Wastani agricultural plain in Saida: What do we need to change in towns to make local agriculture possible again?

While cities are becoming increasingly urbanized, traditional agriculture is disappearing from the urban environment, although its presence in the cities and their suburbs have been historically an important source of food procurement. Before municipal parks and gardens, agricultural fields and terraces were the main green areas in cities sustaining a certain quality of air and a connection to the land. The need to dedicate land for more residential and economic activities has been mostly on the expense of agricultural urban space.

However, in the last decades, we have seen a growing movement for maintaining and developing urban agriculture in cities. A variety of drivers are behind this. First, local production of food – even on roofs and balconies – is important for many poor households to secure affordable food procurement. Second, in a context of skepticism regarding the food industry and higher social concerns regarding food risks and safety, for many households, being able to trace the source of their food and, if possible, take part in its production becomes important. Third, in emerging approaches of circular economy entrepreneurship and new high-tech processes, urban agriculture is presented as a promising niche for investors. Fourth, from an environmental point of view, agriculture could also mean more biodiversity, better mitigation of green islands effects and opportunities link people back to soil.

However, one might question if the pollution – even toxicity – of urban environments allows for an urban agriculture that could restore the relation between humans and nature. Would urban agriculture, to survive, require to be « put in bubbles » isolated from polluted urban environments? Who would be able to build and invest in those screening bubbles and high-tech processes? Does this mean the existence of a structural inequality in the quality and safety of urban agriculture production? Hence, what politics reside in urban agriculture? Would this interest in urban agriculture be nothing more than another individualist exercise of gardening or a token for the development of another high-tech capitalist industrial food production? 

Or, on the contrary, would the growing aspiration to farm the urban space and grow food in it become a catalyst for a collective consciousness and movement pushing public authorities towards a radical stance for liberating living environments from pollution and toxicity? In this perspective, what roles could urban planning as a discipline play? Is there other ways of addressing this issue beyond zoning to limit sprawl and preserve agricultural fields around cities?

This seminar will start by stating the problem from an agricultural point of view: what does urbanization do to agriculture? Then it will present different forms of innovative urban agriculture approaches. In a third part, it will focus on the case of the Wastani plain in Saida, where agricultural fields are being replaced by buildings and where the municipality of Saida has conceived a project for addressing urbanization in this area. The main issue addressed in the different presentations being: is there a room for compromise and cohabitation between urbanization and agriculture?

1- Opening Session: (10 mins)
Welcome note and general presentation of the seminar series by the organizers.

2- Round Table: (60 mins)
a- Joe Nasr, Lecturer and associate researcher at the Center for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University (Toronto)
b- Habib Debs, Urban planner, head of URBI office
c- Ismael Sheikh-Hassan, Lecturer at the Lebanese University, founding member of Lil-madina Initiative

Karim Eid-Sabbagh, Independent Researcher – Member of the Thimar research collective on agriculture, environment and labour

Beit Beirut, Wednesday 11th 2020 5:00 PM