We like to talk about cities. How can we compare them?

We like to talk about cities. How can we compare them?

Photo by Andrea Rizzotti

London, Jakarta, Rome, Mumbai, Naples, New York, Boston, Beijing, Tokyo, Oslo. What do all these cities have in common? Much and little at the same time. In spite of some common traits, such as the presence of public space, mobility, water and garbage systems, parks, or governing bodies, these cities differ incredibly. Features such as their physical shape and their culture, or numbers like density and wealth seem incomparable. The question the arises, is comparison possible at all? It is legitimate to wonder whether comparing two or more urban areas even makes sense. To try to shed some light on this issue, besides logic reasoning, we can glance at how academia manages this problem.

First of all a sociological consideration: as two-thirds of the world population live in urban areas, finding local experts who talk about their city is rather easy. By consequence, it is clear that cities are not just aseptic objects but places where most of us live: there is an emotional component and attachment towards where we are formed or decide to live. Defending one’s own place and relative version of how a city functions can coincide with defending personal life decisions. From this tendency, a city-based knowledge might follow.

Let’s look at the discussion on whether electric scooters are good or not for our cities. Mobility sharing fleets arrived in Europe and the US in the last 3 years, following the same exact scheme. In some cities, it was a real success, while elsewhere a complete disaster. Drawing a single conclusion highly depends on the case we pick, while the truth lies in between: the same exact common sharing scheme fits well a city for specific peculiarities of that context, while not fitting another. While Mobike was successfully established in Florence, it completely failed a few kilometres south, in Rome. Technical features of the vehicle seem to be as relevant as the regulatory framework of the city, the commuting habits of its inhabitants, climate, and geography of the place. As there are so many variables, how can we understand differences and manage to compare cities? Let’s look at some examples from academia.

Main pitfalls of comparing cities

Comparing cities is made more complicated by the many disciplines and factors at stake. For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at political economy and urban politics, two fields where the high variety of socio-economic and geographic factors influence the analysis. Historically, there have been a number of competing visions of what cities key traits are and how they work  (Park and Burgess, 1925; Dahl; 1967; Wirth, 1969; Jacobs; 1969; 1984; Saunders, 1983; Rae, 2004). Kantor et al (2005) suggest that there are common pitfalls that make comparative analysis deceitful:

  1. The lack of a common framework. There is not one theory or framework considered by academia as an indisputable pillar to study and compare different cities. A valid exception to this is in the field of Urban Economics, where the city model of Brueckner is commonly accepted as the main framework to compare cities and regions (2011).
  2. The ‘depth versus scope’ problem. Some scholars only dig into the idiosyncrasy of few case studies. On the other extreme there is superficial research comparing many cases.
  3.  Contextual features. The urban contexts embrace the historical, cultural, geographic and demographic content of cities. This problem arises typically when many different cultures are encompassed in the analysis.
  4. Conceptual parochialism. The same concept has not the same meaning in all the cases we compare. A concept like decentralization has not the same meaning in France or the United States. Its meaning also varied across time. There are concepts highly dependent on the context.

Without a common ground, comparative research resembles a list of compendiums and monographs in different cities. The solution proposed by Kantor et al is twofold. On the one hand, deconstructing and being aware of the pitfalls is the first step. Secondly, the analysis should build upon a common framework based on categories, typologies, and variables that are defined beforehand to avoid the four pitfalls. A good example that follows this proposal is a framework constructed by Digaetano and Strom (2003) to confront urban regimes in different cities.

Table 1. The categories can adapt to different contexts trying to overcome the four pitfalls of comparative urban research. Typologies on different modes of urban governance, Di Gaetano and Strom (2003)

These five modes of governance, of course, are ideal types (see Weber 1962) and rarely if ever exist in pure forms. Powerful integration to build up a framework to look at a common object, which in this case is the institutional settings of a city, is to use a template that defines when and where the comparison among cities occurs. Gerring and McDermott propose a case study template to have a quasi-experimental grid to compare cities. Namely, they build-up four typologies identified through the question “is the comparison happening with a spatial or temporal variation?”.

Table 2. Four typologies of comparative analysis are extracted. Taking the comparison of one policy in two cities the comparison can occur in time or space or both. An Experimental template for case study research, Gerring et al (2007)

A fair conclusion

Without some kind of theoretical construct that highlights common properties shared by cities, the comparative analysis makes little sense. Comparing cities is tempting, but it is complicated. This reflects the same complex nature of urban areas, which are special places exactly because of their social, economic, cultural density and diversity. Comparative analysis should be made on common grounds, rather than being based on a number of ‘theories of the middle range’, as Merton calls them (1968). Otherwise, understanding whether a mobility sharing scheme will work is just speculation.

The “urban” is not defined in the same way by all fields and authors. What is a city and what are the boundaries of geographical, administrative, cultural demarcation? Nor is a unique methodological approach shared. So, should we still compare then? Yes.

Keeping Emile Durkheim’s dictum in mind, science begins with a comparison. By comparing and measuring relationships, a knowledge with greater certainty can be achieved. (Kantor, 2005).  Different urban disciplines such as urban economics, urban politics, urban sociology, urban geography, law and so on can’t be self-standing, as they describe a different aspect of the same urban global phenomenon.  By the same token, cities are not self-standing, they are points of a ‘Global Network’ (Dematteis 1994) where informative flows are growing exponentially (Castells 1989).

Groups of computer scientists and physicists like those of the laboratory directed by Michael Batty at the University College of London aim at creating a new science of the city. Formal models and higher data quality will add explanatory power, however, the complex nature of the city won’t allow for the existence of one single science or theory. Recognition of diversity, tolerance, and dialogue can bridge different fields building up more solid frameworks to compare different cities. City practitioners can use this knowledge to make a change.


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Castells M. (1989) The Informational City, Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and Urban-Regional Process. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

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Dematteis Giuseppe (1994). Global Network, Local Cities. In: Flux, n°15, 1994. pp. 17-23;

Di Gaetano, A., & Strom, E. (2003). Comparative urban governance: An integrated approach. Urban affairs review, 38(3), 356-395

Durkheim, E. (1982) The rules of sociological method and selected texts on sociology and its method. The Free Press, New York, NY.

Gerring J. et al (2007). An experimental template for Case Study Research.

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Jacobs, J. (1969) The political economy of cities. Random House, New York. (1984) Cities and the wealth of nations. Random House, New York.

Kantor P. and H.V. Savitich (2005). How to Study Comparative Urban Development Politics: A Research Note. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Vo 29.1, March 2005 135-51.

Merton, R. (1968) Social theory and social structure. The Free Press, New York, NY.

Park, R. and E. Burgess (1925) The city. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Saunders, P. (1983) Urban politics. Hutchinson & Co, London.

Rae, D. (2004) The city. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Weber, M. 1962. Basic concepts in sociology, trans. H. P. Secher. New York: Citadel.

Wirth, L. (1969) Urbanism as a way of life: the city and contemporary civilization. In R. Sennett (ed.), Classic essays on the culture of cities, Appleton-Century-Crofts, NY.

Oslo and the Legal Aid Clinic – how can a bunch of students improve the life of a metropolis?

Oslo and the Legal Aid Clinic – how can a bunch of students improve the life of a metropolis?

Jussbuss early history

Written by: Ida Maria Andenæs Galtung and Carlo Epifanio

A bus of young legal aiders – who are they?

Back in 1971 a bunch of law students from the University of Oslo started a project on a bus. Driving the streets of the Norwegian capital and its outskirts, the students decided to map the need for legal aid. It turned out to be a major need for legal support among the general public, so the group started a free law informing service to help provide equal rights. With their mobile bus, the students reached out to all the corners of the city and managed to help the vulnerable groups of Oslo. This bus became the student-managed legal aid clinic “Jussbuss”, which is Norwegian for “Law bus”. Jussbuss still exists today and currently consists of roughly 30 employees working with free legal aid every day. Despite not providing urban services per se, it is legitimate to wonder if and how the Legal Aid Clinic model can contribute to cities and reduce the number of conflicts in society. This story is worth sharing because of its creativity and courage to improve: Jussbuss is certainly an inspiring example for those who are reading these lines.

Can the clinic reduce conflicts in society? 

It can be alienating for many people to enter and reach out for help from a law firm. If it is not the formal, corporate, and suit dressed-atmosphere that scares you off, the price of the consultation will. At least for many people. That is why the clinic specialized in a few areas of legal practice to benefit disadvantaged social groups. They give concrete advice in specific cases while at the same time gain knowledge about the structural oppression at play. The clinics’ decennial activity resulted in an expertise in immigration law, prison law, debt law and financial assistance, and social security benefits. There is also a specific wage-limit for clients as the main raison d’etre of the clinic is to reach out to those with the biggest need of help. In some cases, the clinic manages to successfully defend its clients rights. In cases where the clinic is not able to achieve the client’s goal, the task at hand is to explain the legal situation to the client. It is important that the clients understand how the clinic worked for a different outcome of their case, but also to understand the final result. An important principle at Jussbuss has been “help to self help” and making the clients understand the legality of the situations they are in. 

Jussbuss doing outreach work, and handing out law information brochures.

The research that led to the organization Jussbuss kept inspiring legal aid research. The findings are clear: the need for legal aid is proportionally larger in the poor neighbourhoods. As the project is no longer located on a bus, but in an office in the center east side of Oslo, one of the project’s fundamental activities is to reach the client groups who might not contact them otherwise. The most vulnerable groups often don’t ask for help themselves. In many cases people in difficult situations may not be able to sort out the legal issues of their life problems. This is why certain help centers, Caritas, and specific neighborhoods of the city are chosen as a base to take in new cases and for informing people in an informal atmosphere. By staying mobile, the clinic makes the city smaller and tries to reduce class distinctions. Weekly, a part of the team travels outside Oslo and visits organizations, schools, and prisons to give answers to legal questions.  

A challenge for the clinic is the procedure to ensure that the advice they give is correct. Many are surprised to hear how independently students give legal aid, and move around the country with such authority. In the short term, their work can be solely informative, as the students can’t  give more than general information when they travel. However, when they need to give concrete advice in cases, they take them to the office, study them and let them go through group meetings which usually take place once a week. This is an important learning mechanism for knowledge and expertise reproduction. 

Independent governance, active research role, and internal organization based on learning

Somehow surprisingly, the clinic remains a popular place for law students to work since 1971. The students have to complete two years of law school to apply for a job at the clinic. This is to ensure that they know the basic legal method before starting. Then they have to take leave from the university to work full time at the clinic for one year. As a final stage, they are obliged to work 20 percent of their time for six months to train the new students who start working. It is all based on helping each other to understand the law and working close together. With this system, the students usually have to postpone their graduation for a year. For most students it is still worth doing because of the engaging environment and work experience. Also, the students receive a small salary from the university, the size of a university monthly Norwegian stipend. 

The students learn to see where the law and the legal system comes short and apply their expertise in the public sphere. Indeed, through legal political work they can address the authorities and politicians, by participating in different foras. Students debate in the media and speak in parliamentary hearings, for example on how the laws should be formed. After finishing their year at Jussbuss, some students come back later on to do some research and write their thesis on questions related to the legal aid gap in society. 

A conflict resolver in the urban arena

The Legal Aid Clinic turned out to be a successful model in Norway. Shortly after the establishment of Jussbuss, a sister organisation providing legal aid for women was established in Oslo. Jussbuss was also replicated in other major cities such as Tromsø and Bergen, and it elicits international interest by people who want to bring the project to their city outside Norway. The clinics work independently and exchange their activity during annual meetings in national congresses. A key-necessary factor for such success is an informal yet supportive relationship between the clinic and the Norwegian state. Even though the clinic works actively with legal politics, and sometimes criticizes the government, the clinic has been well respected and supported financially throughout the years. The state recognizes that the clinic deploys a welfare service to groups of society which are often difficult to reach. Despite the occasional need for pro-bono lawyers when handling court cases, the students function as a true bridge between neglected communities and society. 

The growing multicultural settings of cities make it necessary for lawyers to understand how the law and the norms work in different cultures or society layers. Law and legal considerations might need a contextual perspective for the premises to function for the groups intended, as reminded by Hellum and Taj in the project of informing Pakistani women in Norway  to help solve their problems. For a joint effort including legal advice and sociological considerations, the positive relationship of the clinic with other organizations and the state in an independent autonomy of their governance is crucial. 

The new challenges that cities are facing, such as open data and active democratic processes, call for a higher awareness among citizens. Cities can be governed effectively only with a consistent contribution of participation and activism in the decision making process. Knowledge is the first key step for involvement and engagement. Bridging such gaps in citizen awareness, and filling an economic gap, is an efficient way to be in touch with people living at the margins. Lawyers can be fundamental actors in the making of collaborative cities. The work of the clinic is inspirational because it shows their new role: a relation between communities and lawyers as city builders. 

Open Data, Transparent Governance, and Accountable Administrations: A Look at the Fourth Plan of Open Government Partnership

Open Data, Transparent Governance, and Accountable Administrations: A Look at the Fourth Plan of Open Government Partnership

What is my government doing? Where are the time and resources being invested? How are those investments shaping my community today, and how could they shape it differently tomorrow? These questions are at the foundation of an open government able to be transparent and accountable for the decisions it takes. The almost total access to the internet reached in the last two decades generates unprecedented loads of data produced. Money and people flow can now be tracked and recorded by governments and citizens, and new potential of information for collective decision-making is changing democracies worldwide. Open data means that more actors can analyze and create solutions that were previously only in the hands of governments. So challenges like climate change become more evident, and new tools for policymaking and public spending, such as online participatory budgets, of frequent use.

Following such positive premises, the Open Government Partnership was formed in 2011. This network of countries was created by a group of government leaders and civil society advocates who came together to create a unique partnership, one that combines these powerful forces to promote accountable, responsive, and inclusive governance. As of now, seventy-eight countries and a growing number of local governments representing more than two billion people, along with thousands of civil society organizations, are members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). As publicly reminded by president Obama in 2016, one of the OPGs creators and most influential advocates, the partnership still has a long way to go to keep on promoting public actions towards a more participative, accountable, digital, and transparent way of managing public affairs.

The Fourth Italian Plan for Open Government

The Fourth Plan for Open Government is the fourth national Plan made by the Italian government for the period 2019-2020. Italy has its OGP working group within the Department for Public Administration to draw up an action strategy and monitor a multitude of innovative initiatives. The OGP team drafted the Plan and coordinated the work of all the administrations and actors involved. Indeed, the document is the result of an intense exchange with civil society representatives who are members of the Open Government Forum, an assembly open to all organizations dealing with open government issues. The Plan was drafted in a participatory way. This is why it has also been online for three weeks for a public consultation accessible to all citizens. Thus, those who wanted to give their contribution before publishing could leave a comment on the website. To understand more about the Plan, we met Marco Marrazza and Stefano Pizzicanella, who are coordinating the open government strategy for Italy.

Marco, how would you describe Open government, and what is the role of the Ministry?

The concept of open government is a bit ambivalent, a digital administration becomes more transparent and accountable, but a ministry can have a culture of “openness” even if it is all on paper. Having a more advanced tech level does not mean more participation. Here at the Ministry, we work as coordinators, and we are part of the whole public administration’s action. In the Fourth Plan, we have ministries and regions, so we are not the only ones responsible, but we pull the strings of these actions. So, when, for example, the government changes, we have to re-explain all the actions and strategy we set up because people change.

Let’s talk about the Fourth Plan, is it continuing the action of the previous plan?

This Plan is more than a continuation. It is a new strategy that benefits from the experience gained in the first three plans. From the second Plan onwards, in 2013, the theme of open governance received a political endorsement: the Minister of our Department came to know of the partnership’s existence, and Italy was able to enter the steering committee, increasing the visibility of the Plan. With the third Plan, we created the Civil Society Forum, which is chaired by the Minister, and where many associations can discuss public administration problems and solutions. The Fourth Plan greatly benefited from the increased political visibility and the presence of the forum. Compared to the past, it has been easier to meet the associations and aggregate the numerous proposals we received.

What are the actions concretely?

We put various actors in communication. While drafting the Fourth Plan, we put different administrations together. Each administration brought action proposals; we reached 40 actions then aggregated in 10 streams: 1. Open data; 2. Transparency; 3. Register of beneficial owners; 4. Support for participation; 5. Regulation of stakeholder; 6. Culture of open government; 7. Corruption prevention; 8. Simplification, performance, and equal opportunities; 9. Digital services; 10. Digital citizenship and skills. The new program tends towards a strategic vision rather than separate actions. In this way, administrations have to coordinate. It is difficult to talk about a single goal for each action. The idea of the partnership is to raise the level of the bar and do “challenging actions.” For example, expanding transparency on the public administration lobby, creating a better capacity to consult citizens, or creating open data where there is a real request. Open data is probably the most challenging area, as the administration must create a mechanism for the constant production of data, which means updated data while keeping up their usability. A classic example relates to transport: if the data are not exact, the app does not work.

How do you monitor the implementation? 

The whole Plan is based on a gentlemen’s agreement, as the realization of actions of the Plan has no formal obligations. The two-year cycle allows making a more accurate monitor. There are two main tools of monitoring. The first involves the website, where citizens can check the progress of the different pages. The second independent report mechanism monitoring is the case of scholars who are summoned by the central OGP, who does a midterm and end-term-report. The Open Government Forum had a significant impact starting with the third Plan. The forum allowed bringing together representatives of civil society, academia, businesses, and consumer protection associations interested in open government issues, and who wish to participate actively in their application. These actors enter a mailing list, and there are two meetings a year in which all associations meet with the Minister. Critical issues and new subjects are highlighted for the attention of the Minister. Then the associations are invited to thematic tables, like participation, accountability, open data, digital skills to discuss.

What is the relationship between participation and an open government?

The relationship between open government and participation is mediated by communication, one main fundamental aspect. With this in mind, we introduce an open government tool to communicate and create participation. We are establishing a dedicated portal, which will become the point of access to consultations organized by public administrations. Citizens wishing to participate in consultations will have a single place to visit and receive alerts. The portal would help support, through specific editorial staff, the dissemination of consultation initiatives and the compliance with consultation quality standards by public administrations. To this end, practical guidelines inspired by the best international practices will be produced. Special attention will be to administrations by offering open-source consultation, setting up a dedicated help desk, and providing specific training to public employees. Another step at the regional level will be developing the macro objective “participation,” meaning the transition from mere transparency on the public action to active citizen participation at the local level.

What is the central challenge of creating participative processes?

This challenge is to do quality consultations. The Fourth Action Plan has the aim of compelling, putting obligations, to those who want to do in the public administration consultation and say what the quality of the consultation should be. Otherwise, better not to do it and inform. Reporting the results of a consultation is critical. It is not about just giving the numbers but explaining the results and criteria of your choice promptly. Communication is a fundamental aspect of making participation. 

What are some concrete tools promoted by the Plan on participation?

Indeed, this is the case of the creation of platforms for open consultations mentioned before. This platform will be at disposal for all the administrations that want to use it. This initiative sees the participation of the city of Rome and Milan. Every small town can access software, for which we will also provide courses. Cities can then create consultative processes as in the platform https://partecipa.gov.it/. The software refers to that of Barcelona called Decidim, a real success case. The other tool implemented during this Plan is a portal called consultazione.gov.it, a connection point where citizens go to find out what is happening in the world of public consultation in Italy. The citizens can connect and discover the various discussions and votes taking place. This site will also monitor and provide data. Everyone can read the text and monitor the implementation of all the actions and initiatives on the website open.gov.it with detailed information on their progress.

Will urban farming save our cities? Perspectives from Detroit and Brussels

Will urban farming save our cities? Perspectives from Detroit and Brussels

by Remi Guillem & Carlo Epifanio

Recent whistleblowers of global warming have found their scapegoat. Urban areas have been pointed out as accounting for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions while representing slightly 2% of the Earth’s surface. Large cities, as giant Gargantuas, swallow 78% of the energy produced globally (UN-Habitat; 2019). 

Filling the metaphor, these ogres rely on greedy centralized metabolisms, the French Marchés d’Intérêt Nationaux or American periurban wholesales outlets, that have been adopted globally to cope with sanitary risks and provide scale economies. This production and distribution of food have been highly criticized for pollution costs and food waste that do not match contemporary ecological requirements to contrast climate change. Claims for a bio-transition toward more local, inclusive, and organic food systems in urban settings have emerged globally after years of ‘hypercapitalism’. (Galtung; 2012). 

A food system, rather than a simple chain of components (production – distribution – consumption – recycling), can be defined as a ‘socio-ecological system’ meaning ‘a coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilient, sustained manner (Ericksen; 2008). Stated boldly, feeding megacities is not only a matter of spatial optimization but a project accounting for specific geographical-environmental features and social contexts. And new advocates of urban agriculture promise they can do so by creating  ‘circular metabolisms’ to envisage the before mentioned food transition (Barles; 2012). 

Bringing food production in cities would foster a circular use of land while cutting negative externalities such as food distribution distances while directly including communities and consumers in food production, distribution and waste. According to Marc Dufrêne, specialist of ecosystem services at the University of Liège, ‘urban farming ticks the three pillars of sustainable development: it contributes to production, it boosts social integration and it improves the environment and health’. However, this more inclusive scheme is put under strong economic pressure by private actors. In this article, we discuss this idyllic representation based on our researches conducted in Detroit, United States, and Brussels, Belgium wondering to what extent urban farming is relevant for food and social city metabolism nowadays.

Besides presenting the positive, perverse effects and limitations of large-scale urban farming projects in these two cities, we share our understandings pertaining to this promising phenomenon based on our field-work conducted between January and June 2019. 

A tale of two cities: positive, perverse effects of urban farming on the Brussels and Detroit ground

 Maps of Urban Agriculture sites in Brussels as of 2019. (Bruxelles Environnement 2019)  

Urban agriculture in Brussels is a living part of a new cross-cutting green vision. The Belgian capital’s administration learned from its terrain, notably from NGOs like urban agriculture ‘Les Début des Haricots’ that from the first year 2000s promote ecology and local food production and consumption. In January 2016 the local authorities inaugurated the ambitious GoodFood strategy to support and network whoever wants to promote, produce, learn or distribute food produced locally or waste treated ecologically. The strategy aims at increasing the local production of food to 30% of fruits and vegetables by 2035 and reduce food waste production of 30% by 2020. Agronomists’ expertise from Gembloux University jointly with the consulting cabinet Group One contributed to the creation of some of the existing 300 urban gardening sites. They also contributed to the birth of many of the 30 urban agriculture new companies in the last 3 years.

This new green vision bridges the institutional fragmentation among stakeholders due to the technical and economic complexity of managing urban agriculture projects. Within the metropolitan authority, horizontal coordination of economic, urbanism and environmental bodies was necessary to organize funds, legal permits, and technical standards to support and implement new projects.

La pousse qui pousse. Site founded by début des Haricots in the courtyard of social housing units in Saint Gilles, Brussels. Source:

The brand-new urban farming scene has challenged centralized supply chains not only at a practical level: a new culture of innovation is evidenced by many projects: BIGH’s 2,000m2 farm, on the roof of Anderlecht’s slaughterhouse, produces vegetables and fishery through aquaponics while few meters underneath, Champignon de Bruxelles grows Japanese mushrooms on spent brewery grains in the 750m2 Caves de Cureghem, close by the Little Food crickets’ producer. Similarly, Urbi Leaf grows sprouts with LEDs in a cellar under Ateliers des Tanneurs in the city center. Closing the circle, the rising scene of bio and zero waste supermarkets, part of the GoodFood network, is selling products coming from these businesses shaping the new ecological geography of the Bruxelles middle class’ lifestyle. 

By contrast, Detroit saw urban agriculture blossoming in rather different urban settings: years of deindustrialization and depopulation have left a third of the city abandoned (40 sqm/103.6km2). Since the 1990s, remaining inhabitants, as well as local non-profits, have found in urban farming a solution to fight against food insecurity and poverty: more than 1,600 gardens were identified within city limits in 2018. The reason why urban farming assumed massive dimensions relies on urban farming’s capacity to solve food security issues for the most deprived populations. A great number of nonprofits, local foundations, and engaged residents believe in it. As evidenced by a recent study on the impact of people’s participation in urban farming programs on their diets: individuals participating to the Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program in 2018 learned sustainable and healthy ways to feed themselves while participating in gardening activities. This active form of culinary education admittedly reduced their food bill significantly by self-production (Beaver et al; 2019).

Keep Growing Detroit Farm; Source: Keep Growing Detroit

Parallelly, Detroit’s urban farming development surprisingly helped to recreate ‘communities’ by bringing together different social groups and generations. The North Cass Community Garden, developed by Midtown Detroit Inc. has recreated public spaces around private gardens. There barbecues and neighbors’ parties take place supported by residents and nonprofit organizations. In spite of the perceived success of the project, reproduction of race, gender, and class discriminations are not always prevented: white and African American residents do not necessarily agree on how and when to use shared spaces, forcing the nonprofit to hire a gardener/supervisor rather than leaving the garden self-managed. 

Urban conflicts, right for land and market pressure

“It’s a strong but fragile movement,” says Christophe Mercier, co-author of the recent new guide to Brussels’ urban gardens. The common problem of lack of and competition for space gives great responsibility to the local authorities in charge of preserving public space. Many producers benefit from low rents and public support expressed in freedom to use space and easy regulation. Food production is still an economy of scale based on land. And before being profitable, producers need to overcome the fix costs of launching their businesses. Besides, whether the green land preservation vision put in place in the last decade will change towards land consumption, given the economic pressure, only certain urban farmers would afford and find the favor of privates and land developers. This would be the case of Peas&Love, whose business is to rent parcels to clients who for 9€ can harvest their parcel on the roof of private buildings like malls and sports clubs. Potential private and public common space thus becomes a fast track to gentrification. And professional farming would risk becoming ecology for rich clients who can afford it. 

A similar contrast between accessible urban farming and profit-makers occurs in Detroit. Initiatives such as MUFI, for instance, propose free food to inhabitants while neighboring farms attempt to make a living from vegetable sales. This conflict is expressed by the enthusiasm generated by urban farm projects that have in some cases been rejected by the inhabitants themselves. Due to its national media coverage, urban farming development in Detroit brought new populations (mostly white) to the city, buying land and developing their own farms, not necessarily taking into account inhabitants claims. This ‘colonial’ appropriation, as depicted by local African-American activists, becomes even more problematic when connected to real estate issues. The Hantz Farm, for instance, is a 180 acres farm developed by John Hantz (a US national bank owner) in which trees are planted in order to reevaluate land prices in a deprived neighborhood. Such real estate operations lead to local contestations because both residents and local nonprofit organizations depict such purchases as ‘land grabs’. 

Overall, urban farming projects in Detroit, either considered as grassroots-born or privately held by large companies, generate social tensions in a city already exposed to structural racism and social relegation. Even though land availability is not yet a problem, urban agriculture exacerbates existing social conflicts while solving some food concerns in Detroit. These perverse effects are in fact dependent on some inherent limitations of urban farms capacities to sustain food production within urban settings. 

Interestingly, limitations to urban agriculture developments in Brussels and Detroit are very similar: issues of economic scalability, of financial stability and technical inequations, are found in both cities. Indeed, despite the vitality of the sector, urban agriculture’s relevance in terms of volumes of production remains limited in both cities, especially when compared to conventional agriculture. To mention some relevant number, in Detroit for instance, around 193 US tons of vegetables came from urban farms and gardens in 2018, while corn production represented 5,950,000 US tons the same year in Michigan, to keep in mind orders of magnitude. 

Economic constraints and the amount of production matter. As of now, urban farming businesses rely greatly on public or philanthropic subsidies to get started and sometimes to remain economically viable. If urban agriculture remains a second-hand choice for urban food supply, omens of technological progress may favor its development for the years to come. Moreover, urban planners show nowadays great interests in ‘productive landscapes’ urban farms alike: they are presented as showcases of urban common properties and creative green uses of city land, two necessary features for our future cities. 



Alyssa W. Beavers, Ashley Atkinson & Katherine Alaimo (2019) How Gardening and a Gardener Support Program in Detroit Influence Participants’ Diet, Food Security, and Food Values, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/19320248.2019.1587332

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