Our City, Our Future

Thriving, harmonious, efficient, safe, resilient & green: words that we dream of when planning our cities of the future. Across Asia, governments, communities and businesses are moving to realise the dreams of people with many eco-city projects under development. This gives us an insight into Asian models for sustainable development.

Cities are currently responsible for more than 70 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and opportunistically also represent a key force in reducing emissions and resource consumption. Sustainable development requires bold action, while also strengthening the local economy and creating a better place to live.

Courtesy of WiNG via Wikipedia

Courtesy of WiNG via Wikipedia

In identifying a unique Asian model of sustainable development, the Tianjin Eco-city a Sino-Singapore flagship project is a good case study to explore. Not yet fully constructed and recovering from the deadly August industrial explosion, the vision of Tianjin was defined to be “A thriving city which is socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient – a model for sustainable development”. This vision is brought together by the concepts of the Three Harmonies and the Three Abilities.

The Three Harmonies involves creating an eco-city where:

  1. People living in harmony with other people;
  2. People living in harmony with economic activities;
  3. People living in harmony with the environment.

Three Abilities requires an eco-city to be:

  1. Practicable – the technologies adopted in the Eco-city must be affordable and commercially viable;
  2. Replicable – the principles and models of the Eco-city could be applied to other cities in China and even in other countries;
  3. Scalable – the principles and models could be adapted for another project or development of a different scale.
Courtesy of Blick vom Fernsehturm Richtung via de.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of Blick vom Fernsehturm Richtung via de.wikipedia.org

Another case for achieving sustainable development from government was shown in the city of Sanya in China. Along China’s southern cost of tropical beaches and tourism resorts, Sanya took an ambitious plan to do a stock measurement of the value of its ecosystem services in 2005. After 15 years of immense economic development, the city leaders decided on a new green growth plan which would incorporate natural capital accounting alongside their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

A famous quote by US President Robert Kennedy says that the standard measure of our economies GDP “…measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”. Natural capital accounting is a prominent step in sustainable development, and it involves measuring a range of ecosystem services in a city or town that we would not usually measure in our GDP.

Natural capital is the land, air, water, living organisms, and ecosystem goods and services that we rely on for survival and wellbeing. Our cities, businesses and communities receive some immense economic benefits from ecosystem services, such as New York City’s water supply. Manhattan, in New York, gets its primary source of drinking water from an update source, which was threatened by urban sprawl. The city decided to spend $1.5 billion to preserve 80,000 acres of natural landscapes to avoid paying $8 billion for a water filtration plant costing more than $300 million per year to run. Forests for example, play a role in stabilising sediment and excess nutrients from waterways. A forest wetland can filter water at approximately one-seventh of the cost with basic maintenance per thousand gallons than conventional wastewater treatment systems.

By considering these vital services from nature, Sanyo was able to make some important decisions on how they plan infrastructure and industry growth to ensure community wellbeing and sustainable development. This led to the creation of the below map where red zones represent areas decreasing in natural value, orange slightly declining and green zones increasing. Sanya valued their natural capital at approximately $40 billion (USD), 5.6 times their local GDP in 2013.

Since it’s first ecosystem measurement in 2005, Sanya has been growing its economy and the value of their natural capital stocks and their provided services (eco-tourism from coral reefs). Since tracking the change in natural capital, Sanya has been able to demonstrate the growth in its economy shown as GDP in red, natural resources shown in blue and ecosystem services shown in green from 2005 to 2013. Sanyo is able to holistically develop its quality of life in real terms beyond income measures.

Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon describes in his work the five ‘tectonic stresses’ which are bearing down on civilization: climate change; energy scarcity; environmental degradation; and intense conflict from urbanised megacities; and the extreme economic imbalance throughout the world. The enormity of these issues I know overwhelms many people still today and we struggle with how to begin to set our cities on the path to sustainable development.

Pushing beyond these enormous challenges of the world, my eternal optimism re-imagines sustainable development as going back to the basics and recultivating new approaches for empowering communities towards sustainable development. It is essential that we connect and communicate stories with people to inspire them to act and motivate change–stories about local communities and initiatives, which are green and bold. Communication is the key and the catalyst for broad social change.

I identify with this sustainability movement that is focussed on creativity, family, community, fun and reflection. Through innovative and decisive initiatives, vision and a sense of community, we can realise much success with sustainable development.


By Grant Duthie
Grant is from Australia who has lived and worked in Asia studying the cultural drivers, new social perspectives and trends in Asia-Pacific urban communities. Through his experience in social living environments, Grant writes on regional urban themes on his blog Urban Billion https://urbanbillion.wordpress.com/.


Improving Energy Efficiency of Street Lighting

Improving the energy efficiency of street lighting is perhaps one of the easiest ways for a city to reduce costs for energy consumption and tackle climate change. Many cities in the Asia-Pacific region have exploited this great potential and successfully retrofitted their street lighting with efficient technologies.

By replacing old inefficient lamps with new lighting technologies (retrofitting), cities such as Akola, India managed to reduce the electricity consumption of street lighting by over 55 % (2,100 MWh per year) and save annually over USD 130,000 in electricity bills. With a project payback period of less than a year, Akola financed the retrofit through an energy saving performance contracting model. The contractor, an energy service company, used cost savings from reduced energy consumption to compensate the investment. Financing mechanisms such as energy performance contracting, utilize private expertise and investment, allowing cities to achieve energy savings without upfront capital expenses and the use of limited budgetary resources. Akola’s successful approach in improving the energy efficiency of its street lighting has led – with support of the World Bank – to several other similar projects in India (Read more).

Many other cities in Asia are improving the energy efficiency of street lighting. Seoul, Korea aims to replace all public lights (streetlights, security lights, traffic lights and lights in public buildings) and 65% of private lighting with highly energy efficient light-emitting diodes (LED) by 2018. Two other CityNet members – Surabaya, Indonesia and Da Nang, Vietnam – have identified and prioritized street lighting as energy sector with great potential of saving energy, costs and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Both cities were pilots in the World Bank’s Sustainable Urban Energy and Emissions Planning (SUEEP) program. With the support of the World Bank’s SUEEP and Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) Surabaya and Da Nang are developing solutions to improve their energy infrastructure and combat climate change.

Street Lighting in Seoul, Courtesy of Trey Ratcliff https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/300928932)

Street Lighting in Seoul, Courtesy of Trey Ratcliff (https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/300928932)

Despite various excellent practice examples, in many cities the great saving potential of improving street lighting remains untapped. Many cities in the Asia-Pacific region could save over 50 % of their energy consumption and costs if they choose to replace old lamps with LEDs. However, some cities are still wasting more than 10 % of their overall budgets for inefficient public lighting – even though they have to carefully and sustainably spend their limited resources for various other public services.

Street lighting retrofit projects are the ‘low hanging fruit’ of climate change mitigation projects. They are one of the most cost-effective ways in reduction of electricity consumption and GHG-emissions, very feasible, attract private investment, enable cities to save money and can be easily replicated.

By Felix Kalkowsky

With a background in urban planning Felix had worked as a climate change mitigation manager for a local government in Germany before he joined CityNet.

Buses Mean Business

Rapid private vehicle ownership and fast population growth have stretched city infrastructure thinly over the last few decades. The need to regenerate urban boundaries has seen a massive uptake in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems that provide out of the box solutions that are favourable with citizens. BRT systems provide several economic benefits such as a lower investment to operating costs ratio, efficient performance, fast construction turnaround as well as greater flexibility with the usage of existing roads. Challenges still remain nonetheless on improving boarding techniques, vehicle design to accommodate more passengers at higher speeds, route and timetable management and express lane construction costs. Since the pioneering Curitiba, Brazil, BRT system in the 1970s, which propelled a global trend, many more system innovations have been brought to life, which I would like to share.

A notable BRT implementation strategy was deployed in Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya, which aimed to reach more than 80% of city residents and reduce CO2 emissions by 1.6 million tonnes by 2020. In a city dominated by private taxi and minibus vehicles, the BRT required extensive collaboration between the government and operators to ensure smooth and efficient implementation. To manage the re-distribution of public transport users to the BRT, the city of Johannesburg allocated all of its company shares to the independent taxi operators. Similarly during its construction, ‘Corridors of Freedom’ were established to ensure priority routes were established among poorer communities to foster more system engagement. Re-fits of the station shells have delivered revolutionary value such as large identifiable station markers to improve accessibility containing touch screen information podiums on routes, times and support. Automated door opening systems at stations ensure more comfortable passenger experiences minimising roadside pollutants, weather impacts and noise. The enclosed station shell format allows for voice-overs to support accessibility with future potential to accommodate different language supports.

Rea Vaya stop in Johannesburg CBD on Commissioner Street at Ntemi Piliso Street, Courtesy of Keizers https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rea_Vaya_stop_in_CBD.JPG

Rea Vaya stop in Johannesburg CBD on Commissioner Street at Ntemi Piliso Street, Courtesy of Keizers https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rea_Vaya_stop_in_CBD.JPG

One of the fastest BRT systems is located in Adelaide, Australia through an investment in guided bus technology lanes forming what is termed the Adelaide O-Bahn. The specially built track system combines elements of both bus and rail infrastructure with an L-shaped track resting on sleepers that keeps bus movement steady and higher speeds safer. It works by locking in place with a guide-wheels cushioning buses on the track. The guided bus technology allows for an average BRT speed of 80km/h and a maximum speed of 100km/h. A number of interchanges along the system allows buses to enter and exit the busway and continue on suburban routes providing more comfort for passengers with direct routes. Along the O-Bahn system, station stops are infrequent with its core aim to deliver express services with the interchanges allowing transfers into more frequent suburban stops.

Example of Guided Technology: Stagecoach in Huntingdonshire bus, Courtesy of Bob Castle https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guided_bus_Oakington_to_Longstanton.jpg

Example of Guided Technology: Stagecoach in Huntingdonshire bus, Courtesy of Bob Castle https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guided_bus_Oakington_to_Longstanton.jpg

The Guangzhou BRT system represents one of the first systems in China to engage with the multi-modal system to integrate with metro trains as well as a bike share system and bike parking facilities integrated into the design. It maintains a direct service system rather than a trunk model, meaning passengers do not need to transfer and the buses come in and out of the corridor. The corridor has focused on developing plazas around the BRT system, which integrate well with the bicycle facilities. An integrated contactless card the Yang Cheng Tong can be used to store value on it and pay for the bus fare at the turnstiles to the bus terminal and can also be used to collect and pay for a bicycle.

Guangzhou GBRT Tianhe Sports Center Station, Courtesy of Efilm https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GBRT_Tianhe_Sports_Center.JPG

Guangzhou GBRT Tianhe Sports Center Station, Courtesy of Efilm https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GBRT_Tianhe_Sports_Center.JPG

The Brisbane, Australia BRT system maintains an operating strategy focusing on a trunk bus route that runs the full length of the route to a main interchange point usually the business district. The system was developed to complement robust pre-existing urban rail for a multi-modal system and thereby providing a consistent and standardised interchange point across suburbs and the main business district. To accommodate BRT growth, major infrastructure works have provided express BRT lanes as well as underground corridors for greater connectivity. This core inner-city infrastructure supports a dynamic network of suburban networks that provide a wide catchment and on-street pick-up points.

Exterior view of Greenslopes busway station, Courtesy of Reubot https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greenslopes_busway_station.jpg

Exterior view of Greenslopes busway station, Courtesy of Reubot https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greenslopes_busway_station.jpg

One of the upcoming underground tunnels represents a world first combined dual bus and train track into a single, double-decked, 15m-wide tunnel. By managing both rail and bus simultaneously, the project drives cost-efficiency and extends the infrastructure’s usage lifespan.  Similarly, the system runs a number of high-frequency express services that improve interconnectivity and connection synergy across other transport modes in the city. The Brisbane system maintains a notable high-quality station design with grade-separated pedestrian access between platforms and covered overpasses with accessibility lift. Buses also utilise low-floor designs and fold-out ramps which connect up with station platforms to improve accessibility for people with a disability. Similarly the system is heavily deploying natural gas powered buses which lowers road-side pollutants and irritants for passengers making the journey more comfortable.

The BRT systems provide significant support to infill development and transit-oriented developments to manage urban sprawl. In the case of the Brisbane BRT systems property value growth of up to 20% was identified in bus route corridors. Significant in-fill development was recorded around the routes as well as property values in area within 6 miles of stations growing at 2-3 times faster than those at a greater distance. Brisbane has recorded some strong increases in density growth in the inner-urban areas that are well connected and served with the BRT. The Brisbane BRT performs both a central CBD radial function from sprawling suburban areas on the edge of Brisbane to the CBD as well as a short distance function to provide traffic-free, fast, high-quality city links. BRT is considered a far more versatile and flexible technology system to serve spread-out development patterns than urban rail or car and can assist in slowing down urban sprawl and extending infrastructure lifespan. This is further incentivised by a reduce travel time from the suburbs to the City reduced from 60 minutes on the motorway to an 18 minute express service. The flexibility, efficiency and latest technology in BRT ensures that it is a consistent mode of choice for rapidly growing cities in the Asia-Pacific. The scope and system innovations since Curitiba provide strong support for the continued roll-out of BRT systems into the future.


By Grant Duthie
Grant is from Australia who has lived and worked in Asia studying the cultural drivers, new social perspectives and trends in Asia-Pacific urban communities. Through his experience in social living environments, Grant writes on regional urban themes on his blog Urban Billion https://urbanbillion.wordpress.com/.

Penang: Citizen Action Technology

Citizen Action Technology (CAT) Penang is a social network application created by stakeholders to lodge complaints or ideas from the Seberang Perai community, monitored by the Municipal Council Of Seberang Perai (MPSP). This application was created and maintained by volunteers using their own resources. It links to MPSP administration via the latest technology, such as smartphones. The objective of this application is to enhance the management of the community and improve two-way communication between stakeholders and MPSP. Complaints and ideas received will be addressed instantly. Users can forward their complaints and feedback using either pictures or ideas through a three- step method. Users upload a picture, tag the location, and post the issue on the CAT. This method can be used in two languages, Bahasa Malaysia or English.

Citizen Action Technology Screenshot

Citizen Action Technology Screenshot

The implementation of this project covers the whole administrative area of MPSP which is approximately 738.41 sq km. Monitoring of the application is supervised by the Department Of Corporate And International Affairs located at the main office of MPSP in Bandar Perda, Bukit Mertajam, Seberang Perai, Malaysia. Using mobile applications, all complaints and ideas will be directed to MPSP Watch-Facebook or Citizen Action Technology, which officers will monitor.

MPSP Facebook launched in July 2011

MPSP Facebook launched in July 2011

The Smart Monitoring System (SMS) is integrated with MPSP Watch and Citizen action Technology Penang to enhance the application. The President and Municipal Secretary can monitor all the complaints that have been received through this system. This user friendly application already has 10,681 followers. In 2013, there were 2064 complaints that MPSP received and 100% have been attended to within the same year. This is an effort from all the people in Seberang Perai towards creating an international and intelligent City that harnesses technology to build better solutions for all. The CAT system can be accessed through http://cat.betterpg.com/.

CAT Launch on April  4, 2014

CAT Launch on April 4, 2014

IMG_1643Madam Maimunah Mohd Sharif
Municipal President
Municipal Council Of Seberang Perai, Penang, Malaysia

Seoul and the Apartment Complex II: Form Follows Function

In South Korea, apartment complexes look very simple and undecorated. From the street, they seem to be a series of boxes. Truthfully speaking, every building is slightly different from its neighbor. A building’s height, design, and proportions are regulated to maintain the appropriate density in urban areas. But from the perspective of residents and citizens, it is hard to spot these differences. In Seoul, you might hear descriptive phrases such as, ‘apartments like matchboxes’ or ‘apartments like a folding screen’ to describe the homogeneous and repetitive shape of housing complexes.

image composite 1

What makes the form of apartment?
‘Form follows Function’ Louis H. Sullivan(1856-1924)
The apartment complex is a very honest building. On the outside, there are open green fields and parking lots. This open space is possible because each unit is built vertically, not horizontally. On each floor of an apartment complex there are multiple units. These units share one elevator, stairway, water supply, electricity and internet connection. As you see on the picture on the right above, every apartment concentrates those vertical elements together, which looks like outstanding tower in the middle. On one side, there are the rooms that access water utilities, such as kitchens and toilets, and have less exposure to sunshine.

The final form of an apartment complex is a mere repetition of every unit. While apartment complexes and their layout did not originate in Korea, they have perfectly adjusted to the Korean lifestyle after a long process of adaptation and experimentation. The evolution of apartment complexes means that now only the fittest ones have survived in the fierce jungle of urban Korea. While many factors influence the form of Korean apartments, cultural and institutional factors contribute heavily.

Koreanized Apartment Design

Left: Korean Apartment Plan Right: Japanese Apartment Plan

Left: Korean Apartment Plan Right: Japanese Apartment Plan

Every unit is designed for a nuclear family of 4 people. Two bedrooms for children are right in front of the entrance. The master bedroom for the parents is placed in the deepest room and has a separate bathroom. The living room is located in the center of the unit, integrating the other rooms. Balconies, which mostly face the south, provide extra sunshine and outdoor access. There might be little variation from this plan, but it is very rare.

Considering that this is the result of a long period of adaptation, the main characteristic of a Korean apartment is the ‘living room centered plan’. This is a reflection of the ‘madang centered plan’ of hanoks, or Korean traditional houses. Compared to other urban housing, like the Japanese apartment that you see on the right above, the main difference of the plan is the openness of the living room, which makes the house look bigger and brighter. Moreover, it is the place where many family activities take place such as watching TV, ancestral rites, and receiving guests. It is also important to note that in Korean culture the living room plays a role in reinforcing patriarchy. For example, when the whole family watches TV, the person who controls the remote is the one who controls the family. Funny, but it is often quite true.

Policy Determines Volume
The plan you see above is of 85㎡ (25PY), which is the standard size of so-called ‘People’s housing’ (국민주택). This policy of the Korean government has promoted the supply of this type of housing by providing a value-added tax (VAT, 10%) exemption to buyers. Apartments do come in multiple sizes, such as 60㎡ (18PY), 85㎡ (25PY), 102㎡ (30PY) and 135㎡ (40PY), however these 5 sizes are usually the only options available because the government closely regulates apartment purchases through a ‘housing subscription policy’.

The purpose of this policy is to regulate prices and speculation. According to the policy you should open the apartment-application deposit and pay the designated amount of money depending on the size that you choose. As a result, the sizes of apartments are tightly regulated.

Unavoidable Homogeneity
These fixed-size apartments are the unexpected side effect of the Korean government’s current housing policy, and apartment layouts are correspondingly limited. Based on the generic nature of apartment design, people usually treat apartments as assets that can be converted into cash. Apartment owners tend to appreciate hearing the news that property value will increase in their neighborhood, or that their complex is slated to undergo redevelopment. Even though high property values mean higher taxes, and redevelopment means relocation, apartment owners see their housing as a cash asset and welcome these changes.

When renovating or enlarging an apartment, it is common to encroach on the balcony area. Living rooms and bedrooms will become extended to the balcony. I remember when I was traveling in Paris, I saw a variety of dwellings that enriched the street with rhythmical elevation and diverse construction materials. But in Seoul, where I live and work, sadly the streets are filled with generic, homogeneous apartment complexes.

The companies who construct these identical buildings, want to make their product unique from others by strengthening their brand name. They attach their brand emblem on the outside of the boxy building and make the gate of the apartment complex elaborate and distinct. Believe it or not, they also provide smartphone applications that allow residents to manipulate the electricity devices and gas valves of their apartment remotely.

After this long history, the Korean apartment complex has become amazingly standardized and automated. Consequently people’s lives reflect this. Despite the complaint of a boring urban landscape, apartment complexes continue to contribute to the housing problem in Seoul. From another perspective, it is the realization of modernism.

This image is Ville Contemporaine (Contemporary City, 1922) that Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, drew. I find it similar to Seoul’s landscape. The description is as following.

“The centerpiece of this plan was a group of sixty-story cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in curtain walls of glass. The skyscrapers housed both offices and the flats of the wealthiest inhabitants. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the center of the planned city was a transportation hub which housed depots for buses and trains as well as highway intersections and at the top, an airport.”

It is 100 years after Le Courbusier dreamed of this urban landscape. If he was alive, he would say Seoul is the utopia that he had dreamed. But would it be still a utopia? Is the apartment complex still the best option for Seoul’s citizens? There are so many questions behind urban housing, and there are also as many experiments for better housing around the world. However, whether it is good or bad, the apartment complex will not perish in the near future. Instead it will change little by little, adapting to the evolving urban jungle. And hopefully we will see another utopia in the future.

wonseok croppedBy
Wonseok Jang

Disclaimer: The posts and comments on this site do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CITYNET or its members.

Seoul and the Apartment Complex Landscape

If the symbol of Paris is the Eiffel Tower, and then what is symbol of Seoul? What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of Seoul? For me, it is the apartment complex. It is the dominant housing style in Korea, and covers the landscape of Seoul. Fans of apartments always say “I think apartments are the best places to live, because they are convenient.” Well, that may be true. And it is also a very ‘convenient’ answer.








How did the apartment complex became the best option for Seoul citizens?

The indigenous Korean house is called a ‘hanok’, a one story wooden building with a gabled tile roof. The hanok is very different from an apartment. According to Korean law, an apartment building is a dwelling for multiple people, with at least five floors that accommodate more than 20 households. And ‘20 households’ sounds way too pretty. Actually a standard single Korean apartment building can easily hold more than 130 households (15 stories, 잠실주공APT, built by the Korea National Housing Corporation in 1978). Plus, apartment buildings never stand alone, they are built in groups. The change from single-family hanoks to massive apartment complex blocks was very drastic. What caused this change and why did people choose it?

The explanation goes back to the Korean War. Right after the war (1950~1953), there was nothing left but ash for Seoul citizens. The government was spending the majority of their rehabilitation budget on basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges and harbors, but not parks and social housing. Because of the lack of housing, citizens took initiative and created their own urban villages.

Next, the implementation of the 5 Year Plan of Economic Development (1962~1966) caused a huge increase in the middle class who demanded high quality housing. The government’s strategy to solve the housing problem was to let private companies deal with it. Since the urban situation was so unhealthy, construction companies decided to design apartment complexes that included parks, parking lots, and markets. At this time, these complexes were the only decent housing available. In this context, living in an apartment building connoted prestige and wealth, exactly the opposite connotation of apartments in western societies, as demonstrated by the demolition of Pruitt–Igoe in the United States (1972).


Where were apartments complexes constructed?
In order to build massive apartment complexes, a vast blank canvas was essential. After the Korean War, old Seoul was about to explode because of population growth. Believe it or not, it was dams that made the dream of apartment complexes possible. Like many other megacities, Seoul developed near a river. Since river flooding was so unpredictable and sometimes dangerous for citizens, the government implemented the Han River Development Plan (1967~1970).


During this time, President Park Jung-hee and Seoul Mayor Kim Hyun-ok both followed a very development-oriented policy and exercised an invincible power on their territory. The whole Han River went under construction. Major dams were constructed, stabilizing the water lever. Bridges were built and small islets were either destroyed or reclaimed, and the riverside was precisely defined by riverside highways. As a result, the sandy plain around Seoul turned into a dry, vast canvas, the tabula rasa for a new apartment city. But the riverside plain was just the first experiment. After proving the success of the apartment complex, they started to spread all over Seoul and now cover the rest of Korea.

Check back soon for part two of this blog post!

wonseok croppedBy
Wonseok Jang

Disclaimer: The posts and comments on this site do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CITYNET or its members.

Globalization: Impacts on Food Security, Environment, and Biodiversity

As a Global Environmental Health Sciences MPH candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, I am interested in working in the field of nutritional environment and food security. During my studies, I have become interested in examining the effects globalization of food has on the human population (ie. decreased food security and nutrition) and on the environment (ie. decreased biodiversity and pollution).

DSCN1847Due to development, states and cities face strong pressure to enter the global market. Often one of the first products that is available for export is agricultural goods. The globalization of food production and transport lead to many negative externalities and other costs, on top of the economic costs of food production.

The media often states that the number of malnourished people in the world is increasing. The figure cited includes solely the number of malnourished individuals, and leaves out the more than two billion undernourished (due to nutrition deficiencies or dietary imbalances) people in the world today.

As a result of globalization, farmers are pressured to sacrifice the long-term sustainability of their crops for higher productivity. Farmers often opt to use modern industrial agriculture techniques. This higher productivity is associated with increased and heavy use of fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, and harsh pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers are highly dependent on the use of fossil fuels and common pesticides kill many non-target organisms living in commensal symbiotic relationships with crops.

Modern agriculture techniques are associated with monocropping (growing a very narrow range of crop species over many seasons), overgrazing, and an increase in land cleared for agricultural use. For these reasons, modern agriculture is strongly associated with reduced biodiversity. The environmental impacts of modern agricultural techniques include soil erosion and increased soil salinity.

IMG_7892In order to transport agricultural products to distant markets, there is an increase in carbon emissions. Tthe amount of the increase depends on the type of transport used – truck, train, boat, airplane – and the distance traveled. Recall that farmers are facing strong pressure to enter the global market. These same farmers, before globalization, were mainly subsistence farmers and sold their excess crops (often the second harvest) in local marketplaces. This pressured to enter the global market increases food insecurity on the local level. Even if food is available locally after globalization, it is often unaffordable to local residents.

As 2014 approaches, it is important to address the biodiversity and food insecurity problems that were introduced by the globalization of food. These problems are directly associated with multiple Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): MDG 1 (eliminate extreme poverty and hunger), MDG 4 (reduce child mortality), MDG 4 (improve maternal health), and MDG 7 (ensure environmental sustainability) and are indirectly associated with many of the other MDGs.

There are some potential solutions to the problems introduced by globalization, but these solutions, like many solutions to others, usually work in theory, but not in practice. The solutions that will go the farthest in addressing these issues deal with distal factors, the hardest pieces to impact. These distal factors include introducing political change, increasing equity, decentralization, democratization, and implementing land reform.

Many farmers acknowledge that the use of modern agriculture is not sustainable, so this is not an issue of education, but rather an issue of a clash of knowledge and the political and economic pressures placed upon them by the local, national, regional, and global systems. The farmers know that they should increase the fallow periods of their land, use green manures and natural predators, and practice crop rotation. Without lifting the political and economic pressures placed on farmers, it will be extremely difficult for them to implement the necessary changes in their agricultural practice.

For more information on agriculture, health and food security, see the below links:
“The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013” Food and Agriculture Organization (http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/)
The World Health Organization definition of Food Security: http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/
WFP Global Food Security Updates: http://www.wfp.org/content/global-update-food-security-monitoring
international Food Policy Research Institute: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/globalization-food-and-agriculture-and-poor; http://www.ifpri.org/publication/subsistence-profit

meredith squareBy Merdith Knaak
Former CITYNET Intern
World Health Organization Intern 2013