Agriculture and the Urban-Rural Nexus

Date: 2010
Agriculture and the Urban-Rural Nexus
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City and countryside are often conceived as opposites, fundamentally in conflict. Sustainable urban policies must consider economic, social and environmental interactions between city and country, thinking less about competing factors and more about their complementarity. Might agriculture be the missing link?

The biblical antiphony of city versus country resembles that of farmer versus rancher. Each side disagrees with the other on just about everything except the terms used to describe urbanization - explosive, rampant and unbridled - and the city - dangerous and unhealthy. The Garden of Eden is rural and never urban.

Some view slowing the growth of the urban development cancer as a matter of agricultural policies: keep the masses in the country and stop the rural exodus. In this view, the exodus hurts the countryside by robbing it of strong arms and backs. It is equally unfortunate for the city, which is overrun by migrants and the unemployed. The rural exodus is induced by urban food policies that favour low-cost imports over higher incomes for country dwellers.

Others view slowing urbanization as slowing development and economic growth. The parallels between the rate of economic growth and the rate of urbanization are considered proof of this point. The city is not only a result, but also the engine of development and growth. The poor quality of the urban fabric reduces the engine's efficiency. This poor quality is caused by an anti-urban bias in public policy that leads to spending more on rural areas than on cities. Infrastructure investment must be increased in urban cores to address economically harmful congestion, in the peripheries to accommodate new inhabitants, and in transportation services needed to link the core with the periphery, for the daily concentration and nightly dispersal of commuting workers.

In the developing countries of Africa especially, devising a sustainable city requires avoiding controversy, overcoming obvious conflicts, and seeking continuity, bridges to common goals, and exchanges between rural and urban spaces. Indeed, very dynamic population demographics and growth that creates few manufacturing jobs promote urban "bloat;" meanwhile, the countryside must support and accommodate even more people and thus grows more impoverished. On the urban side, there are "spontaneous" neighbourhoods, the "informal" economy and under-employment. On the rural side, one sees even harsher effects: stagnation in yields and production; difficulties in land acquisition, credit and access to internal markets; soil degradation, deforestation and a reduction of arable land available per farmer, and a shortage of land for landless young people. In fact, analyses show that poverty is most common and most intense in rural areas. However, one should not conclude that only the countryside requires intervention. The urban destiny of certain country dwellers is also part of the solution. But under what conditions? Under what timeline? In which proportion? The answer to these questions is critical for the balance of agricultural versus industrial and services policies, and for cities and rural areas.

Today, climate, energy and food challenges, as much as the pace and nature of change, invite us to re-think agricultural policies and urban policies in a combined form. For example, it is useful to re-think policies by reasoning along two scales. First, at the territorial scale, one may determine the geography of allotting land, forest, water, social and human resources. Then, at the scale of the city and neighbourhoods, comprising both activities and people, one may address the quality of urbanization.

Thinking of Urbanization in Terms of Agricultural Potential

For the farmer, the city is a marketplace. The city's growth benefits him, inasmuch as the city's residents consume local agricultural products. As the percentage of farmers in the population shrinks, the individual farmer increases the size of his clientele and therefore his income and ability to invest. Furthermore, the agricultural market towns and administrative seats offer the services most needed to modernize agriculture: commercial and financial services, information and news, training and medical care. However, this virtuous synergy cannot be uniform everywhere. The distance from the city and attendant transportation costs (to access city services and to deliver products and inputs to the fields) cut into agricultural producers' incomes. For this reason, opening a region by building and maintaining rural roads is a classic and essential component of all agricultural policies. Increasing costs for fossil fuels will confer an increasing competitive advantage to the rural areas with the best train service.

Nevertheless, an isolated rural market town will stagnate and fail to provide all needed services to its hinterland. Good connections between the rural market town and somewhat larger metropolitan areas are indispensible for the town's growth. Agricultural potential should influences choices in developing the territory and implementing communication and transportation infrastructure. That potential is inevitably unequal and subject to change. Climate change increasingly affects agriculture in some regions, where productivity will reach its limits. In other territories, conditions will become more favourable for expanding agricultural activities. Some market towns in the countryside will wither; others will grow and prosper. If those responsible, respectively, for agriculture and for urbanism and infrastructure can share the same analyses, they can optimize their investment choices.

Agriculture Around the City

It is a universal fact that the value of urban land depends upon its distance to the centre of town. The productivity of farmland is often higher on the periphery of cities, where labour-intensive activities such as truck gardening or market farming benefit greatly from proximity to markets. This is one of the factors behind the higher price of land on city peripheries. However, the prospect of transforming farmland into developed land confers greater value still. Wherever there is urban sprawl, there is a reasonable potential for this transformation. In developing countries, the periphery of cities becomes a theatre of unequal transactions and social tensions, whenever management of land rights in rural areas remains flawed and planning for urban expansion is done after the fact. Progress in local governance and land management (by rights within the competence of local authorities) is critical in these areas. Furthermore, long-term planning is needed to determine whether such lands are destined to become urban or not.

In this context, trade-offs can be made between the urban fabric and farmland; securing existing rights should be the main concern, and the quality of the urban fabric the prime objective - and equally, the best use of the land for the nation. For example, urbanizing highly productive, rare, irrigated land is questionable if other options can be explored. Above all, thinking about a new way to structure a uniformly dense urban fabric could integrate urban agricultural spaces. These spaces could ensure useful quality-of-life functions, such as the mixing of social classes, employment, multiple uses, storm water management, green spaces and leisure. The technical and economic characteristics of this more intensive and market-oriented urban fringe agriculture would likely justify cooperative assistance. Furthermore, such urban farms would be better able to co-finance such assistance than other agricultural areas.

Treating solid waste and water management are two other urban policy issues that agriculture can address. Many developing cities produce large amounts of organic waste. Feeding the city generates flows of organic material, whose sorting, recycling, stocking and purifying prove very costly. Urban fringe farmers would benefit if such organic matter returned to the fields as compost. Furthermore, methane gas emissions from such waste products are not exploited. The problem is not new, but until now, policies have emphasized collecting and treating unsorted (and therefore contaminated) garbage, which cannot be returned to the fields. However, as urban consumption in developing countries rapidly evolves towards eating out and processed foods, it becomes possible to take decisive action upstream with the consumer - as well as with wholesalers, slaughterhouses, canneries and restaurant services - by implementing more efficient waste transformation processes.

Water poses another problem. In addition to the visible effects on surface water such as eutrophication (the build-up of excess nutrients that leads to algae growth and oxygen depletion), inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides have direct effects on groundwater and thus on drinking water quality. Agricultural practices in areas surrounding a city's water recovery plants are therefore very important. Such issues come back to the technical advice that urban fringe farmers should receive. While their easy access to fertilizer and pesticides promotes intensive growing practices, farmers rarely make optimal use of such resources, harming their health, product quality and incomes.

Elsewhere, cities produce large volumes of used domestic and industrial water. Assuming a rational use of agricultural inputs as mentioned above, urban fringe farmers - particularly in the periphery of Mediterranean cities - should re-use these urban wastewaters. Thus, at a national as well as a sub-regional and city scale, choices exist that could improve the quality of urban growth and make the city an engine of rural transformation. Though this does not occur often, their implementation should allow all stakeholders to forge optimal strategies together.