Getting our cities right: from critical urbanities to sustainable foodscapes

Last changed: 08 March 2023

On 14th June 2022 SLU Urban Futures brought together international researchers and practitioners to explore critical urban research and research on sustainable foodscapes.

“The future of our planet depends on getting our cities right”

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat


This day conference took the ‘urban’ goal, SDG 11, as a portal to understanding the interconnected social, economic and environmental challenges we face at an international, regional and local level; and a docking station for connecting to the other SDG areas to envision how we facilitate transformative change. Since our ever-growing urban areas are both responsible for the sustainability problems we face as a global community, as well as powerhouses for change, the conference therefore asked: How do we get our cities right?

Launch of dossier

The day began with the launch of SLU Urban Futures’ dossier, Urban Disturbance: From times of upheaval to spaces for change, published in Scape international magazine of landscape architecture and urbanism #18. The dossier contains a collection of articles that distil and reflect upon the urban impacts of covid, critically engaging with the spatial and social changes cities underwent over the last two years.

The pieces framed the themes of the day, positioning the city as a site of contrasts, where social and cultural practices, inequalities and socio-spatial change are experienced differently across the world; and where different people and places respond to change in diverse ways. Not only does the dossier reflect lessons from Covid but also explores the emergence of new urban visions and imaginaries, requiring new values, relationships, policies and practices..

Two keynote session

These urban questions were reflected in the topics raised by the speakers in the two keynote sessions, which among various themes, explored: urban development and social-spatial change; power, participation and emancipatory practices; food security and social inequality; urban food planning; design; and sustainable food production and consumption.

Watch the recorded interviews with four of the keynote speakers at the conference answering the question: How do we get our cities right.

Further down on this page you find summaries of each presentation.
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Keynote #1: Critical urbanities: Negotiating urban space in times of change

Urbanities refers to the quality or state of being urban, which is multiple, diverse, ever-emergent and iterated. Critical urbanities are about recognizing and engaging with complexity and the ever-changing nature of the urban both in thinking and doing. This keynote session brought together speakers to exemplify socio-spatial relations in our cities, that is the connection between the physical and geographical context of our urban areas and the people, communities and cultures that characterize and shape these places, emphasizing how urban and social change occur hand-in-hand. Critical perspectives on urban development can help us to distil, understand and negotiate processes of change in cities and the values and principles underpinning the relationship between people and place.

Architecture and urbanism: connecting marginalised urban communities

In his keynote address, Flavio Janches, Professor of Urban Design at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, asked: Whose city is it? The lecture reflected upon the process of stigmatization and marginalization in the formation of urban slums in Buenos Aires, which has contributed to and continues to contribute to the fragmentation of the city. The presentation highlighted how the socio-spatial divide running across social, ethnic, and class lines in Buenos Aires requires different ways of thinking and doing to renegotiate urban space.

Flavio lifted design-thinking and the process of design as a political experience. In his projects, he has engaged urban slum residents in design as a tactical action, which focuses “unsluming” users' own capacity for development. In other words, creating place-based and culturally appropriate community processes for participation in urban design processes. The objectives of his design projects are to improve social and physical integration, by creating opportunities to interconnect and interact through a network of public places made up of spaces for community activities, infrastructures and flows. Flavio exemplified the possibilities of architecture and urbanism to provide solutions to segregation and marginalisation of urban slums from urban life, where design solutions can help get our cities right.

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Urban commoning as emancipatory practice

Can public and community gardens lead to changes in the way we envisage urban development and lead to structural change in our cities? Nathalie Bergame explored urban gardens in Stockholm as spaces of care and community and critically discussed their emancipatory potential. The presentation highlighted that urban spaces are bound by structures, both physical and non-physical. Social inequalities, which to some extent determine how people experience and use the city, are held in place by structures of power that are socially reproduced over time.

Nathalie’s research looks at commoning, which are practices of collaborating and sharing to meet everyday needs and achieve well-being, of individuals, communities and lived-in environments. As such, Nathalie’s presentation explored the socio-spatial relations in urban gardens in Stockholm, how and by whom public space is produced through gardening in common; and how structure and agency of commoners are transformed and reproduced through commoning practices, critically reflecting upon who is excluded in the production of public space.

The presentation continued the theme of socio-spatial justice, further questioning ‘whose city is it?’ Nathalie’s research exemplified how common space is negotiated in times of change, highlighting that the urban gardening commoning movement in Stockholm is largely a middle-class green lifestyle rather than a resistance movement of socially disadvantaged groups. Paradoxically, the new urban commons may unconsciously alienate marginalized social groups that don’t fit with the spatial and civic order of gardening, rather than acting as a site with emancipatory qualities.

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The dilemma of expertise: dialogues on urban development

Moving towards a different perspective on socio-spatial relations, Martin Westin zoomed in on planning practices of urban planners, highlighting the tensions between different ways of knowing when it comes to visions of urban spaces. In his presentation, he shared examples from his research project dialogues in governance for sustainability, which explores power and authority in dialogue of participatory planning.

Martin expressed that policymakers and scholars argue that broad participation can revitalise democracy and tackle sustainability challenges. However, power asymmetries between expert knowledge and local ways of knowing may conflict and stand in the way of realising the potential of participatory planning. In the everyday practices of planning, where planners interact with citizens, politicians and developers around making choices about places and societies, planners’ practices are contested and they are challenged by the complexity of power relations. Martin highlighted that planners require conceptual tools to critically reflect on what power is and when it is legitimate; and when they can legitimately use their expertise. He argues that reflective practice is a prerequisite for making situated judgements under conditions of contestation, balancing the pendulum between authority and dialogue.

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Everyday food security: place-making through community organising

In her keynote address, Megan Blake from Sheffield University highlighted how place is shaped by food. The lecture focused on the social aspects of food that are part of the human experience, emphasizing a socio-spatial approach to food that goes beyond ‘calorie and commercial’ aspects of food security to understanding food’s capacity to bring people and places together.

Set within the context of neoliberalism and austerity in the UK, where profit is prioritized over other values like social capital and community cohesion, Megan explained that there has been a hollowing-out of local food environments, significantly changing the relationship between food, people and place. Due to cuts in local authority budgets, reduction in welfare support and labour market changes, people and communities have been left increasingly vulnerable to external shocks, most recently soaring food and fuel prices and increased cost of living.

Megan illustrated through her innovative project Food Ladders, that multi-scaled solutions are needed to address food security, which works with local responses that centre on community-based resilience by improving the landscape of food support. The food ladders approach capitalizes on the capacity of food to bring people together and develops different levels of intervention to prevent people from falling into food vulnerability. Crucially, this perspective not only improves people’s access to safe and nutritious food within their communities but also works with people’s ability to utilize food to create social capital. This perspective takes a community-building approach that helps shape people’s relationships with food, people’s relationships with each other, and a stronger connection to their food environments. Similarly, Megan’s more than just food project, connecting food, people and place, emphasizes that developing food skills, building trust and social capital; and creating opportunities to engage and participate in the community are equally important for transforming food vulnerable places into sustainable foodscapes.

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Keynote #2 - The city as a change-maker for sustainable foodscapes

Getting food systems right is integral to achieving healthy and sustainable cities. Food interconnects and intersects many SDGs. The land, water and natural resources required for production, the infrastructure and transport required for processing and distribution, the human resources as labour, as well as the waste created from mass urban consumption create a complex interaction of social, environment and economic problems. A vast majority of food is consumed in our ever growing urban areas, meaning that understanding how to make food systems sustainable is particularly vital in achieving sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11). 

This keynote session focused on cities as change-makers for sustainable foodscapes, bringing speakers together to demonstrate how food, people and place interact. Foodscapes refers to the places and spaces where you acquire food, prepare food, talk about food, and gather meaning from food. The term brings together the words ‘food’ and ‘landscape’, which stresses the spatiality of food systems but also the ecological and social relations of food production, distribution and consumption, which are embedded in political and cultural contexts. Foodscape as a term can therefore broaden the way we look at food and our food environments by crossing and connecting disciplinary approaches to allow the complexity of food and food relationships to be understood.

The rise of urban food planning

The food system has been a stranger to the planning field up until the last few decades but has recently been moving up the political agenda. In his keynote address, Kevin Morgan, Professor of Governance and Development at Cardiff University, illustrated the drivers of change and the rise of urban food policy in different contexts around the world. Food security, the dual challenge of obesity and hunger, and the knowledge that the food chain contributes significantly to environmental degradation and climate change have led to a conceptual shift in the way we view the connection between urban development and the food system. Kevin highlighted that we now understand that food can be a planning prism for land, water, energy, transport, public health and social justice, and contributes immensely to urban resilience.

Through examples from around the world, Kevin illustrated that the emergence of new urban food policy actors has opened up more holistic ways to view food, increasingly looking at the connection between food, health and sustainability in urban planning. New York, Seattle and Toronto have been trailblazers in the early days of food planning, establishing Food Policy Councils that bring together stakeholders from diverse community sectors to examine how well the current local food system is working for people's health and well-being, and then co-developing policy recommendations to improve it. In African cities, planners are beginning to recognize the legitimacy of urban agriculture and the essential role of street vendors in food policy. Rome has revolutionized public school meals by ensuring quality food for all; and Bristol has focused on nurturing food culture as a way to ensure people and planet are taken care of.

Urban Food Planning, regardless of the context, has interwoven food with the way we plan and design our cities, integrating aspects throughout the food chain from production, processing, distribution, and consumption to waste management. Whatever the city and whatever the focus of local food agendas, Kevin’s presentation demonstrated that food politics appears to be in transition. The emergence of the municipality as a local food actor working in collaboration with civil society, local stakeholders and citizen signifies the necessity to develop local solutions to local needs and circumstances. Kevin’s presentation questions whether this democratic turn in urban food planning translates into a healthier, more sustainable, and more just food system?

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Urban space, participatory design, and the cultivation of food

Carolin Mees illustrated the development of the community food movement in New York from the perspective of landscape architecture and urban design, pointing to conflicts that led to changes in shared land use. In New York, there is a great variety of urban agriculture in low-income areas, which emerged during the economic crisis of the 1970s as public land became available due to housing abandonment. In her presentation, Carolin highlighted how this available public land was taken on by communities to produce food, create social bonds and community, and make these areas livable for largely low-income and ethnic minority communities.

The predominantly grassroots and informal community garden activities evolved into formalized neighbourhood groups as communities took on the local government and private actors that sought to erase these green spaces in favour of urban development. The case demonstrates the importance of urban green space for urban citizens, especially for ensuring the right to the city for low-income residents. However, it is a double-edged sword, because as neighbourhoods become more attractive because of green space and low crime, they also become gentrified, pushing out low-income and ethnic minority groups.

Through protest and community engagement, however, urban garden groups gained the support of the local government under the GreenThumb initiative in 1978, formalizing their right to urban green space in the city. It is a stark example of how community engagement led to changes in the way new urban development was done; instead of removing gardens to build houses, planners built houses around the gardens.

Through her urban design work, Carolin demonstrated how design can be used as a tool to support urban gardening communities. Her architectural firm, Mees Architecture, developed a design for a Criollo (a garden shed), which satisfied the regulatory guidelines of local government but also was culturally appropriate and owned by local communities.  

The Urban Agriculture Machine, a low-cost aquaponics farm for public gardens, is a further example of how design can be used to meet social, economic and environmental needs. Forming part of community-supported agriculture projects, the installation is often situated in food deserts and teaches communities about food security and how to grow fish and vegetables in a sustainable way. Carolin’s participatory approach to design for public spaces demonstrates how design can support community engagement with food production and help create sustainable foodscapes that connect people, place and food.

Urban Agriculture Machine - A low-cost aquaponic farm for public gardens in New York CityFact sheet about Urban Agriculture Machine.

The emergence of the municipality as an urban food actor

The municipality has emerged as a key food systems actor in recent decades, as cities rise to the challenge of creating healthy and sustainable urban food systems. The municipality is an important local actor that has multiple levers at its disposal to directly change the food system, as well as influence through local policy-making.

Sara Seing from Södertälje Municipality in Sweden presented one such policy lever at the conference, public meals. The municipality uses the power of purchase as a way to push the local food system in a more healthy and sustainable direction. By sourcing food from local producers that use sustainable methods, the municipality can increase the consumption of this produce by incorporating it into public meals. Södertälje aims to have tasty, local and seasonal food that is low in animal produce and low in waste.

Sara works with Södertälje municipality through their regional development node, MatLust, which supports the development of local food enterprises in the Stockholm region. Through the levers of procurement and business support, Södertälje municipality is brokering change towards a more sustainable regional food system by improving the conditions to produce local and sustainable food, as well as increasing the percentage of this food in people’s diets.

At the city of Gothenburg, Kristina Fermskog works with a different food system perspective, the circular economy perspective for a sustainable food system. By taking account of the whole value chain of food, the municipality can quantify the resources needed to increase local food production and consumption. In her presentation, Kristina emphasised that within a 10-year period, Gothenburg has the potential to achieve 40% of local production per year, which will reduce emissions by around 75,000 tonnes per year, whilst creating 5000 job opportunities. Kristina outlined that to get our cities right, we need to take a holistic approach to the local food system, which includes not only considering environmental factors like sustainable production and climate impacts but the social and environmental consequences of improving our food system.

Whilst both municipalities shared examples of some levers local government has at its disposal to create sustainable foodscapes, both Sara and Kristina demonstrated that the municipality has a lot more at its disposal to create healthy, fair and sustainable food systems by engaging with people and place.

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Local and sustainable food production for food system change

How can we raise a green initiative in a short time with low costs that can still affect our food system and contribute to a faster change and a more sustainable future for our society? This is the question Pascal Letter works within his role as project leader for Stadsbruk Roslagen. Through his project, his team takes land close to urban centres and turns it into land for ecological and sustainable food production.

In his presentation, Pascal emphasized that increased local production and consumption of sustainable food can help cities reduce their impact on the environment. The development of local food systems does not only re-connect the urban and the rural through food production but also works to re-integrate people with place through food. Pascal presented his model of collaboration, which focuses on engaging civil society, local companies and the municipality to support the development of skills, resources and local agricultural production. Local knowledge and local people are central to Pascal’s vision of sustainable foodscapes, where food is not just something we eat but something that creates social bonds and community connections.

Pascal illustrated how he works with the establishment of what he calls a ‘green incubator’, which helps support the development of knowledge, skills and business innovation. Supporting green entrepreneurship (people with innovative business ideas for local and sustainable production) is key to the flourishing of local food businesses that can help transition local food production and consumption.

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Regenerative urban agriculture and the relational ethic of care

Ultuna Permakultur is a community garden located on SLU’s campus, which uses principles of regenerative agriculture to produce food and create community. In his presentation, Max Whitman, founder and chairman of Ultuna Permakultur, highlighted how through the organizational and production principles of his organization, they work to challenge mainstream ideas in areas of urban planning, agriculture and all-round sustainability thinking. Max illustrated how focusing on long-term holistic thinking underpinned by integrating human and ecological systems can help us create an ethic of care for the world we live in.

Here, local and sustainable agricultural production is not only about the production of food on urban land but is also about bringing people together and bringing people closer to the land. Through this organization, Max works for creating seasonal and local food, biological diversity, and community bonds that can help us rethink the fundamental principles of the food system. He summarized the day by calling for a move from an exhaustive and exploitative model of food production to a model based on principles of care and sustainability. 

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If you are interested in the presentations shared by the keynote speakers during the conference, please contact

Getting our Cities Right #2 - Alnarp, October 2022

The second event in this conference sequence took place at Alnarp Campus on 5-6 October 2022
>> Learn more here!

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