Cities: A helping hand for the urban poor

The New Humanitarian

Johannesburg - With more than half the world now living in urban centres, city residents’ quality of life, vulnerability to natural hazards and diets are matters of growing importance, drawing significant attention at the World Urban Forum in Naples, Italy, this week.

Two major studies launched to coincide with the Forum explore these issues. Both focus on the role of local governments and community initiatives in shaping sustainable policies for poor urban dwellers: Growing Greener Cities in Africa, a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO); and the Making Cities Resilient Report 2012, produced by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) for the UN Office for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).

Improving urban food production

Food, its production, supply and sale are rarely considered when designing, planning and managing cities, said FAO Assistant Director-General Alexander Müller in a position paper by Food for the Cities, a multidisciplinary initiative started by FAO in 2000. "The perception has been because food is there and one can easily buy it in the supermarkets or along the streets, that food will always be there." But when prices peaked in 2007/2008, and more than 20 countries faced food price-related riots, this perception began to change.

By the end of this decade, 24 of the world’s 30 fastest-growing cities will be African, noted Modibo Traoré, Assistant Director-General at FAO, in Growing Greener Cities in Africa. "Within 18 years, the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to reach almost 600 million, twice what it was in 2010. African cities already face enormous problems: More than half of all residents live in overcrowded slums; up to 200 million survive on less than US$2 a day; poor urban children are as likely to be chronically malnourished as poor rural children."

And as cities expand, so does the length of the rural-urban food supply chain, increasing food losses and negatively affecting safety and quality of food products. Bruce Cogill, from Bioversity International, suggests bridging the gap by encouraging urban dwellers to consume more local and traditional fruits, vegetables and food ingredients.

In fact, Growing Greener Cities in Africa reports that most African cities are already green and growing food. Forty percent of urban residents in sub-Saharan cities are farmers. In the Senegalese capital, Dakar, 7,500 households grow their own vegetables in micro-gardens. In Malawi, 700,000 urban residents practise home gardening to meet their food needs and earn extra income. Low-income city gardeners in Zambia make US$230 a year from sales.

Yet some of this might not be sustainable, the report points out. "Most gardeners in urban centres have no title to their land; many lose it overnight. Land suitable for horticulture is being taken for housing, industry and infrastructure. To maximize earnings from insecure livelihoods, many gardeners are overusing pesticide and wastewater."

Sustainability can be improved with planning by the local government and with the involvement of a variety of sectors, said Florence Egal, co-secretary of the Food for the Cities initiative, during a discussion hosted by the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) in Naples.

The FAO report suggested these easy ways to improve urban diets:

- Cities should plan clean, decentralized markets, which will save poor households time and money and offer an alternative to unhealthy street food. A UNSCN statement notes that consumption of processed foods combined with a sedentary lifestyles creates a "perfect storm" for heart diseases, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

- FAO suggests city authorities facilitate loans for farmers who want to process their produce, form co-operatives, negotiate better prices, and improve the management of their harvests.

- Large areas of land could be zoned for horticulture. For instance, the Rwandan capital, Kigali has reserved 15,000 hectares for agriculture and wetlands. Lagos, Nigeria, has 4,400 hectares of such suitable land.

- Adopt a ‘circular’ approach in urban water management: Treated wastewater is safe and can supply most of the nutrients needed for horticulture.

- Provide access to agricultural extension services. "The increasing use of synthetic pesticides in African market gardens is linked to poor cultivation practices," noted Growing Greener Cities in Africa.

Preparing for disaster

The urban poor must also be included in cities’ growth plans to better enable cities to absorb and recover from disasters, said the IIED report.

Many of the world’s mega-cities - those with populations exceeding 10 million, are in locations prone to major earthquakes and severe droughts, or are along flood-prone coastlines. The cities’ poorest dwellers live in areas most vulnerable to hazards. Making Cities Resilient finds that wealthier cities are preparing disaster risk reduction plans, constructing infrastructure that can withstand natural disasters and running campaigns to raise awareness about disaster vulnerability. But political will and good leadership can also turn things around for poorer urban centres.

IIED's David Satterthwaite, the lead author of the Making Cities Resilient report, has five pointers for cities that are vulnerable to disasters but have limited resources:

- City governments must work with inhabitants, especially those in informal settlements, to review hazards that have caused problems in the past. Satterthwaite cited Cuttack, a city in eastern India, where women from Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s collectives, spoke to residents of informal settlements about the risks they faced. The women then turned their findings into digital maps and a geographic information system.

- After discussions with community organizations, identify what needs to be done, how and by whom. If local governments lack the capacity, they can work with grassroots organizations or partners. Satterthwaite found, for instance, that in many places, when local authorities provide water pipes to communities, people manage to install connections to their own households.

- When planning to upgrade homes, infrastructure and services (e.g., piped water, healthcare, emergency services, all-weather roads) start in different communities and review where households may have to be moved. He suggested doing this hand-in-hand with affected communities.

- City governments should see the value of partnerships with the community organizations when designing and managing interventions. "As has happened in many cities in Asia, where there are strong savings groups formed by inhabitants of informal settlements, consider setting up a City Fund to support grassroots initiatives, with the fund co-managed by these savings groups and their federations," wrote Satterthwaite.

- "Celebrate every successful community initiative," he noted, adding that members of other communities and local government should visit these initiatives. Representatives of the urban poor should also be encouraged to sit in key government committees.

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