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Food and urban change

By Juris Greste - posted Thursday, 26 November 2009

It is not the most obvious proposition to make but it could very well be that, indirectly, the cost and supply of food could drive changes to the way we live in cities and towns.

Consider this:

In 1900, 10 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today 50 per cent live in cities. In 2050, 75 per cent are expected to be living in cities. On top of that, there are likely to be another 3 billion people on the planet - another 50 per cent more!


What does all that mean? One thing it means is that fewer people are on the land producing food, while there are more people to feed. Food producing land is taken up by urban development. Furthermore, not only are we reducing the area under food production but fewer people want to farm because it is getting increasingly difficult. Add to that the effects of climate change which will not aid overall global food production. In all of human history, food has never been so cheap. One of the factors has been cheap and abundant fertilisers derived from oil. This cannot last for ever. 

Considering the changes in energy sources, carbon reduction, climate effects and population increase, it is unlikely that the production and availability of food will greatly increase. A more likely consequence is that food is going to cost more; energy is going to cost more; and we need to reduce the size of our carbon/ecological footprint which will impose further costs.

Here are some basic (rounded off) consumption statistics. The average Australian divides the household budget thus:

  • food - 15 per cent;
  • transport - 15 per cent;
  • housing to buy - 30 per cent; and
  • all other things - 40 per cent

The cost of housing does not include maintenance and energy costs.

The most important essentials in life are food and shelter. Even though Australia produces more food than it consumes, in a globalised world, our food prices will be determined by world markets.


If food and energy (for housing and transport) are likely to cost more, how do we balance the household budget and leave sufficient for the “other things”? Unless we greatly reduce spending on “other things”, we need to reduce the cost of housing and transport to pay for increased costs of food and energy. Where (and how) you live is going to affect all your other life costs (unless we all become super rich - and how likely is that?). These kind of cost savings are only possible with a conspicuous adjustment and transformation of the way we live in cities and towns. This is likely to be driven by the notion of proximity and the urban values and benefits that it can bring.

Certainly for at least the last 30 years, we have become addicted to the growth paradigm. From a city and town making perspective, this has meant that the pattern as well as form of urban change has been driven by the economics of construction and infrastructure development (like a string of beads of independent projects) instead of the more nuanced socioeconomic and urban ecological systems. This has meant urban spread and increasing travel distances.

Historically all of our cities have emerged, and for many years existed, as a clustering of small towns and villages. Their life depended on the proximity of synergy generating and co-located activities. While trade relationships between cities and towns obviously required transport, within the towns and cities themselves the need for travel and long distance movement was regarded as undesirable. Once the technologies for cheaper transport emerged, distance was not seen as a barrier or problem. Under the pressures to expand and grow, the good sense of older urbanism was overtaken by other forces.

As our own cities continue to grow and energy costs escalate, we need to recognise the values of the urbanism of years past. Instead of regarding Transport Oriented Development as the answer to contemporary urban growth and expansion, we need to look to develop the concept of proximities and concentration. I don’t want to suggest that the idea of proximity is a euphemism for the nasty label of density. However, in the context of all the major challenges that are facing us (and the rest of the world), the underlying drivers of city and town making have to be the notion of proximity and concentration. Proximity embraces the qualities of connectivity, variety and amenity - all essentials of a good urban place and liveability.

This is a radical reversal. However, to base urban growth on the basis of beating the transportation wicked problem is like putting city making on a treadmill. You expend a lot of energy but don’t get anywhere. In the longer term, if we value housing and adequate food, we need to moderate and rationalise our housing expectations generally so that we can reduce expenditure on energy and transport. This means putting the concept of proximities uppermost with the understanding that in the age of digital communication, proximity also takes on a meaning that is different from the past.

The growth of cities in the first place was enabled by greater efficiency of food production. All the indications are that the cost and availability of food will again transform cities - certainly in Australia - yet again.

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About the Author

Juris Greste is an urban designer with an architectural background and over 50 years of professional experience as a consultant. He has been a full time educator in architecture and urban design at QUT for about 12 years since 1977 and has continued teaching as a part time lecturer and contributor ever since. Juris has a Masters urban design qualification from Oxford Brookes University (with Distinction). He was an instigating member of the Urban Design Alliance of Queensland Inc - a multi-disciplinary association of built environment professional groups (and is its first Life Member); is the secretary of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies Qld. for the ninth year and recipient of the 2004 Year of the Built Environment exemplar award. In 2007 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) “For service to urban design, particularly through raising community awareness of the need for high quality and sustainable environments, to professional associations and to education.”

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