urban farm rooftop BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP/Getty Images

Cities Hold the Key to Food Sustainability

Jean-Jacques Rousseau condemned urbanization for encouraging the selfish, corrupt pursuit of one's own good at the expense of others. He was half right: today, it is cities that that can solve our toughest challenges, including poverty and hunger, but only if their governments can prevail over the powerful interests that cities generate.

AUSTIN – Living in a city turns you into a cannibal. That, at least, is the metaphor preferred by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered cities a pit of human corruption. Rousseau was so convinced of the malign effects of urbanization that he “would rather see men grazing on meadow grass than devouring each other in cities.” Urbanization inures people to the suffering of the countryside, and as townspeople crowd together, their capacity for compassion toward others atrophies. Urbanites become the kind of people who are ready to sacrifice one another to satisfy their appetites: cannibals. 

Rousseau’s fear that cities inspire inhabitants to pursue their own interests at the expense of others remains as relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century. And nowhere is this truer than in the food system.

For as long as there have been towns, there have been strategies to feed them. In the United Kingdom, the allotment movement during the Industrial Revolution established a system that gave the working poor access to land for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Today, these urban gardens remain a popular means of sustenance for British urbanites; an estimated 350,000 people have allotments and another 800,000 want them.

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