it? As in potato.

According to the publication, planners seldom consider food and the security of its supply in their work. “They see food as someone elses’ responsibility and so it falls through the cracks… there is no explicit recognition of food in planning documents”, says the authors.

Clearly it really is time for planners to think about the security of our own urban food supply. Reinforcing this are a number of facts:

  • agriculture uses between 65 and 70 percent of Australia’s fresh water supply, giving food production and distribution an important role in a country that suffers periodic drought that brings water use restrictions to our cities
  • the global food crisis of 2007/08 when costs rose so astronomically there were food riots in around 32 countries and some grain producing nations ceased to export so as to retain their crop for their own use
  • the near-loss of the food productivity of the Murray basin several years ago when drought threatened the food supply of our south-eastern cities
  • the emergence of ‘food deserts’ in parts of our cities where nourishng – as opposed to fatty fast foods – are not in easy reach of households, a failure of both professional and local government planning.

Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design is more than a concept paper. It is an introductory text to the topic and a scoping document that explores its parameters. It’s where planners and food system advocates can start their reading to educate themselves on the potential of food production and distribution as well as the food security of the city and the food sovereignty of its residents.

Challenge and opportunity

It’s not that there are no opportunities to do this. Planners and local government can incorporate food sensitive urban design by combining food production and distribution with other planning goals to create attractive, liveable surroundings.

Additionally, food sensitive urban design offers an opportunity to strengthen community interactions in diversified, shared places such as parks when it incorporates community food production initiatives like city farms, community gardens and food swaps. The evidence that people want to participate in activities as simple as food swaps and community food production is the popularity of these initiatives… perhaps they’re a means through which people get a sense of the place where they live, a sense of belonging and inclusion and of community, a need identified by Australian social researcher, Hugh Mackay. Including these things in urban place design is best seen as diversifying recreational, educational and community engagement options on public land along with traditional, city parkland uses of the land.

“There is increasing evidence that involvement in the provision of food, be it growing, cooking or social eating, can improve healthy eating behaviour, increase opportunities for social engagement and connection to nature and help foster increased self-esteem and a sense of achievement”, summarises the report.

The VEIL document proposes that planners think about including opportunities for food systems in city planning by local government and the private sector:

  • creating the option for food production in city farms (which serve educational and recreational needs as well as offering a DIY or commercial approach to food production) and in community food gardens; these can also build social capital through the cooperation necessary in managing them
  • incidental food production such as productive (selected nut and fruit) street and parkland trees for shade, amenity and neighbourhood character
  • incorporating access to fresh food sources via public  transport, a need highlighted by organisations like the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance
  • resource recovery from urban food waste as an agricultural input.

The report found that socially and economically advantaged neighbourhoods have a greater number of supermarkets and fruit and vegetable retailers within close proximity to residences. In contrast, low density urban growth such as that occurring on the fringes of our metropolitan areas and in the exurbs, the report points out, ” …results in communities with limited financial resources being more car dependent and have longer travel times to access food”. This is especially the situation in communities where residents suffer financial hardship as well as those marked by low density development, itself a contributor to reliance on private vehicles and to the limited economic viability of public transport.

Integrated into the urban environment, food sensitive urban design promotes health, improved access to fresh food, supports urban livelihoods and economic opportunity in the urban food system, creates a sense of community and participation in the management of public land, furthers urban sustainability and contributes to resilient cities.

“There is increasing evidence that involvement in the provision of food, be it growing, cooking or social eating, can improve healthy eating behaviour, increase opportunities for social engagement and connection to nature and help foster increased self-esteem and a sense of achievement”, summarises the report.

Food sensitive urban design offers a great opportunity for the more innovative in the planning and design professions, for the civic entrepreneurs in local government and for the social entrepreneurs in communities.

Making it happen—advocacy

Food sensitive planning and urban design sounds like a good idea that could open new possibilities in our cities, but how do we make it a reality?

First, say the authors, circulate the Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design concept document among those whose work could be informed by it. In addition to councils and planners this could include community-based sustainability groups and educators such as those gathered around climate change campaigns, Transition Towns and Permaculture design.

Many of the food-related initiatives of these community groups are piecemeal… a home garden here, a community garden there and a Permablitz that brings people together elsewhere but that offers no ongoing program of participant education and engagement. Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design, if adopted as a good idea, has the potential to provide the framework through which their efforts are integrated into a greater urban whole. It could scale-up these worthy but individual efforts by positioning them in a broad urban continuum and linking their participants to other community-based, local government and small business/social enterprise initiatives.

Then there’s the option for FSPUD advocates to host workshops and advocate to local government how food sensitive urban design could be integrated into policy and practice. This would include facilitating active transport links with food retail and community food systems such as food cooperatives, community supported agriculture, community gardens and other community self-help initiatives as well as to food retail. Promoting particular projects to local government is good because when it is posible to work constructively with councils projects can move from idea to reality. A  focus on policy advocacy creates opportunity for a greater number of initiatives to happen.

Integration in the planning process

If food sensitive urban design is to influence strategy and policy development in local and state government it will have to become something that is considered at different stages of the planning process. It will need to

influence budgets and to be positioned as a valid consideration when it comes to setting priorities. Thus, FSPUD advocates will need to educate desision makers as to why food issues are an appropriate focus for the planning system. Best impacts, say the authors, will come from having food sensitive urban design enbedded in state planning frameworks. The same could be said for local goverment planning instruments as it is councils that influence the type of development in an area.

“In the face of complex and unpredictable change, FSPUD seeks to support the development of adaptable and responsive settlements and communities”

In enlarging the role of food sensitive urban planning, the paper says: “Well designed integration of food production can help make urban environments more comfortable… eg. by mitigating the urban heat island effect… as well as more enjoyable and safe”.

One way this can be done is to regard community-based food production opportunities on public or private land as ‘placemaking’ initiatives. Placemaking is a planning concept that refers to making public places, such as parks, into safe, family friendly, diverse, innovative and attractive places catering to both traditional park roles such as passive recreation and to new uses such as community gardens.

Opportunities—putting FSUD into practice

Putting FSUD into practice will require the cooperation of  communities and councils and, preferably, state government.

“In the face of complex and unpredictable change, FSPUD seeks to support the development of adaptable and responsive settlements and communities”, says the authors.

Local government can start by identifying and removing barriers. The ease with which water sensitive urban design was accepted by councils suggests food sensitive urban design could likewise become accepted.

But it might not be so easy. There was considable community sentiment in support of water sensitive urban design and the employment by councils of environmental science and environmental management graduates as resource managers and as sustainability educators paved the way internally for acceptance of the concept. Water has been accepted for a longer time as a critical resource and the droughts and urban water restrictions in Australian cities of the first decade of the twenty-first century reinforced its primacy. This legitimised state and local government putting budgets and staff behind water conservation, education and planning.

There is nothing similar by way of tertiary-educated state or local government staff in the area of food to drive an internal agenda, so the adoption of food sensitive urban design by councils would rely to a large extent on environmentally-qualified sustainability educators being familiar with food issues and their links to the common focus areas of sustainability education of energy, water, transport and waste.

Strategies that integrate productive landscapes including fruit and nut trees with other landscape objectives can open the door to new ways of seeing streetscapes

Unlike other countries, Australia has not experienced a food crisis as it has a water crisis. Price increases for grain staples resulting from the food crisis of 2007/08 were absorbed by a bouyant economy and there was sufficient household financial padding such that people could afford to pay a little extra. In other words, affluence insulates communities from an increasingly volatile global food market and does not highlight food as a critical resource to the security of our cities.

Contributing to the illusion of food plenty are well-stocked supermarket shelves. Most shoppers simply don’t realise that there is considerably less than a week’s food on these supermarket shelves, assuming no panic buying. Little stock is held by supermarkets which rely on frequent delivery by trucks from regional distribution centres through the ‘just in time’ system. Natural disasters can easily disrupt this vulnerable system, turning just in time delivery to just too late.

Positioning and validating food security and food sensitive urban design in local and state government, then, may not be as easy as was water sensitive urban design.

Making the link between community development through enabling community-based food systems, ensuring city plans include FSPUD opportunities and that fresh food retail is easily accessible to those without a car goes some way towards creating the conditions for an effective urban food supply chain. Food outlets need to be located where they are connected by public transport, walking and cycling. The problem with the big mall developments in the suburbs, surrounded by huge parking areas, is they encourage car use and local traffic congestion. Buying food becomes a high-carbon-emission activity. This is the realm of retail planning policy. Rather than huge malls isolated in a sea of parked cars, a healthy urbanism requires variety in food retail in easy access to where people live.

There’s also the role of urban fringe councils in using planning laws to reduce the loss of urban fringe farmland to urban development. There may also be need for a ‘right to farm’ policy when it comes to making decisions on complaints by residents in new urban developments about the noise, odour and hours of operation of adjacent farms.

The authors of Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design, as well as other urban food system advocates propose that councils consider:

  • mixing large and small retailers with street frontages
  • accessable via active transport (walking, cycling) and by public transport
  • favouring fresh food retail rather than fast food takeaways—green grocers, butchers, fishmongers, bakeries with wholesome choices
  • eating-out opportunities such as cafes and restaurants to give greater choice than accommodating only fast food outlets
  • urban design guidelines that integrate productive landscapes including fruit and nut trees on streets and in parks with other urban landscaping objectives; “Strategies that integrate productive landscapes including fruit and nut trees with other landscape objectives can open the door to new ways of seeing streetscapes… “, the authors state in making the link between public place plantings and productive urban plantings; many councils are yet to be convinced of the multi-purpose values of what we might call edible landscaping, however there are a few that have done so
  • housing strategies that increase density and that support the viability of local, smaller food retail outlets
  • subdivision guidelines that embody food sensitive urban design, public and private garden space
  • public open space and recreational strategies that integrate food opportunities into outdoor spaces, such as community gardens, city farms, farmers markets, cafes etc
  • public health plans that have a component of nutritional health linked to the regional food supply chain
  • rural land strategies to ensure the continuity of market gardening, orcharding and poultry production at the urban/rural interface and that avoid the loss of farmland to urban development and the conversion of productive agricultural land into unproductive urban lots
  • the adoption of council food procurement policies that support regional farmers and food enterprises and that stipulate the purchase of food that has been produced by environmentally and socially ethical methods; we must recognise, however, that a barrier to buying regionally produced foods is the lack of a certification scheme identifying regional production.

How to proceed

Food Sensitive Urban Planning and Design outlines a local government agenda for a year:

  1. research an area’s food system to identify the most effective interventions
  2. devise new strategies and policies to integrate food sensitive urban design
  3. undertake capital works to create and improve assets for the production, preparation, distribution, exchange and celebration of food
  4. appoint staff to plan and implement food sensitive urban design.

One or two of these points might take longer than a year, however a year would suffice as a timeframe to make a start. The proposed year program, I believe, might better be used to produce a local government food security policy, given the absence of anything from state government despite lobbying for such by food advocacy groups in the states. Councils have developed – and are developing – such policy, the first believed to be that adopted by South Sydney City Council in 2007 and entitled What’s Eating South Sydney?

A local government food policy would:

  • identify demographics at risk of food insecurity
  • plan how fresh food retail would be linked to public and active – walking and cycling – transport
  • identify and plan for the multiplication of community-based food initiatives such as community and home gardens on the production side, and distribution systems such as food cooperatives and community supported agriculture schemes
  • looks at resource recovery of food waste and at increasing the volume of food collected are redistributed by food salvage enterprises
  • consider the potential for small scale intensive, commercial food production and the potential for innovative food production technologies such as commercial scale aquaponics as small business or social enterprise opportunites
  • introduce internal food procurement policy for council events and services.

A food security policy can be a metapolicy, an umbrella inclusive of council food procurement, community gardens, small business start-up assistance, grants, street tree planting and aspects of social policy.

A powerful start

Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design is a powerful articulation of a new idea. It is both a document to kick-start the integration of food as an urban resource as critical as water and energy to the sustainability of our cities and it is an exploration of an emerging topic.

Communities and small businesses have already made a start in making our cities more food secure and in realising the social benefits of the community-based approach to doing this. Here and there around Australia brave and innovative councils, too, have seen its relevance and its potential to create opportunity for community building and in reinforcing local food economies.

Most importantly, Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design is an advocacy document proposing that the time has arrived to incorporate food security and food-related opportunities into the planning profession and into state and local government policy.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Strategic questions about proposed development

The authors of Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design suggests a number of strategic questions that state and local government planners could ask about proposed urban development:

1. What is the impact of the proposal on the amount and viability of productive land?

  • loss of land could impact future food supply and economy
  • can productive capacity be retained within rezoned landuse?
  • what are the opportunities to redevelop existing urban areas to produce food? Edible streetscapes, community gardens etc.

2. Are there interface issues between agricultural land and other uses?

  • does residential land directly adjoin rural?
  • could less sensitive land be used as the interface?
  • could stormwater, wastewater etc be used on adjacent agricultural land?

3. How will people access food and the food choices important to them?

  • where are nearest sources?
  • are these car reliant sources?
  • can changes be made for active transport?
  • is there space for community gardens, markets etc?

4. Does the area increase positive exposure to food?

  • integrate productive space into public places
  • establish food-value productive street trees
  • food production features that contribute to amenity and opportunities for community participation
  • accessibility of public places
  • celebration of local food efforts such as verge garden competitions, front garden competitions etc.

5. Does the space encourage development and use of diverse food outlets?

  • food exchanges, markets
  • are food outlets and community food activities perceived as attractive, safe, friendly?
  • opportunities for preparation and sharing of food… community kitchens, BBQs
  • shelter in open space for communal meals and family gatherings?

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