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 ItalianPlan 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.
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
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.
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).
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
Barles Sabine, (2012). ‘The Seine and Parisian metabolism: growth of capital dependencies in the 19th and 20th centuries. In: Castonguay, S., Evenden, M.D. (Eds.), Urban Waters:Rivers, Cities and the Production of Space in Europe and North America. Pittsburgh University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 94–112.