Big Role of Small and Intermediate Cities in Food Systems
Small and intermediate cities merit more emphasis in urban planning and food system policies. Yet, the largest cities and capital cities overshadow their potential with outsized political attention.
Why do smaller cities matter? Not only are they hubs for agricultural producers and other food system actors, but the cities also serve as central locales for food processing and trading.
Many consumers live there, too. In fact, in many countries and especially in lower income regions, most of the urban population lives in small and intermediate urban centers.
Rethinking strategic centers for rural areas
Globally, small and intermediate cities draw in 2.3 billion rural residents to use their goods and services. These people live in the catchment areas — within three hours travel — of cities with populations less than 1 million. Put differently, two out of three rural residents have a connection with an intermediate or smaller city, as opposed to a large city. In sub-Saharan Africa, this number increases to four out of five rural residents. A newly available dataset on urban-rural catchment areas of differently sized cities finds that, surprisingly, big cities do not matter the most.
In fact, the figure below shows that megacities and towns have the lowest ratios of the population outside the urban core to their urban population. Globally, this ratio is approximately four times higher for intermediate cities. Meaning, there is a proportionately larger population share living in the catchment areas of intermediate cities than the largest cities or towns. Small cities also sustain a substantial population in their catchment areas. This tendency is consistent regardless of average per-capita income levels.
A possible explanation may be that benefits from agglomeration economies increase with city size, but wide-scale congestion limits access once cities grow beyond 1 million residents. These results indicate that services, essential inputs and jobs associated with small- and intermediate-sized cities are accessible to a proportionately larger rural population. The influence of urban centers of different sizes inevitably has implications for how a country’s agri-food system is organized. In low-income countries, where the agri-food sector represents a large share of employment, improvements in urban-rural linkages will impact the broader regional economy. This can occur through the development of local agri-food businesses to store, process and trade local food products in small- and intermediate-sized cities.
City region food systems for small- and intermediate-sized cities
Improvements in urban-rural linkages for small- and intermediate-sized cities can better connect remote producers and value chains to urban centers and markets. This aligns with the concept of city region food systems, which considers that a food system includes an urban center and its surrounding peri-urban and rural hinterland.
The city region food approach can accelerate agri-business development and employment generation in value chains to better meet the growing urban food demand. The resultant boost to the local and regional economy increases non-farm employment, diversifies livelihoods and ensures small-scale farmers access to value chains and markets.
How the urban-rural catchment areas dataset can strengthen food systems
The urban-rural catchment areas approach is useful for city region food systems. As an open-source spatial dataset at a global scale, it provides information to assess the food system boundaries and the existing infrastructure and institutions. From it, a typology of cities can be developed to assist in orienting food system interventions.
Entry points for food system interventions may vary between different types of cities and their relation to the agri-food system:
- Large cities and megacities may integrate food systems planning, such as initiatives to improve access to safe and nutritious foods, into urban development projects.
- Sub-regional and regional cities might focus on developing or improving wholesale markets, as well as improving agricultural and food extension services.
- Small cities in agricultural regions could strengthen their focus on agri-food processing and prioritize improvements in market access and efficiency.
- Agricultural towns and their surrounding areas will benefit from agriculture value chain projects.
Urban-rural catchment areas can be extended to address other development issues and aspects of city region food systems. For instance, the location of a city and its access to transport networks (ocean, river or modern highway) affect the type, origins and affordability of food consumed by residents. Transport networks also affect the competitiveness of agri-food products traded across catchment areas. This, in turn, influences the sustainability and climate footprint of the food system. Additionally, cities with easy access to multiple sources of food supply may be more resilient to shocks. The urban-rural catchment area approach can shed new light on these issues through incorporating other relevant data.
This blog has been written by Andrea Cattaneo and Theresa McMenomy based on findings from:
Cattaneo, A., Adukia, A., Brown, D., Christiaensen, L., Evans, D.K., Haakenstad, A., McMenomy, T., Partridge, M., Vaz, S. and Weiss, D. (2021a). Economic and Social Development Along the Urban-Rural Continuum: New Opportunities to Inform Policy. Policy Research Working Paper, no. WPS 9756. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
Cattaneo, A., Nelson, A. and McMenomy, T. (2021b). "Global Mapping of Urban-Rural Catchment Areas Reveals Unequal Access to Services." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(2). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2011990118