The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for cities to protect food-producing areas on the urban fringe to avoid the risk of future shortages, RMIT urban experts have warned.

A quarter of Australia’s agricultural production comes from land on city fringes, which is already under increasing threat from urban sprawl.

The disruption of global supply chains during the coronavirus pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability of cities to sudden shocks to food systems that depend on long distance travel.

The shipping industry, which plays a key role in the complex global web of food supply, is currently experiencing slowdowns due to port closures and other logistical hurdles that could further disrupt supply chains if the pandemic persists.

In their new book, The Future of the Fringe: The Crisis in Peri-Urban Planning, urban researchers emeritus professor Michael Buxton and associate professor Andrew Butt argue that rural land within 150km of city edges is essential for human survival this century.

“In this pandemic, both food production and supply chains have proved increasingly vulnerable,” Buxton says. 

“Dependency on international and interstate food assumes that stable conditions will continue, but long and complex supply chains can be disastrous in a crisis.”

“Our peri-urban areas are an advantage because of their proximity to urban markets, efficient transport systems and access to labour, allowing reliable food delivery to cities.”

“Cities that protect their peri-urban areas are best able to survive the inevitable and more severe crises this century.”

The new book explores the history of peri-urban areas in Australia and internationally.

Buxton and Butt, from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, argue the loss of productive land around cities is an increasing threat to humanity, with 84 percent of losses this century expected in Asia and Africa, and significant losses also in North America.

The authors argue for a precautionary approach to planning on the urban fringe to keep all options of adaptation open during rapid and unprecedented change.

They point to the many regions internationally increasing their reliance on local food sources.

“Governments must learn from the current crisis to retain, protect and recognise these vital areas as a buffer against increasing volatility in national and global food supply and sudden shocks to supply systems,” says Butt.

The Future of the Fringe: The Crisis in Peri-Urban Planning is now available via CSIRO Publishing. 

Image: Camden History Notes