Fracture Lines: On Urban Metabolism, Ethics, and Feeding the Cities of the Future


Doc Searls on Flickr
Haze over Downtown Los Angeles.

The city has increasingly been recognised as having significant importance for climate mitigation. Over 54% of the world’s population are now living in cities, and greater that 60% are expected to live in urban centres by 2050, with most of this growth coming in low and middle-income countries.1 The particular challenges posed by cities, and the opportunities they hold, will be central to attempts to overcome the current societal addictions driving climate change and ecological degradation. One of the central challenges for future cities will be ethically and sustainably feeding the estimated 6.25 billion urban residents in 2050. Current industrial food systems, driven by a productionist paradigm, will need radical transformations. The focus on yield and economic profitability, at the expense or exclusion of ecological and social impacts, is at odds with growing recognition of the necessity of building sustainable and resilient cities. Additionally, the long and complex supply chains underpinning food production make decision-making and ethical consumption decisions increasingly difficult for urban residents.2 This paper, utilising a socio-ecological systems analysis and drawing on the Urban Metabolism (UM) literature, will argue that to build urban resilience, a transformation of current food systems is necessary. Solutions to the current challenges will require systems thinking that crosses the urban/rural divide, and a move towards more inclusive, transparent, and shorter supply chains to enable cities to meet the challenges of the coming decades. This paper will also propose that future urban resilience research must expand to include a normative dimension to tackle the ethical and environmental justice concerns particular to current food systems, and to prevent new approaches reinforcing the structural inequalities driving many of the social and ecological challenges being faced by the world’s cities.

Urban Resilience
Concepts and Definitions

Since the Brundtland Report in 1987,3 sustainability and sustainable development have been catch-all concepts in the public policy literature surrounding climate change.4 More recently, Resilience Theory and the concept of ‘urban resilience’ have experienced an upsurge in governance and planning frameworks around the globe.5 Resilience, like sustainability before it, has lacked clear definition in the urban context, and some have argued that it has become a catch-all term for planners, academics, and politicians alike, with contested meanings preventing clear application and direction for research.6 In the social-ecological systems literature, resilience is classically defined by Walker as the capacity of a system to “absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.”7 Applied to the urban context, this concept describes the capacity of complex socio-ecological systems to respond to change, and implies a transformative or adaptive capacity in the face of changing ecological, technological, or social environments.

Also much utilised in the urban sustainability and human ecology literature is the Urban Metabolism (UM) paradigm, by which the mobilisation and consumptive patterns and processes of resource and waste flows within the urban boundaries are conceptualised.8 Primarily concerned with material input and output, UM thinking aims to describe and analyse the dependency of urban areas on extended networks of resource extraction and production.9 However, the necessity of delimiting the urban, and the focus on resource flows, has meant the impacts of urban landscape specificities and structural intra-urban inequality is little studied.10 ,11 Additionally, increasingly complex resource supply chains have made addressing trans-boundary impacts of urban consumption difficult to measure,9 with rural ecological degradation driven by urban needs often considered beyond the scope of UM analysis.

Urban slums in Xiamen. Image: Stark8 on Pixabay.

The Challenge of Sustainable Future Cities
Urban / Rural Fractures.

Much of the analysis of Urban Metabolism recognises the challenges in drawing boundaries for urban areas in assessing resource and energy use networks. As cities have grown, the reliance on extended networks of food, resource, and energy transfer from rural areas has increased, with material flows into urban centres and waste returning to rural areas.12 In high-income countries, this urban-rural flow often incorporates global north-south flows, with the global south taking on increased responsibility for environmentally degrading and polluting industrial and waste processing activities.13 Particularly in large urban centres, the inability of surrounding regions to provide sufficient resources for the large populations has driven intensification of industrialised resource extraction, food production, and extended internationalised supply chains of provisioning.12,14 This fracture between the consumption requirements of urban centres and the regional land and ecosystems required to support them is one of the main sources of the ‘metabolic rift’ that opened up in the process of urbanisation and industrialisation between ecological processes of nutrient and material cycling.15 The reformulation of Marx’s concept of ‘metabolic rift’ and the proposals to overcome this rift through circular economy and alternative agriculture approaches incorporating a normative dimension so often lacking in dominant resilience discourse, whilst a helpful tool for analysis, do not fully capture the trans-boundary linkages of modern industrial food systems.16 The urban/rural distinction is mirrored in much of the governance and planning literature underpinning ideas of ‘smart cities’, ‘urban resilience’, and ‘sustainable urban development’.13,17

Treating the urban as separate or distinct from the rural, obfuscates the wide networks of dependence that connect the urban to rural, the local to the global, and urban value-added production to global resource extraction.12

Complex Decision Making and The Challenges of Participation.

The rapid growth of cities, in addition to posing significant challenges for climate change adaptation and sustainability, has made successful governance increasingly difficult.18 In the fast growing cities of low and middle-income countries—as well as in some urban areas of high-income countries—population growth has far outpaced the capacity of city and municipal governments to supply basic services or meet the planning challenges necessary.19 Whilst cities are often areas of high economic growth and increased life quality, they are also sites of extreme inequality, with the urban poor noted as being a group most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and food insecurity,18 and with the least input in decision making processes.5,20 Distrust and low accountability of municipal governments, high levels of corruption, reliance on NGOs and informal networks for basic services, and social or economic exclusion all impact the willingness and ability of citizens to participate in urban planning processes,21 and undermine the capacity of governments to make the transformative changes necessary to overcome the challenges posed by a growing urban populace.

Black Boxes and Supply Chain Ethics.

The reliance of current urban centres on extensive regional and global supply chains across the urban/rural and north/south divides, combined with the tendency of industrial production in the last several decades of compartmentalisation and contractorisation, has resulted in highly complex urban provisioning systems with a concomitant rise in what has been termed the ‘black boxing’ of supply nodes, preventing easily traceable information for decision making.22 Particularly in industrial food systems, the vast matrices of supplier and distribution channels has made the possibility of individual ethical consumption extremely limited.2 The disconnection between consumer and producer has been so extended, and the volume of information required at every step along the supply chain is beyond the capacity of most individuals.12 Similarly for governance and decision making, achieving sustainability or resilience goals in an urban centre that extents globally requires traceability and knowledge of every aspect along the supply chain from worker conditions in sand mining operations to the fuel efficiency of delivery vehicles or the level of land clearing by banana producers. The lack of permeability of extended, compartmentalised and heavily flexible supply chains and decision making channels directly impacts future capacity to solve urban challenges driven by climate change through reduced knowledge flows and reducing the potential for urban governance or consumption changes to impact global production chains.2

Solutions
Participation Beyond Technology.

Even with the UN Sustainable Development Goals being broadly integrated into urban and municipal government planning frameworks globally, and the rise in community-based resource management approaches over the last decade, it is notable that urban experiments in resilience and sustainability still heavily prioritise technical innovations as solutions,23 with resource management frequently separate from planning and policy related to urban poverty and inequality.24 Critiques of resilience as concept have noted that the underlying socio-ecological systems approach treats complex social structures as emergent system properties, and resilience defined as ability to withstand shocks considered exogenously generated.6 This can obscure the political and power dynamics of current governance and production systems, as well as minimising the impact of individual and social group agency in making change.5 The epistemological underpinning resilience thinking as practised through governance and public policy channels therefore leads to the prioritisation of technological and bureaucratic solutions.16 Methods of incorporating justice and equity concerns, and the political dynamics driving current system states, is a much-needed area of resilience research.

 

City Harvest food rescue and distribution in NYC. Image: Lance Cheung.

Resilience and Inclusion Across the Urban Boundary

For urban planning and decision making, the incorporation of participatory planning approaches has been seen to improve government legitimacy and increase social capital. Broad based inclusion of community members normally excluded from decision making, as well as marginalised gender, racial, and cultural groups, can provide localised and alternative knowledge that can improve the capacity for urban resilience.25,26 In the context of urban food systems, citizen participation in driving systemic transformation must necessarily occur beyond the market. Green, Organic, or Ethical consumption decisions may have small impact, yet the structural dynamics of large retail, supply, and food production chains severely limits the scope for consumer driven change.2 Social and community food movements, embedded locally, and with strong focus on food sovereignty and environmental justice concerns, can contribute to urban decision making.19 Community initiatives to adapt to changing climate realities have great potential at the small scale, yet are often unable over overcome the multi-scalar challenges they are currently facing.27 Integrating community groups and leaders into city-wide planning processes can improve knowledge flows to government, enable transdisciplinary perspectives to be incorporated into decision making frameworks, and build citizen engagement.5 Combined grassroots and top-down approaches with a focus on coproduction of knowledge between local and expert groups can help create a holistic planning approach to urban resilience challenges.28 Utilising novel multi-scalar governance networks, embedded locally but connected regionally and globally, can extend participation along the supply chain, building links across urban-rural and north-south divides.6 This hopefully will provide spaces for environmental and social justice concerns both within the city and between regions to be incorporated into decision networks that mirror the globalised supply chains that support growing cities. Co-management partnerships between state, municipal, and community actors, with equity as a foundational principles, could be embedded at each node of a supply chain. Utilising digital participatory decision-making and knowledge sharing platforms29,30 can help open the ‘black box’ of industrial food and resource systems by creating embeddedness of social and governance networks along transformed supply chains.31

This however, must extend beyond technological fixes to a holistic integrated planning framework incorporating deliberative, participatory mechanisms as well as technological and ecological solutions.32

Conclusion

The world’s growing urban populations have been recognised as the site of many of the challenges in climate mitigation, sustainable development, and building more resilient societies. The intersection of ecological, social, and ethical challenges is most prevalent in urban centres reliant on large networks of resource extraction, waste management, and extensive food systems. Cities also hold many potentialities that can help overcome these challenges. This paper has used the context of industrialised food systems to show how urban-rural and north-south ‘fractures’, long supply chains, and the ‘black boxing’ of information and decision making directly inhibits many avenues for more ethical, participatory decision making. Broadening urban resilience to incorporate the infrastructural and distribution networks of urban support systems, and participatory decision making embedded along the supply chain have been proposed to help overcome some of these challenges. Future research will be needed to more clearly incorporate environmental justice and equity concerns into resilience theory. Including normative dimensions into concepts of resilience, shortening supply chains, and providing a greater space for inter-local knowledge networks will go a long way to bridging the urban fractures, and in building sustainable and ethical cities of the future.

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