While traditionally food provision was considered a rural (and not an urban) issue, this is changing. City planners, architects, school teachers, restaurant owners, NGOs and urban dwellers are eager to re-define the buzz around ‘local food’ – so local it may be grown on your roof, balcony, backyard or city park. (My balcony is full of carrots, tomatoes, beans, peas, radishes, peppers, spinach, salads, pumpkins, courgette, strawberries and a variety of herbs – I can barely wait for the summer sun to hit the European continent!)
Historically, the relationship between cities and their hinterland was strong, as Carolyn Steel points out in her book, the Hungry City. Cities like Amsterdam, London or Paris were dependent on grains, vegetables, fish or meat entering the city at different points; even today the names of certain streets or districts are distinguished by their former roles. With the invention of motorized transport, food could be shipped from further afield, severing a city’s link to its immediate periphery. Today, cities host food choices from across the globe; cultural restaurants, specialty stores and markets feed an increasingly diverse population with a nuanced pallet. While variety has benefits, it also has consequences – almost half of food is wasted, industrial agriculture has led to soil and biodiversity loss, as well as increased fossil fuel dependence (fertilizers, transport, etc.)
As a result, city planners now take food more seriously; in part because of several complex and interlinked issues: food pricing surges, food security concerns, climate change, land conflicts, rapid urbanization and health consequences (e.g. obesity). Cities are adopting urban food policies under the banners of public health, social justice or sustainability (keeping in mind a sense of ‘cosmopolitan localism’ combining locally-produced seasonal food together with fairly-traded global commodities). Toronto, New York, Seattle and San Francisco lead the way in North America, while London and Amsterdam push the charge in Europe.
In Amsterdam, the city’s food strategy has many objectives simultaneously: to re-connect the city to its regional hinterland for economic and ecological reasons, public procurement of local and regional organic food and a focus on healthy foods and lifestyles. The city also emphasizes urban agriculture in zoning plans, allotment gardens, school gardens and supporting citizen initiatives in the city – even setting up a local coordination office for urban agriculture. While linking a city to its regional hinterland remains important (as in Amsterdam); today’s urban agriculture trend is more infused with the urban landscape, finding creative ways of growing food on rooftops, windowsills, spare pavement or vacant lots.
It is not only the local authority that has an interest in local food, however. Many organizations collaborate to change the city’s food footprint. In Amsterdam, an organization appropriately called CITIES has a distinct focus on urban agriculture and urban/ rural linkages. They offer ‘food tours’ to explain the city’s historic food connections, map modern city farming efforts and host the Amsterdam Harvest Event, bringing local farmers and other local food initiatives together. Proef offers “pick your own lunches” in their restaurant’s garden. Cityplot offers workshops and guidance for blossoming urban farmers. Cityplot teamed up with ‘I can change the world with my two hands’ (another local urban agricultural initiative) to launch a new education garden. This education garden hosts workshops with garden beds dedicated to different farming methods, including: permaculture, biodynamic farming, seed saving, dye plants, wild herbs and edible flowers– all with an urban twist. Meanwhile, a local urban agricultural shop, called Access to Tools, just opened up in Amsterdam – selling (urban) farming equipment and soon, the city’s blossoming harvest.
These are just a few of many urban agricultural and food initiatives underway in Amsterdam. While the winter has been long this year on the European continent and the growing season only now underway, many of us are eager of what lies ahead! Want to know more about local food culture in Amsterdam? I often write about the subject on my own blog.