Why is the government in the garden? This was the title of the last presentation in our Working Group Urban Food Governance at the AESOP conference this weekend in Brighton. Some governments are getting into the garden, case studies presented by conference participants showed how and why. Food is ‘becoming public’ a process of taking responsibility for what has been seen until very recently as a pure free-market issue. Public planning and action occurs for various reasons; because of urban health and obesity, the Urban Heat Island effect, food security in poor neighborhoods or in response to civic actions and food movements.
Notwithstanding the promising examples, there is reason for worry too. The political climate has shifted markedly in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands and budget cuts are threatening the sustainable food agenda because this ‘additional’ issue came in last and is the first to be thrown out. A second reason is what seems to me a continuing planner’s identity crisis. The philosopher Hans Achterhuis admits in his recent book that neoliberalism became so much the norm that the process of how it slipped into virtually every policy by small pragmatic adjustments happened unseen even for many of the critics.
Planning seems the opposite of neoliberalism. At the conference, we were stimulated to start planning again, the word master plan fell and was heavily debated. Planning –by default – seems to restrict choice. And free choice is the symbol and myth of neoliberalism with which few people dare to interfere. It is an unproductive and misleading contrast. As if no planning takes place now. Urban planners who decide upon the location for a supermarket are planning, the question is, which criteria are used and which of those do conflict with other public interests? The neoliberal idea of planners restricting choices has encroached the belief that planners can counteract private business interests. They can and should I think. The case studies often showed that current successful examples developed from a particular local ‘culture’ among those working with urban food planning incorporating public values such as equity, fairness, access and community.
The presentations and keynotes will be made available over the course of the coming week at the conference website