We can’t build better cities without improving nutrition

Nutrition and food security have long been separated from urban development. If we are to face the challenges of the fast-urbanizing future, Habitat III must start to integrate these lines of thinking.

A woman works among the 15 types of vegetables growing in her kitchen garden on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia. (David Mercado/Reuters/Landov)

Nutrition and city planning have more in common than we typically think. The world’s poor are rapidly urbanizing, with 100,000 people moving into a slum every day. These urban poor are spending up to 70 percent of their income on food, making this a key aspect of daily urban life.

Furthermore, good nutrition is linked with a healthier, smarter and more productive population. Cities have acknowledged that a healthy society is not only essential for their economy but also for a peaceful, enjoyable life. In order to build better cities, city leaders must also recognize the importance of building sustainable access to nutritious foods.

Good nutrition is now one of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — SDG 2. This is because almost every country in the world has problems of malnutrition, both in terms of undernutrition (stunting) and overnutrition (obesity). A quarter of the globe does not get the right amount of vitamins and minerals needed to lead a healthy life and reach their full potential.

Current projections show that fewer people will live in rural areas by 2030, while urban populations will reach 5 billion. This means that fewer people will be producing food while more people will be demanding it. The question, then, is obvious: How will we ensure that 5 billion people living in cities will have access to nutritious foods?

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Recognizing these challenges could not come at a more opportune time, as we are arriving at an important milestone that could set the stage for future solutions in answering this question. The international community will gather to discuss urbanization strategy for the first time in 20 years at Habitat III in October 2016, where they will seek to formulate the New Urban Agenda, a two-decade strategy on urbanization.

Habitat III will also be the first major U. N. conference following the start of implementation of the SDGs, in January. That framework has already highlighted both nutrition and urbanization as key priorities, in Goal 2 and Goal 11, the urban SDG.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

It is therefore critical that the New Urban Agenda highlights the importance of nutrition and food systems, integrating these issues throughout its framework. At the moment, food systems are properly discussed only in the theme of rural-urban linkages, while nutrition is barely mentioned.

Nutrition will need to be a vital component in nearly all of the New Urban Agenda’s key topics. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Urban infrastructure

Today, the Habitat III discussion on infrastructure in the context of nutritious food systems appears to be focused solely on connecting cities to rural areas. However, we need to recognize that basic services, informal settlements, transport and energy use in cities all have important linkages with food systems.

[See: The SDGs will not be achieved without local financing]

For example, heavy traffic can increase food waste. This increases the price of food, thus disadvantaging poor consumers from accessing more expensive but nutritious perishable foods.

“At the moment, food systems are properly discussed only in the Habitat III theme on rural-urban linkages, while nutrition is barely mentioned.”

Likewise, lead poisoning in young children resulting from the use of gasoline is common among iron-deficient anaemic children. This is because lead and iron compete for the same biological receptors.

Sanitation and food-safety measures are also affected by poor housing conditions. Bad sanitation and water systems can lead to conditions such as diarrhoea, for instance, thus reducing nutrient uptake.

Urban economy

Recent studies have shown that the first 1,000 days of life — from conception through a child’s first two years — are a critical time frame, often determining whether children will develop their full potential. This is reflected in their height.

Considering that 60 percent of urban dwellers will be under the age of 18 by 2030, it is imperative that we act now to make sure they are not disadvantaged in life as a result of early malnutrition. Spending just USD 1 on improving nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can lead to an average return of USD 45 (and up to USD 166), according to some estimates.

Improving nutrition can thus increase urban economic growth. But we need to make moves to ensure the youths of the future are not left behind.

Social cohesion and equity

Although urban areas are often associated with better nutrition rates than rural areas, the urban poor are still vulnerable, particularly because of high inequity in cities.

The urban poor are often completely reliant on markets, and the majority live in overcrowded slums. In cities, the poorest 20 percent have under-five mortality rates more than twice those of wealthier urban groups. Improving nutrition could play a significant role in reducing both these rates and economic inequality.

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

Furthermore, there is good reason for city administrators to see food as a key element in social cohesion. In 2008, when the world saw a dramatic increase in food prices, the urban poor were disproportionately affected by the crisis. This led to demonstrations and instability in many cities.

Urban ecology and environment

A critical strategy of good nutrition is to increase the availability of a more diverse diet to the global population. However, it remains intensely debated whether doing so is environmentally sustainable.

In order to effectively address climate change, it is clear that we must make food systems more sustainable. At the same time, if we can’t provide the urban poor with a more diversified diet, public health costs will increase as a result of a higher prevalence of obesity. Urban dwellers, after all, tend to consume more processed food with high fat, sugar and salt content.

Urban frameworks

As noted earlier, it is imperative that urban policy around the world begins to integrate nutrition and food-system analyses throughout its plans. The New Urban Agenda recognizes that each type of city, from mega to small, must be analyzed separately, and such an approach identifies various access points by which to improve urban food systems.

In megacities, for example, investments in shorter supply chains and technological innovations such as vertical farms and hydroponics can increase the supply of perishable nutritious crops such as fruits and vegetables.

The fastest-growing agglomerations, however, are small and medium-sized cities. The world doesn’t have much time to ensure that these cities grow in a more sustainable manner than larger cities. Nonetheless, several studies (see here and here) have shown that medium-sized cities have great potential to reduce income inequality. In Indonesia, for example, the poorest 20 percent living in medium-sized cities were more likely to own a refrigerator than in either smaller or larger cities.

[See: Will the liveability of intermediate cities lead to megacity problems?]

In the past, nutrition and food security have been separated from urban development as standalone issues. Yet we will never be able to face the challenges of the fast-urbanizing future if we don’t start integrating these lines of thinking and create new, innovative, mutually beneficial solutions today.

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Sunniva Bloem

Sunniva Bloem is a junior associate at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in London. She holds a BA in economics from Barnard College, Columbia University, and an Msc in development studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has previously worked for Helen Keller International, the Women’s Refugee Commission and the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Her work has allowed her to live in an array of global cities including Phnom Penh, New York, Manila, Geneva and London. She is passionate about urban development, particularly in emerging markets.