Whether it is Delhi or Drury, urban growth slamming up against highly productive food producing land is a challenge authorities around the world have to grapple with, and those in New Zealand are no exception.
Lincoln landscape architecture senior lecturer Dr Shannon Davis has led an Our Land and Water project that looks at the challenges of the “peri-urban” zone where town meets country, and ways to make better use of it.
Davis said if urban design has a twilight zone, then the peri-urban area where suburbs meet rural land is where it will be found.
However, rethinking this zone could provide a way to better integrate food production with residential dwelling areas, making the definition between the two less siloed and encouraging populations to stay connected to their food sources.
“The project has come out of a recognition that only about 4% of our soils are LUC 1 (best quality) and much of this land is around our urban centres, and risks being built over if we continue to expand urban areas the way we always have.”
She said the project has aimed to recognise that while food production is important, so too is finding places for people to live.
“It makes sense to try and harness the potential of the soil, but also its proximity to the population needing that food.”
Many of the issues that presently arise when urban meets rural are a result of urban dwellers butting against larger scale, monocultural, export-focused food producers. The resulting “reverse sensitivity” issues raised by the urban fringe include opposition to crop spraying, noise, smell, and general disruption.
Davis and her colleagues interviewed residents and farmers on the outskirts of Christchurch to get a better understanding of how the two groups interact. Perhaps surprisingly they found the urban residents were relatively tolerant of the rural activities around them, to a point.
“They were not happy, however, to tolerate activities like the use of sprays, the impact upon water quality and animal welfare impacts, but they liked to see the animals and enjoyed the seasonality of the farms.”
The ability to enjoy food grown “over the back fence” was a compelling attraction.
Davis and her team developed a spectrum of urban-rural land-use combinations to take to survey participants.
These ranged from a hardcore urban-rural divide model, through to the most favoured, which was a farm-based, publicly accessible and multi-functional greenbelt, with housing sitting in close proximity.
This model was focused on local small-scale farms supplying nearest the urban centre, with more conventional export-focused farms located outside the greenbelt.
The Māori philosophy of māra kai (food gardens) and mahinga kai (food landscapes, including food resources and their ecosystems, and the production, procurement, and protection of them) sit within the model’s approach to combining people and food production.
The concept of an “agri-hood” is becoming more prevalent in countries including the United States, with over 200 housing developments incorporating land cultivated either by the adjacent neighbourhood or a farming business, providing optimal green space for recreation that also serves as a food source.
Another interpretation of urban models that look to integrate food production back into city spaces is from the United Kingdom, where “continuous productive urban landscapes” create corridors of productive farmland through urban areas.
Davis said this is another step up from the natural corridors now more common in NZ that have been planted to link up bush areas for bird life.
She also points to Cornwell Park in Auckland as a good example of what can be achieved in combining an operating farm within an urban park. Earlier research done by her confirmed residents’ strong attachment to the farm, and their enjoyment in witnessing its seasonal rhythms and activities, including lambing and calving.
Davis’s place of work at Lincoln University places her at NZ’s ground zero for rapid urban expansion in the Selwyn District.
It is one of the country’s fastest growing districts, and she appreciates the challenges faced close to home. But despite the rapid rate of growth, she does not believe it is too late to combine some of the study’s findings.
“We held a Canterbury Mayoral Forum workshop on peri-urban planning recently, to look at options for the future. Not one of the mayors attending believed business as usual was the way forward for future urban growth, even those in the most rural of districts.”