By Wayne Roberts

In a few weeks, city activists from around the world will converge on Quito, in mountainous Ecuador, for what United Nations-types call a “high level view” of the future of cities — higher in the sky than Quito itself.

To find out more about the whole Habitat 111 conference there, check this website . I want to spend my time with you talking about how food fits into the main document that will be voted on, called “New Urban Agenda.”

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 what early adopters have been thinking for some time.

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.


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 supposedly 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 terrible places 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, which were such a big deal just a few years ago, are presented in one and two lines, without many hints of details for implementation. The New Urban Agenda is intended to provide the meat on the bones and implementation guidelines for the SDGs, and provide at least a few hints of actual advice.


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.

There’s no understanding of food as a cultural force, or as an infrastructure, as in green infrastructure such as trees and other plants to absorb water on green roofs and provide shade and cooling, just to give two examples.

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 — vital green space, job creation, poverty reduction, public engagement, public transit, waste, 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.

For the longform version of this, please see my newsletter at http://bit.ly/OpportunCity

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.