The newly found charm of the Aree Interne: left-behind places or places of the future?

The newly found charm of the Aree Interne: left-behind places or places of the future?

Growing up and going through my teenage years in a small village in Northern Italy, I often felt trapped, too distant from the places where everything seemed to be happening. Life was going on in the city, and I was always a too long commute away from it. Years later, as the lockdown froze many of us in unexpected circumstances and living arrangements, I found myself back in the same village I had been trying to escape for years. But things felt a bit different this time. As the city turned into a silent concrete body, devoid of all the social and cultural life that made it so appealing, the ‘boring’ countryside began instead to feel like an idyllic location, with its greenery and outdoor spaces that made isolation seem a bit more bearable.

This change in perspective wasn’t peculiar to my own life, but came instead at the centre of public discourse through the words of well-known architects, politicians and journalists, who began to emphasise the potential that the remote and isolated areas of the country have to be at the forefront in shaping the post-pandemic future. In particular, the words of archistar Stefano Boeri were often invoked in the past few weeks. The architect, known for his projects focused on sustainability and urban reforestation, reflected on how the pandemic influenced our living choices and urged many of us to leave the city to find refuge in scarcely populated villages. According to Boeri, this trend should be seen as an important opportunity for the country to rethink its urban development patterns and to save those areas that are today nearly abandoned. Along the same lines, many observers saw this crisis as a much-needed occasion to rethink tourism, reducing the pressure of over-tourism on cities and promoting new out of the beaten path experiences that could be beneficial for more remote locations. 

Staffa, Macugnaga, Monte Rosa. Source: Author

But aside from temporarily coming under the spotlight, in Italy the question of how to deal with marginal and fragile areas, better known as aree interne (inner areas), is one that for too long has been left out from public debate and political agendas. The past decades were characterised by an urban-centred approach to development, which led to a concentration of wealth, resources and services in few urban areas, resulting in deep territorial inequalities. As public and private investments kept flowing towards cities, the aree interne – corresponding to 60% of the national territory and inhabited by almost a quarter of the country’s population – remained untended. Local development mostly took the form of residual or compensative policies, always too unsystematic and fragmented to actually revert the trends of impoverishment and depopulation that came to be associated to the aree interne.

If we broaden our geographic focus, we discover that the issue of territorial disparity is not peculiar to the Italian context. Indeed, in most countries around the world it is possible to observe a similarly stark divide between few attractive cities on one side and a multitude of small peripheral towns and villages on the other side. Experts even coined the expressions ‘left-behind places’ and ‘places that don’t matter’ to refer to those areas that are excluded from an increasingly tight network of global cities. As stressed by Filippo Tantillo, expert of territorial development, the European inner areas have a lot in common and are characterised by the same dynamics, to the point that ‘Blanca, in Spain, is more similar to Faeto, in Puglia than it is to Madrid’. Indeed, in spite of being diverse in terms of geographical conformation, history and local culture, such areas share a common fragility, determined by the scarcity of services and opportunities that is slowly causing their decay.

 In an attempt to close this gap, the European Union has been addressing the issue of territorial disparity through its cohesion policy. While the focus on European regional development is not new, the past few years saw an important evolution in the way cohesion is conceived and implemented. Indeed, a debate arose regarding the need to develop a place-based and place-sensitive approach to tackle territorial inequalities, both among member countries and within each of them. This approach was introduced during the last budget period, and will be put to further test through the 2021-2027 cohesion policy, which states among its aims that of ‘supporting locally-led development strategies’.

Staffa, Macugnaga, Monte Rosa. Source: Author

Among the promotors of this paradigm shift was Fabrizio Barca, former Minister for Territorial Cohesion, who was also behind the development of the Italian National Strategy for Inner Areas (SNAI) launched in 2014. A joint effort bringing together the Agency for Territorial Cohesion, several Ministries and all levels of government from national to local, the strategy has an ambitious goal. It aims to revert the trends of depopulation, impoverishment and isolation that came to characterise the inner areas as a consequence of decades of neglect. It sets out to do so in two ways: on one side it focuses on improving the offer of essential public services that are often lacking in marginal areas, while on the other side it promotes place-based solutions to place-specific issues, involving in the process local stakeholders, communities and policymakers.

A few years after the launch of the Strategy, it is still too early to fully assess the effects of the policy. However, it is possible to take stock of the first achievements, as the SNAI experts Fabrizio Barca, Filippo Tantillo and Giovanni Carrosio do in this conversation. In the first place, the Strategy has the merit of having brought inner areas back into the political debate after years of neglect. Together with this, it produced an important change in the way such areas are perceived, both by their inhabitants and by policy makers. It reactivated the energies existing on the territories by enabling local actors to actually have a space to present and discuss their ideas and to access the resources needed to develop their projects. Furthermore, the SNAI introduced a new way to look at the Italian territory that goes beyond the classic North-South and city-countryside divides and brings the focus on marginality, access to service and opportunities. In spite of such important results, there are still some obstacles to the implementation of the strategy, which often clashes with the too rigid structures of local, regional and natural authorities, that are usually reluctant to change.

When we become familiar with the fragility and widespread decay that still characterises the majority of inner areas, the return to the villages imagined by many observers during the global pandemic appears in a new and less optimistic light. If we want to go beyond a fleeting interest in these territories, if we want our inner areas to be more than a mere refuge, we need to make them more attractive. This can be done only by ensuring access to basic services and by creating new economic, social and cultural opportunities, so that these territories can become places where people will want to remain. Now that the virus brought our attention to the inner areas, we have to maintain this attention and to work towards a more structural transformation. The SNAI represents a first fundamental step in this direction, but it needs to be accompanied by a broader change in the way we look at different areas and regions. We will have to overcome the dichotomy between centre and marginal areas, to move away from a rhetoric of winner and losers and to focus on how to develop a paradigm able to account for and build on the diversity that characterizes our territories.


Ambrosino, A. (2019) La prospettiva inversa. Intervista a Filippo Tantillo sulle aree interne, Pandora Rivista.

Ambrosino, A. (2018) Centro, periferia e territori: come ridurre il divario. La strategia nazionale per le aree interne, Pandora Rivista.

Barca, F. (2009) An agenda for a reformed cohesion policy. A place-based approach to meeting European Union challenges and expectations, Independent Report prepared at the request of Danuta Hübner, Commissioner for Regional Policy.

Carrosio, G & Tantillo, F. Uscire dal vecchio mondo: dialogo con Fabrizio Barca, Che Fare.

Carrosio, G., Luisi, D. & Tantillo, F. (2018) Aree interne e coronavirus, quali lezioni? Pandora Rivista,

Kemeny, T. & Storper, M. (2020) Superstar cities and left-behind places: disruptive innovation, labor demand, and interregional inequality. Working Paper (41). International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

Maggiolo, A. (2017) Aree interne, il futuro dell’Italia passa di qui: Politica e cultura, si può fare”

Oteri, A.M (2020) Aree interne e città. Né vincitori né vinti nella lotta contro il Covid-19, Blog del Dipartimento d’eccellenza Fragilità territoriali 2018-2022, Politecnico di Milano,

Rodríguez-Pose, Andrés (2017) The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it). Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 11 (1). pp. 189-209. ISSN 1752- 1378 Tantillo, F (2020) Il paese remoto, dopo la pandemia, Scomodo

Resilient transportation in a pandemic: can coronavirus push for more sustainable mobility?

Resilient transportation in a pandemic: can coronavirus push for more sustainable mobility?

The question of how we will inhabit cities after COVID-19 has popped amongst most urban planners, as we all question urban dynamics and see the pandemic as an opportunity to reshape not only the way we inhabit cities, but also how we move in them.

Since the first images from an isolated Wuhan to the photos of empty streets in New York, the media have shared powerful images that invite urban enthusiasts to question the use of street space generally dominated by cars.

The disruption of our everyday lives brought a perfect momentum for urbanists to push forward a sustainable mobility agenda as many people worked from home, micro-mobility became the only type of mobility for many, and even the World Health Organisation encouraged people to consider riding bikes and walking whenever feasible.

Technical guidance for mobility published by the World Health Organisation

Since public transportation and cab services are still considered risky spaces for infection, local governments decided to pedestrianise streets and broaden bike lanes in cities such as New York, Berlin, Milan, Bogota, Barcelona, Mexico City, Paris, Vienna, Sydney and Brussels.

Planners and local governments have described it as a moment for mobility to change, an approach that is still to be tested once the social distancing restrictions are lifted, and the use of walking and biking is tested versus motorised transportation such as motorbikes and cars.

Car affluence dropped to almost 40% in most major cities; some cities adopted temporary measures implementing pop-up bike lanes while others fast-tracked bike paths scheduled in the pre-corona city planning.

Percentage of city movement in comparison to usual in the European cities of Paris, Milan and Berlin during February and March 2020. Source: City Mapper Mobility Index.

City mobility adapting to a health crisis

One of the most relevant examples of city mobility adapted to the health crisis is Paris. The region plans to invest 300 million euros in building 650 kilometres of pop-up and pre-planned cycleway infrastructure. In an overnight operation street workers blocked traffic and painted bike icons turning streets into safe streets for biking.

Coronavirus lockdown and the decrease in car traffic accelerated the implementation of the “Plan Vélo” which is part of major Anne Hidalgo’s promise to turn every street in Paris cycle-friendly by 2024.

Berlin introduced 20 kilometres of pop-up bike lanes, as Berlin Roads and Parks Department official Felix Weisbrich called this a “pandemic-resilient infrastructure.” As the pandemic has accelerated the discussions in districts and municipal parliaments, public officials can push for urban infrastructure to be implemented ata faster speed than what the bouroucratic procedure would usually take.

Pop-up bike lane in Kottbusser Damm, Berlin. Source: author

The city of Milan implemented the “Strade Aperte” plan which contemplated the transformation of 35 kilometres of city streets into either pedestrian or cyclists roads. The Italian government issued bike-friendly traffic rules and promised people in bigger cities to provide a subsidy of up to 60 per cent of the price for the purchase of bicycles and e-scooters, up to a maximum of 500 euros.

Brussels planned to build a total of 40 kilometers of new cycle lanes. While the British government announced an emergency plan of 250 million pounds to set up pop-up bike lanes, safer junctions and cycle-only corridors.

Finally, Bogotá is one of the cities with the largest pop-up cycling lanes expansion during the pandemic crisis as the city implemented 80km of temporary in-street bikeways to supplement 550 km existing bike paths.

The pop-up infrastructure like removable tape and mobile signs not only makes it easier for people riding bikes to keep self-distancing, but it also encourages people who would not cycle regularly to explore new ways of transportation in a more comfortable space.

What about cars?

The adaptation to COVID-19 is not always sustainable and resilient. The sanitary measures present a risk as cars represent a tool for isolated mobility. Car-centric cities may continue to be so as car use increases.

As there is a higher demand for activities to restart under social distancing conditions, many cities in Europe started embracing drive-in culture not only for food but also for churches, cinemas and even concerts. 

Examples of drive-in entertainment alternatives take place in the outskirts of cities as it is the case in Lithuania and Denmark. German car cinemas became popular near Cologne, and the city of Schüttorf close to the border of Germany and the Netherlands hosted a party in a drive-in club where the performer invited people to “honk if they were having a good time”.

In the United States, famous for its drive-in culture,  a strip club continued operation under  this new modality that would allow people to keep distance as the attendees stayed inside their cars.

While drive-ins help entertainment industries to cope with the closures imposed by the sanitary restrictions, there is a risk, especially in the suburbs, to develop an even more motorised culture and a lifestyle that is more dependable on cars. 

What can urban planning learn from past epidemics?

One of the first examples of a city adapting to an epidemic is the cholera outbreak mapped by John Snow which encouraged cities to establish higher hygiene standards and prompted the relevance of statistical data in city planning.

However, more recent outbreaks like the case of SARS epidemic that affected cities in China, South East Asia and Canada highlighted the vulnerability of dense cities to become arenas for a fast spread of the virus. Although the use of public transportation was reduced in cities like Taipei, -the daily ridership of public transportation decreased to 50% during the peak of the 2003 SARS period–  there is no significant evidence of a shift toward sustainable transportation. The SARS epidemic provided more examples of social control and exceptionalism than examples of sustainable transportation.

In the case of Covid-19, even if urbanists hope for the outbreak to be a significant opportunity to design more sustainable cities in the “new normality”, and car sales have drastically dropped, there is hope in the car industry for sales to rise once the distance regulations are eased since people will opt for a car to comply with social distancing rules.

In Korea and China the fears of contracting the Coronavirus have already shown an increase in the sales of cars and in the United States, according to the IBM study  on Consumer Behavior Alterations, “More than 20 percent of respondents who regularly used buses, subways or trains now said they no longer would, and another 28 percent said they will likely use public transportation less often.”.

In addition, they claim that “more than 17 percent of people surveyed said that they intend to use their personal vehicle more as a result of COVID-19, with approximately 1 in 4 saying they will use it as their exclusive mode of transportation going forward.” .   

In this matter, public transportation might be the most affected in terms of revenue, New York City metro system reported its worst financial crisis as their ridership decreased by 90%, while London Underground put one quarter of its staff in furlough as it has only been used at a 5% of its capacity for the past months.  Even after the social distancing measures are eased, public transport might be considered more hazardous than other means of transportation and be the most affected financially.

Can city mobility restart in a resilient way?

After the biggest part of the crisis has passed and we will inhabit cities with eased sanitary restrictions is still uncertain whether mobility patterns will be affected in a permanent way. Further data will show if the coronavirus pandemic did encourage the creation of instruments for the implementations of sustainable mobility or it  perpetuated a car centered approach.

So far, at a medium-term, the relevance of longer-trips has been questioned, and work from home acquired significance as an alternative to commutes. Trips are expected to be carried out mostly by walking, cycling and driving a personal car and the investment in cycling infrastructure will remain as a long-term outcome of this pandemic.

A woman biking through Schillingbrücke in Berlin. Source: author.

The learning outcomes of this experience can also have a long-term impact as they will be documented in guidelines and the experience will set a precedent for critical and resilient responses for local governments.  For instance, the guide for temporary bike lanes titled “Making a safe space for cycling in 10 days”, developed by the consultancy Mobicon, delineates what should the first relevant action should include to keep safe distance while boosting more sustainable commutes.

The restoration of activities in dense cities might not bring an automatic radical change in mobility behaviour and policy but, despite the circumstances, life under social distancing became an actual experimental period that many urbanists have dreamed of and many citizens had not experimented before.

The relevant question now is whether we will be able to maintain partially closed streets and broader bike lanes after lockdown restrictions are lifted once cities get through this moment, hoping for planners, public officials and citizens to recognise the perks of having more room and infrastructure for alternative mobility.

Towards Savio 2030: co-governance for the sustainable development of the Savio Valley

Towards Savio 2030: co-governance for the sustainable development of the Savio Valley

“Verso Savio 2030” (Towards Savio 2030) is a project launched by “Unione dei Comuni della Valle del Savio” (union of six municipalities: Bagno di Romagna, Cesena, Mercato Saraceno, Montiano, Sarsina, Verghereto)  in Emilia-Romagna in 2019 and supported by LabGov.City. The project aims at building a strategic path to encourage collaboration and community synergies between institutions, academics, companies, social and civic actors, through the development of a kit of policies and legal instruments.

This process follows and applies the Co-City Protocol that will lead to experiment concrete projects to valorize the territory of the Valley, pushing for social, digital, technological innovation and empowerment.

“Verso Savio 2030” recognizes as representative of the context two key infrastructural and territorial values, one natural and one artificial: the Savio River and the E45 road. These linear elements connect people and opportunities. At the same time, they are crucial to provide answers and test solutions for the challenges posed by the current climate, environmental and sanitary emergencies (the spread of the Covid-19) and crisis.

For these reasons, LabGov.City is strengthening its multidisciplinary vision to animate a culture of change and cooperation in the area that can begin to show its effects by re-thinking mobility and tourism as strategic sectors to reach sustainability goals.

Read more in the article on (in Italian):

Tech and the City: A Digital Workshop

Tech and the City: A Digital Workshop

On June 22nd, Share your experience with us!


Save the Date! If you’re interested in finding out more about Tech in the City or on the potential contribution of science in cities in the post-COVID19 period, sign up to our June 22nd digital workshop! Share your experience with us on June 22nd from 2:30pm to 5:30pm by registering right here !
This event builds on the Tech and the city approach adopted and experimented by the city in Reggio Emilia (Emilia-Romagna, Italy) based on the theory of urban co-governance, the city as a commons or “co-cities” theory. Our goal is to bring together cities and key stakeholders working on tech justice at the urban level from the angle of European Institutions, networks of cities, international projects, national governments and regions – and provoke conversations that matter. We have arranged panels of connected participants to provide a forum for discussion. The first session will be devoted to cities sharing their experiences. The second session will focus on science-based evidence from cities and will be followed by presentations of relevant EU level urban initiatives. In the third session of the workshop, there is going to be a “digital roundtable” where EU level stakeholders will be invited to reflect on cities experiences and empirical evidence and discuss the possibilities for a policy uptake on EU citizens’ role in promoting science, research and innovation in cities. 

The form accessible here can be filled out to register to the digital workshop, we are looking forward to hearing from you on June 22nd !

Growing food in cities during Covid-19

Growing food in cities during Covid-19

FAO reports that about 80% of food produced globally is destined to feed urban areas (FAO 2020). During the last century, the bond between food production and urban planning was devalued by the very idea of urban life as antithetic to rural life. The food system seemed condemned to industrial and mass production. More recently, agriculture has slowly started to make its way back to the city.

Urban agriculture or urban farming is the practice of cultivating and distributing food in or around urban area. If urban agriculture, stricto sensu, refers to small areas inside the city such as small farms or community gardens for growing crops or raising small livestock for own consumption or sale in neighborhood markets. Peri-urban agriculture refers to intensive or semi-intensive agriculture undertaken on the fringes of urban areas (FAO 2015). Indeed, urban agriculture has been spreading in cities across the world in the last years, with the aim to boost more sustainable food systems and the hope to offer a better relationship between natural systems and human communities (McDonough 2014). In New York City, for example, growing food in the city has been booming in the last years and agriculture networks strengthened (McDonough 2014). In London, the enterprise GrowUp Urban Farms, which produces fish, salads and herbs in unused city spaces now sells wholesale (Lovett 2016).

The Covid-19 pandemic is not only changing our daily lives but especially the way we live in cities. It also affected the globalized and industrialized food system producing a variety of responses, both in the short and in the long-term. FAO and RUAF provided a framework to understand the vulnerabilities of urban food systems, to improve communication and cooperation and provide new strategies to safeguard food security and nutrition during this trying time (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). In particular, they recognized how some cities are particularly exposed to food supply problems, given their lack of diversification of food value and supply chains, their dependency on imports and other economic and natural vulnerabilities (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). The less cities rely on their rural hinterlands, the more they result unprotected to unpredictable shocks of their food supply chain, as the pandemic showed.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Indeed Covid-19 health crisis has quickly aggravated food security for most vulnerable urban populations. According to FAO, “the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting urban food systems worldwide, posing a number of challenges for cities and local governments that are obliged to deal with rapid changes in food availability, accessibility and affordability” (FAO 2020: 1). In London, for example, foodbanks are struggling to provide food to city dwellers during the lockdown, and this is affecting mostly low incomes, older people, those with disabilities, rough sleepers and asylum seekers, given the fall of donations, the insufficient supplies from supermarkets and lack of volunteers (London City Hall 2020).  RUAF also reported that in Quito, Ecuador, public places being locked down meant that local markets, could not remain open and provide food to low-income residents (RUAF 2020). Maximo Torero, Food and Agriculture Organization chief economist, explained that the challenges that the pandemic is posing to the food system do not affect the supply of food in itself but the logistics of food distribution, given the high dependency on food imports (Harvey 2020). Moreover, The Economist reported how current food system bottlenecks have severe impacts on consumers, who are facing reduced or lost incomes since the lockdown measures were implemented globally (The Economist 2020). In fact, vulnerable urban residents can only afford to buy food in small quantities and depend mostly on small shops and open-air markets rather than supermarkets and other food delivery options. Therefore, some national governments are trying to maintain outdoor food markets open to support vulnerable groups’ access to food. For example, in France food markets partially reopened at the end of March (The Connexion 2020) and UK is prepared to reopen all outdoor markets from the 1st June (Sustain 2020).

Hence, it could be interesting to investigate if among other long-term actions that cities and local governments can implement to strengthen urban food systems’ resilience, growing food in cities may be a viable option. FAO stated that promoting short supply chains may adequately support the resilience of urban food systems in the long-term. In particular, “the crisis provides an opportunity to underline the multiple benefits of local food systems, enabling local actors to better coordinate during the crisis to avoid main gaps distribution, and making cities more food resilient” (FAO 2020: 6).

Therefore, cases of urban and peri-urban agriculture and/or urban residents directly growing their food from home are spreading. In particular, Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the designer of the largest urban rooftop farm in Bangkok stated that “more people are thinking about where their food comes from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions” (Chandran 2020). She also reported how urban planners and local governments tend now to be more concerned with land-use in cities (Chandran 2020).

For instance, Singapore relies on other nations for almost everything its residents eat. More recently, it has been working on addressing land constraints to diversify food sources and increase local production. According to William Chen Professor of Food Science and Technology ant Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020), Singapore is not only developing expertise in technologies such as vertical farming, but it has also been working constantly to increase free additional urban spaces for urban farming, such as rooftops on multi-storeys car parks (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020). An example is a structure atop a car park in the Ang Mo Kio district where “Citiponics Pte Ltd. grows about 4 tons of Georgina lettuces and other leafy greens a month, while part of a former downtown high school site has also recently been re-purposed for urban agriculture” (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020).

In the meanwhile in UK, the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food is working on the launch of the Resilience Food Project which will see the creation of “financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localized high tech intensive food production method” (Nickles 2020). The project aims to assess the financial viability and resource efficiency of urban agriculture, gather evidence to stimulate investor confidence and explore ways to involve local communities in the co-production of farms and food, particularly in more vulnerable urban areas (Nickles 2020).

Also, in Bolivia, lockdown measures highly affected the urban food system. However, families working in urban and peri-urban agriculture resulted fundamental to guarantee the supply of food into Bolivia’s cities. With local governments and FAO’s support to urban and peri-urban food sector, farmers managed to shorten food value chains and guarantee food access in Bolivian cities during quarantine (FAO 2020).

These examples showed how the increased attention towards urban and peri-urban agriculture in the attempt to shorten food supply chains has become even more urgent, since lockdown measures have been implemented in cities all around the world. Even if urban farms can only partially address food needs in cities, they seem able to promote more sustainable communities and generative capacity of buildings and urban infrastructure (Yang 2020). Additionally, Covid-19 is showing how urban and especially peri-urban agriculture will certainly play a more relevant role in reducing food insecurity and food supply chains vulnerabilities, if unpredictable shocks happen to compromise the food system. Therefore, more attention from local authorities is needed to ensure the safety of local food production by supporting policies aimed at shortening food supply chains. As Jane Jacobs noted, perseverance of peri-urban agriculture embodies the symbiotic relationship that occurs between cities and their hinterlands (Jacobs 1984) which can definitely be a shock absorber during disruptions such as a global pandemic. Therefore, in a world after coronavirus, as the European Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, advocated “we need to have our own food, produced on our fields, by our own farmers, and we have to take better care of local markets, shorten those supply chains” (POLITICO 2020).


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