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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Land security through food security

By Pamela Hartley-Pinto, on 31 August 2023

What would land security for urban informal settlement residents look like if the state prioritised, and rewarded, food sovereignty and security instead of automatically turning first to questions of land tenure and property rights? This question is a provocation to think land security for marginalised groups anew, and simultaneously address a key dimension of food and nutrition in concerns for social protection.

When the state talks about land and addressing insecurity of residents in informal settlements, the first issues they reach for are always tenure and property rights. This is because the framing of land as a commodity within the interaction of supply and demand is so prevalent. However, there are other ways of considering land and food systems which could also form the basis for a contract between the state and residents in informal settlements so that food security could become a guarantee for land security.

Status quo of land use management

It has already been established that “clear and secure land tenure can improve livelihoods and sustainable management of natural resources, including forests, and promote sustainable development and responsible investment that eradicates poverty and food insecurity (Mennen, 2015).” UN SDGs talk about “access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property” as well as “including secure and equal access to land.” Despite this and the evidence around benefits of secure land tenure, governments dither, but rethinking it from a food security perspective could open new avenues

When flipping the order of things and re-prioritizing, putting food security first could lead to land tenure for those providing the food, taking care of the community gardens and looking after the produce, as well as act as a quantifiable alternative to social protection reducing the burden on the state. As Li puts it, the meaning given to land varies depending on who you are asking and as well as the “materiality” and the “inscription devices define what type of resource land is (Li, 2014).” Also, “land tenure has usually been viewed as a supply-side’ issue, while food security has been considered a `demand-side’ issue (Maxwell and Wiebe, 1999).” Having this distinction in mind and rethinking the relationship between food security and land tenure has the potential to flip the politics of the discourse and the relations of power within the territories, in fact giving other actors who have a stake in the discourse a seat at the table. Empowered and organised communities or coalitions could use a new narrative when referring to the land they take care of and shift the supply and demand logic.

Peru and food insecurity

Drawing on the example of contemporary Peruvian food security: data from the Food and Agriculture Organization states that over 51% of the population is living in moderate food insecurity, meaning that “people have reduced the quality of their diet or are eating less than they need (FAO, 2022).” Exploring the links between land tenure and food security, Maxwell and Wiebe highlight how “access to food derives from opportunities to produce food directly or to exchange other commodities or services for food (Maxwell and Wiebe, 1999).”

Currently, the Peruvian government has a variety of social programmes tackling food insecurity but none of them address the root of the problem. The programmes established now include food handouts, cash transfers or government-sponsored soup kitchens with little to no capacity building. What would other strategies to tackle food insecurity look like? Perhaps involving communities themselves and supporting co-produced solutions to move away from a top-down welfare practice to a bottom-up coalition of government and non-government actors.

Working with informality

Acknowledging and rewarding the existence of established community networks, artisanal risk prevention and natural disaster management from the grassroots as well as community-led soup kitchens should be taken seriously as solid examples of community infrastructures and human and social capital (Moser, 1998). Reframing these assets into food security and governance is just a matter of recognising and working with informality rather than punishing it.

Collaborative bottom-up strategies through their “invented spaces of citizenship” (Miraftab, 2004) fight exclusion and aim to support local collective action for survival whilst ensuring food security for the communities they serve. Seeing that these initiatives at the grassroots are working well, why not add additional government support in the form of land for community gardens specifically for those community soup kitchens that are already mapped and established?

Overall, considering the materiality of land, there could be “an expanded capacity to envision underutilised land as a globally important asset capable of producing food, profits, and a reduction of poverty as well (Li, 2014).”

In conclusion, the question of refocusing on food security and sovereignty as the starting point for land urban security as well as looking at it as an alternative to current social protection policies changes priorities. It gives a strengthened platform to insurgent planners and bottom-up community-led strategies of survival while promoting ownership and a sound alternative to the state’s responsibility to its citizens regarding social protection.

Community-led soup kitchen-Absalon Alarcon in Lima, Peru (Photo: TECHO Peru)


Maria, community leader, holding produce from her urban community garden (photo: TECHO Peru)


Li, T.M. (2014) “What is land? assembling a resource for Global Investment,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(4), pp. 589–602. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12065.

Maxwell, D. and Wiebe, K. (1999) “Land tenure and Food Security: Exploring Dynamic Linkages,” Development and Change, 30(4), pp. 825–849. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-7660.00139.

Mennen, T. (2017) Know your SDGS: Land matters for sustainable development, Chemonics International. Available at: https://chemonics.com/blog/know-your-sdgs-land-matters-for-sustainable-development/ (Accessed: January 8, 2023).

Miraftab, F. (2004) Invited and Invented Spaces of Participation: Neoliberal Citizenship and Feminists’ Expanded Notion of Politics. Wagadu: Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies. (e journal). http://appweb.cortland.edu/ojs/index.php/Wagadu

Moser, C.O.N. (1998) “The asset vulnerability framework: Reassessing urban poverty reduction strategies,” World Development, 26(1), pp. 1–19. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/s0305-750x(97)10015-8.

Peru’s food crisis grows amid soaring prices and poverty: FAO | UN News (2022) United Nations. United Nations. Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/11/1130737#:~:text=According%20to%20a%202021%20 FAO, eating%20less%20than%20they%20need.%E2%80%9D (Accessed: January 6, 2023).

UCL’s Urban Agriculture Society – A Green Champion in the Making

By ucfuwil, on 2 May 2013

Written in collaboration with Iwona Bisaga 

Interview UAS 034

London is a sprawling megacity. Sadly, its ecological footprint of more than 34 million hectares is also outsized. The area required to provide for services and resources as well as waste locations to support the city’s functioning is thus over 200 times the size of London, (UK Environment Agency). This provides striking evidence that London’s sustainability issues are critical challenges that urgently need to be addressed. A group of passionate and ambitious DPU students with green ideas are determined to become part of the solution by introducing urban agriculture to UCL. It is the clear way forward!

The Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security Foundation defines urban agriculture as “the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities.” It not only advocates food production to enhance urban food security, but is also an integral part of the city’s economic and ecological systems. Many cities in developing countries have preserved small-scale food production: the streets of many African cities, such as Accra, are still enlivened with goats and chicken. Residents of large urban centres in the developed world, on the other hand, rediscovered urban agriculture a few decades ago. Here, urban agriculture is developing alongside more traditional urban development patterns. In regions around the globe, urban agriculture awareness has spread and the number of practitioners has been rising dramatically. This growing popularity comes at a time when global food crises are occurring at a greater rate threatening both developing and developed countries.

In London, the concept has captured the attention of government departments, local authorities and businesses stimulating the introduction of programmes to tackle climate change and unemployment by the means of urban agriculture. Some Crouch End supermarkets for example have started growing vegetables on their roof terrace and numerous schemes have been introduced, including Cultivate London (a farm with an innovative approach to urban agriculture) and Good Food for Camden (a strategy developed by the NHS Camden). In fact, urban agriculture has become so successful that new urban farmers now, ironically, have to venture outside of London to find plots of available land.

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“They were waiting for a group of students to start doing this!” (Maria Neto)

With the above successes in mind, a group of DPU students have taken action and created the Urban Agriculture Society (UAS). With the knowledge of similar initiatives at fellow institutions such as LSE, UAS have a clear vision (and an even stronger determination) to ensure that UCL participates in confronting London’s food challenges and in developing greener and improve sustainability strategies.

 But what does it take to make students want to dirty their hands growing food they could find in the any supermarket?

When asked about the reasons why they have decided to focus their efforts on bringing the idea of urban agriculture to life at UCL in an interview, UAS members Maria, Martin and Thomas unanimously answered: because there is something in it for everyone!  Some, such as Martin, find it important to increase food autonomy in urban areas and import less agricultural products from overseas, especially since the diet of about 2 billion people does not contain sufficient nutrients or calories and the exported food is needed elsewhere. Naturally, this would also have a positive impact of CO2 emissions. He says: “potentially, every lettuce that you do not import from Spain and just grow in your backyard is a contribution” to alleviate these issues of the global food production system.

Additionally, Thomas and Maria, emphasise that urban agriculture is not just about farming in an urban setting or making effective rooftop insulation, but also about the social benefits.

Interview UAS 009

“Urban Agriculture has social implications and provides an opportunity for community building as well.” (Thomas Chung)

Many feel a lack of connection with their urban space, the concrete and cement, and are looking for a way to connect to their urban surroundings. It is a hobby, but also educates citizens on the possibilities that exist in their surroundings. Thus the three interviewees agree: the UAS is not only an attractive way to reduce UCL’s CO2 footprint, but has the potential to change the university through the creation of green spaces in which staff and students can work to connect with themselves, the city or the world.

Interview UAS 004 (2)

“Let’s take over the rooftops!” (Martin Lichtenegger)

For an initiative conceived during a fire alarm evacuation and created with as much enthusiasm as sense for urgency, the UAS has filled a conceptual gap in UCL’s sustainability strategy. It is prepared to overcome the numerous expected challenges such as fighting for space – a rooftop or other patch of land at UCL. Action will be taken must be taken soon to obtain this land after the lengthy winter has delayed plans and the UAS founders are eager to finish what they have started and leave an urban agriculture legacy for a new generation of students to build upon in the next academic year.

If you have ideas, want to stay informed or get your hands dirty, join the Facebook group: (Growing UCL – Urban Agriculture Society)