In September 2020, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched the Green Cities Initiative, a program that aims to build more resilient urban and peri-urban communities throughout the world. The FAO is aiming for this initiative to improve social, economic and environmental resilience in 1,000 cities by 2030.
The Urban Boom
The World Bank reports that 4.4 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, currently live in cities, a number on track to more than double by 2050. In the coming years, urban and peri-urban areas will need to respond to increased pressures on infrastructure, affordable housing and transportation systems. These areas will also need to create employment opportunities for a broadening pool of job seekers. With conscious investments in green infrastructure, reforestation and sustainable food systems, cities can increase their resilience in the face of extreme weather while also creating jobs in the process.
An Airborne Warning
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the already grim relationship between health and poverty in urban areas. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (U.N.-Habitat) reports that health risks are already high for urban populations without access to basic necessities like clean air and water, adequate housing and waste management. These conditions aggravate existing inequalities, resulting in inequitable health and economic outcomes.
Globally, the pandemic and its associated economic devastation are increasing inequality and eroding the progress made on numerous Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the FAO, supply chain disruptions, particularly in food systems, and unprecedented demands on hygiene-related resources and services expose the need for city stakeholders to reimagine and rethink the future of their urban systems.
Building Urban Resilience
The Green Cities Initiative is a unique opportunity to take action on hard lessons learned from these ongoing health and environmental crises. Through site-specific strategies that ensure access to green spaces and nutritious foods, strengthen urban and rural connectivity and provide investments in green infrastructure, the Green Cities Initiative takes a holistic approach to human and planetary wellness.
As of November 2022, 80 cities are participating in the Initiative, including Tunisia’s capital of Tunis, Italy’s Bologna, Kenya’s Nairobi and Sri Lanka’s Colombo city. Here are three examples of programs FAO implemented alongside non-governmental and governmental groups in partnership with the Green Cities Initiative:
- The Initiative helped reforest at least 1.6 hectares of mangrove forests in Quelimane, Mozambique, a project that mitigated flooding risk in the coastal city.
- In Nairobi, Kenya, an initiative tackled the city’s prevalent food waste, lowering the amount of rotten and unsold produce that vendors leave behind or that people otherwise lose between production and consumption. Some measures included introducing technology and techniques for composting and “biogas digesters,” which turn produce into fuel.
- Training for women working as street food vendors in Kisumu, Kenya, gave participants business-generating skills and created a ripple effect of positive hygiene and business practices in the city.
A Focus on Poverty
While the Green Cities Initiative is most obviously environmentally focused, the Initiative works to address poverty in a few unique ways, including:
- Strengthening urban and rural connectivity. Though most of the world’s impoverished populations reside in rural areas, the FAO focuses on the fact that the majority do not live far from a city. By strengthening connections between rural and urban communities, (particularly via food processing and distribution industries) the FAO aims to create jobs and bolster the overall economy of a given region, thereby reducing poverty and poverty-induced migration.
- Mitigating environmental catastrophe. Environmental risks associated with extreme weather are elevated in high-density urban areas, manifesting in loss of life and economic shocks. Creating resiliency through green spaces and green infrastructure mitigates such risks and their disproportionate impacts on impoverished residents.
- Building healthy, sustainable food systems. Impoverished residents of urban areas, particularly those living in congested areas or informal settlements, often lack access to clean air, running water and healthy, affordable food. To curb the resulting prevalence of “nutrition-related and non-communicable diseases,” the Initiative aims to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious and urban-grown foods. Tackling food, water and agricultural waste is also a focus, with the Initiative pushing for circular economies overall.
Supporting Local Governments
In February 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that Africa was home to the 15 fastest-growing cities in the world. Across many regions of the continent, the climate crisis already applies particular pressure, namely in the form of an influx of climate migrants in search of stable incomes. In the coming years, urban communities of all sizes will need systems in place to adapt to, prepare for and respond to economic, social and environmental shocks. The Green Cities Initiative, by supporting “local governments in mainstreaming agriculture, food systems and green spaces in local policy, planning and actions,” offers one pathway toward global stability and sustainability.
– Hannah Carrigan