The challenge of food production in a planetary city

SPIN Unit
9 min readSep 9, 2022

In an age of unprecedented globalisation, our food supply chains — the institutions and mechanisms involved in food production and distribution — have become longer. So much so that they are hardly perceived as chains or systems. They have been integrated into our lives, into our cities and transformed our relationships with food. And yet, those very long food supply chains are implicated in some of our most pressing global problems, from food security and waste to biodiversity and climate change. These food supply chains have come to their current state, their current length, over decades, of centuries perhaps, through all sorts of political, social, cultural, and economic processes, and carry with them a range of burdens: vague producer-consumer relationships, and a host of negative environmental externalities, among many others.

Dealing with scarcity

There are an estimated 2.5 billion people, in over 1,600 cities, living in a country where there is expected to be at least a 10% decline in on of maize, rice, soy, and wheat (the highest produced and consumed crops globally) by 2050 (UCCRNTechnical Report, The Future We Don’t Want, 2018). This is due to the variance in droughts and rainfall patterns, resulting in increased competition over water supplies. In this future scenario, the four pillars of food security — availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability — will be hard to maintain: decreased yields will make food less available, which will increase food prices, making it less accessible, and these trajectories will be happening at unprecedented rates, making full utilization and stability less trivial.

In addition, the resulting food insecurity will disproportionately affect farmers who are net food buyers, people in the low-income bracket and agriculture-dependent economies that are net food importers (FAO report from 2015). Urban food supply systems, in turn, need to become more resilient to account for temporary and long-term food shortages resulting from climate disruptions.

Shortening the supply chain?

So-called short food supply chains, their inverse, are characterised by geographically closer producer-consumer relationships, and fewer intermediaries. They are connected to notions of circularity and sustainability because they, among other things, are seen as grounding production and consumption in the local economy, minimising the environmental burden associated with long ranges of transportation, and reducing the risk of long-tail disruptions tied to long, globalised food supply chains. They are also connected to a vision of a more circular economy because they make it easier to establish systems that re-circulate resources within a limited space. In this way, they are implicated in a broader set of ideas and aspirations, for a food system that is environmentally sustainable, resilient, economically robust, and accessible to all.

For some cities, ideas like food circularity and short food supply chains have become longings, the fancy of policy and the stage directions for projective action. This has, in part, been a response to demand, to the needs and values democratically articulated, sometimes uncomfortably, at the level of urban and rural communities.

Tallinn community gardens, Artjom Kutuzov

From farm to fork, an EU strategy framework.

Perhaps more pressingly, they have also responded to our planetary need to reimagine our systems, including our food systems, more sustainably and inclusively.. We have seen, for example, the FORCE project, a collaboration between the cities of Lisbon, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Genoa, which seeks to minimise “the leakage of materials [food and bio-waste included] from the linear economy” . Closer to our home, we have seen the OECD and the City of Tallinn working closely, drafting a proposal for a development plan that seeks to make Tallinn’s economy more circular, as part of Tallinn’s 2035 ambitions.

Tallinn community gardens, Artjom Kutuzov

At the heart of the European, Green Deal is the Farm to Fork strategy, a move towards fairer, more sustainable, and healthier food systems. And at the heart of that strategy is a regulatory framework for sustainable food systems (FSFS), to be released in 2023 by the European Commission. In anticipation of the framework, we ask the question: what is the role of cities and governance in this story? And how might urban food systems be transformed in the image of this lofty goal? How do we design city strategies around robustness to shocks, carbon footprint, and broad, equitable access to nutritious and affordable sustainable food? How can cities embark on new transformative projects that are socially meaningful and not mere tokens for political outreach?

Tallinn community gardens, Artjom Kutuzov

Tallinn 1.5

The City of Tallinn is home to these questions, as the Estonian parliament as recently signed a bill to increase the food security of the country and the OECD is assessing the city’s transition to circular economy. In a land use analysis, we saw that Tallinn’s urban space is mainly designed to support vehicular movement and car parking, resulting in the city suffering from spatial inequality, mobility inequity, and uneven urban development. At the same time, Tallinn’s food supply is highly dependent on regional and international imports.

Local producers are struggling to find urban space for food production, and the smart city concept has produced more infrastructure than permeable land. And all of this is happening while we are living planetary urgency to work towards a circular economy is heightening.

On a more positive note, there is a renewed awareness among citizens of Tallinn towards the benefits of urban food production and many community garden initiatives have been sprucing up from 2010s onwards. Tallinn city has now strategically started to curate and support urban gardening, initiating 21 community gardens in only past few years. Currently each city district has at least one garden with a total of 1035 gardeners.

Becoming planetary

Self-sufficiency starts with the diet. If Tallinn was to become self-sufficient, it would need 30km2 of agricultural land every day; however, this is primarily due to the disproportionate amount of valorising consumed from animal protein against vegetable proteins. To reduce the amount of arable land needed and get closer to the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Agreement, what people consume needs to change too. Here comes in handy the think about the “Planetary Diet,” a plant-forward program to slow global warming while keeping a nutritionally-balanced lifestyle.

If all Tallinn’s residents were on a planetary diet, we could cut our arable land needs in half. To be food self-sufficient all year long, Tallinn would need 2 477 Km2 agricultural lands, comprehensive of cropland (land dedicated directly to food production) and pastures(land dedicated to growing animal feed). In other words, the city must find half a hectare per person of agricultural land within its borders.

As of Today, we would need as much land as 13 times the size of Tallinn itself. No vertical or sea farming can copy those figures.

Our estimations are somewhat optimistic, as they don’t consider water supply, soil types and food waste. They also exclude the possibility of organic farming, which would at least double the requirements.

To realise the base food production map of Tallinn, we have collaborated with Tallinn Technical University to launch a crowd-mapping campaign asking people to map where and what food they grow. With the help of citizens’ science we can produce socially relevant cartographies and include local communities in the research and innovation process since the very start.

Becoming regional

Cities are note a useful spatial framework to discuss or implement circularity. The hard limits of our scenario are the hard limits of political imagination in policy making. As cities strive for international success and fight for state financing, their project portfolio is usually limited to their municipal borders. However, breaking the intangible wall between municipalities is the key to breaking the unsustainable global supply chain on which Tallinn is currently dependent.

If we were to average our food production to a conservative 2 harvests per year (given that grains can be harvested just once in the Nordic weather while intense vegetable farming can reach up to 3 to 4 cycles), Tallinn could build its own food security system (2 477 Km2 agricultural lands) within it metropolitan each region (4 333 Km2).

Learning from the impossible

It’s an impossible plan and an impossible diet for a self-sufficient city that tried to produce all the food it needed to sustain itself — to help improve their health as well the one of our planet.

The entire urban open land was redesigned while maintaining liveability and functionality. No existing buildings or structure were transformed into food production facilities unless for obsolete industrial buildings. Streets width was reduced to accommodate fruit tree lanes and no existing green or recreational area was changed.

While only with its region Tallinn can sustain itself, we have completed our impossible plan to learn what can be done today.

Why investing in urban farming even if it wont make a city self-sufficient?

Engaging and investing in urban farming goes food security.

Transitions without conflict

Transitions without conflicts require both time and public support. In this context, we proposed a carbon labelling system for food products to raise awareness of the ecological footprint of the food we eat. Besides including their carbon footprint, we also measured the spatial impact of food production on the city. This is a crucial factor when planning a self-sustainable Tallinn, and it’s a reality check for policymakers involved in this process.

Food carbon labelling will change by the addition of land use efficiency to the equation, to display both the carbon and the urban impact of food production. This is calculated as a ration between the space needed and the carbon emitted to produce one calorie of each food type.

Leveraging on a minimalistic design that uses two different scales, we want to change the medium to inform citizens and raise their awareness of their daily habits. In a social media campaign, we posted several rankings of food’s emission and spatial efficiencies. Our take is that a food labelling system would help improve our awareness of the environmental impact of our food, which is a crucial first step to transition towards a carbon-free future.

The wrap up

There is ample work ahead for cities who want to embark on circularity and commit to sustainable urban sustainability. Cities are not the right place to think about circularity, and a New Regionalisation process will set afoot to solve our planetary challenges on a local scale.

Food production is only one, and for this alone, Tallinn would need 99% more land than it has today. Then we have biodiversity, waste management, public space, and more to be added to the list of land uses reclaimed from the smart city. Our mapping experience of Tallinn alone, presented many opportunities of turning the commons into a more productive use.

It is time (now) for cities to take back space from obsolete urban infrastructure, drivable surfaces, oversized roads and parking around the lots, underused malls and former industrial areas to embark on an enterprise valuing the compound benefits of our interest and the requirements of a circular economy.

And eventually, we can’t wait a long planning reform but hurry to introduce measure to tackle food security in the existing planning normative. One of the first step we have taken is working with the city of Tallinn on a new definition of Green Factor that would require urban development project to supply the needed amount of biodiversity, recreational green and urban arable land.

This starts by supporting interdependent sub-communities and sustaining the individuals that give them life. Most of all, it suggests that the time is now to take action, that there is no time — or food, for that matter — to waste.

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SPIN Unit

SPIN Unit is a research & innovation practice dedicated to discovering urban values.