As we increasingly move into cities, bringing agriculture with us, the city is becoming an integrated landscape for both people and agriculture. City region food systems are coming into existence, reconnecting the city to its food sources and improving the building blocks of the food chain. With current (technological) developments, these systems will come to make up the foundation of the smart city of the future.
New technologies and methods have the potential to close the urban-rural gap and support city region food systems, from production to logistics, to delivery and consumption, and methods to close the loops and make the system circular.
First, growing and producing food is no longer something that happens outside of the city. Urban farming is rapidly growing. As we have written before, the growing of crops within the city could come to produce 10% of the global output of vegetable crops. Furthermore, the benefits of urban agriculture, such as energy savings and climate regulation, could amount to $80-160 billion annually. Urban farming can take place in various urban locations: outside in public spaces, outside on rooftops, and indoors with artificial light (LED), or without light. Potential forms of urban farming are horticulture (vegetables and fruit), poultry farming, pig farming, mushroom growing, hydroponics (vegetables), aquaponics (fish and vegetables), and honeybee keeping. Transforming existing leftover spaces can help to increase levels of urban food production. Not only are cities integrating urban agriculture into policy plans to increase city’s food security, supermarkets are also experimenting with urban farming, such as the Belgian retailer Delhaize. Currently, urban agriculture is capital and energy intensive. However, it has the potential for food savings, since resources are kept within the community and provide local economic wealth and ways to increase energy efficiency by using waste streams that have yet to be exploited.
Second, improvements can be made in logistics. This means that food chains could be shorter and more efficiently designed. Bottlenecks in getting food to the end consumer are often located at the last mile, and online supermarket models (such as Picnic) and smart, sustainable last-mile services (such as FoodLogica) seek to resolve these. In Paris, the multimodal logistics center of Chapelle International (42,000 m²) was created to facilitate the mass delivery of goods to the heart of Paris by train. Clean vehicles are then used to distribute the goods in local neighborhoods. The result is a decrease in environmental impacts such as noise, pollutants, and emissions of greenhouse gases.
The third building block of the food chain that could be organized in a smarter way is that of retail and delivery. Cities can learn from tech companies that are teaming up with supermarkets and restaurants to increase their offer and get a foothold in offline food sales, such as Amazon and Tencent. Local producers and restaurants could organize their own platform and tap into the increasing demand for fresh and local products, short-chain food delivery and transparency about the origin of food products. Online platforms for the sale and delivery of agricultural products are on the rise (a Dutch example is Hallo Boer). Meal delivery is booming, especially among young generations. In terms of investment, food delivery is already second on the list of leading urban-tech sectors for 2016-2018.
Finally, creating circular systems could enable the creation of more loops within a city region food system. Almost all urban areas experience high levels of food waste — and this is increasing. It is estimated that actions to reduce food loss and waste yield high cost-benefit ratios for municipalities, households and private food companies. For every £1 invested by London boroughs to reduce household food waste, £8 were saved. Waste is no more than residual flows that are valuable. Cities such as San Francisco are attempting to turn food waste into compost. Rotterdam is building a high-tech circular floating farm, using waste streams to feed its cows.
By innovating the different building blocks of the food chain, we can connect local supply and demand in the city region, thus increasing the food security of the city by making it more self-sufficient and benefiting the local economy.