Understanding urban–rural linkages to boost the resilience of hungry cities

Photo: IWMI

A landscape approach to understanding how food systems supply urban settlements helps increase resilience to shocks such as extreme weather events and global pandemics.


Eighty percent of the food produced across the world goes to urban settlements, home to over half of the global population. The question of how their food systems work – and how they cease to do so when disrupted by natural disasters is thus a vital one. In Colombo, for example, the May 2016 cyclone disrupted the food chain so severely that crucially important fish supplies dropped by 75%, while the prices that urban dwellers had to pay for fish, rice, coconut and vegetables rose by 50% to 100%. The COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns had similar consequences of supply chain disruptions and food price spikes.


Urban and peri-urban agriculture have long been neglected as a significant contributor to food production, but in a first global assessment, WLE-supported researchers found that 456 million hectares of land are being farmed in proximity to towns and cities, including 67 million hectares in open spaces within the urban core. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the value of urban agriculture – with many growing crops in their backyards, private companies and governments investing in vertical farming and others working on solutions to support the use of irrigation with domestic and industrial wastewater.

However, urban farming is under pressure from limited official recognition, urban pollution and rising land prices, and it is not a panacea to urban food insecurity, as cities depend on many supply channels. A landscape approach can improve understanding of urban–rural value chains and the challenges posed to urban food supplies by unexpected events.

WLE’s work in Sri Lanka and in West Africa has mapped food supply in the rural–urban continuum to document the resilience of food systems supplying urban centers. Although significant proportions of perishable food production (e.g. leafy vegetables) take place in or near cities, ‘food sheds’ for calorie-heavy staple foods such as grains reach deep into the countryside. When these networks of supply are disrupted, their resilience can be assessed by how quickly traders can adapt and source alternate food sheds. Compared to climate-related shocks, lockdowns pose a much larger challenge as food prices go up just as the daily incomes of poor people are going down.

With WLE support, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the RUAF Global Partnership on Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Food Systems to develop and apply a city region food systems (CRFS) approach, with WLE-led case studies in Tamale, Ghana and Colombo. IWMI has also contributed to the understanding of the dynamics of urban croplands and rural–urban food flows in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Bamako (Mali), Bamenda (Cameroon) and Accra (Ghana) under the GlobE initiative.

A new portrait of urban farming (source: adapated from Thebo et al. 2014)


The research that underpins approaches such as the CRFS analysis helps mainstream climate and pandemic risk management into food systems. By understanding challenges in food supply chains, policymakers can better identify geographical bottlenecks, respond to them and increase urban resilience to external shocks. The CRFS program has made a significant contribution to FAO’s work to enhance food and nutrition security in urban and peri-urban areas, and helps many of the world’s major cities improve and monitor their urban food systems under the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.

Next steps

The United Nations Food Systems Summit – including lead-up events such as the Global Summit Dialogue that highlight the role of cities – aims, through Action Track 5, to build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress. Growing cities are hungry cities, with major socio-economic and environmental impacts on the geographical regions within which they are embedded. Agricultural policy and practices should therefore be integrated with urban governance, for example in reconciling the needs of domestic and agricultural water users. Better understanding the nature of urban farming at global and regional scales will support better decisions on urban policy and planning.


Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplandsAtlas of West African urban food systemsFAO City Region Food Systems Programme

SDGs supported

End poverty in all its forms everywhere End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

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