A group of tropical fruits and vegetables on a plain white table; A group of tropical fruits and vegetables on a plain white table;

Circular bites: reworking our urban food ecosystems for city-wide resilience, Singapore

How can cities implement local food production while targeting a sustainable future?

The events of 2020 threw food security into the spotlight. Our Singapore office has been studying ways to make cities more food-resilient, using the nation state as a test-bed for an Urban Food Production Masterplan.

Findings:

  • Singapore’s small, highly-populated footprint provides an excellent test-bed and benchmark to explore new approaches to urban food production.

  • Achieving long term urban food security requires circular design principles across systems of energy use, water, waste, industry and employment.

  • From high tech production to community gardening, cultural and social changes will be required as new food production processes come to fruition.

Project Summary


90% of food imported in Singapore today

30%Singapore target for locally produced food by 2030

Creating a local and resilient food supply chain

Singapore is a small and highly urbanised state and imports 90% of its food. This reliance on imports makes it particularly vulnerable to shocks and stressors like Covid-19 and climate change. However, this challenge isn’t faced by Singapore alone. With 68% of the world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, Singapore is already dealing with problems many other cities will face in the next 50 years.

A truck full of cartons of imported produce with two people standing next to the truck A truck full of cartons of imported produce with two people standing next to the truck
Around 90% of Singapore's food is imported.

“On top of that, agriculture uses 70% of the world’s fresh water. In a climate emergency, we must start managing food more sustainably,” said Chintan Raveshia, our Cities Planning and Design Leader in Singapore. 

To address the issue, Singapore has introduced a target to generate 30% of its food locally by 2030. Helping to make this ambition a reality, our Singapore office has been working with stakeholders like the Centre for Liveable Cities to understand the changes needed. The results, collated in The Urban Food Production Masterplan Framework, is a world-first piece of research that maps Singapore’s current food ecosystem and explores future scenarios to reach the visionary ‘30 by 30’ goal.

“The masterplan is ambitious,” says Chintan. “It addresses the problem from a country-wide perspective, looking at food supply across the spectrum: from large-scale production to market gardens. But beyond that, it’s a framework designed to be a practical manual for implementation.” Using Singapore as a benchmark, the report highlights how resilience and food security are deeply entangled globally.

How can cities match food need with zero-carbon goals?

To address this link between resilience and food security, we need to match resource requirements around space, water, electricity and transport with goals around city resilience, zero-carbon and the circular economy. How do we help our decision makers and city planners make the transitions needed? The Framework developed by our team includes a series of design interventions, planning guidelines and policy advice that is economically, socially and environmentally feasible.

Fortunately, we already have many advanced tools at our disposal. The work is in linking them up. For example, urban vertical farms use 70% less water than conventional farming. Digital tools can connect vertical farms with marketplaces and provide better tracking of store shelf life to create a more efficient supply chain.

I was shocked to discover that 50% of the planet’s habitable land is used for agriculture, and two-thirds of that goes to meat and dairy livestock. ” Chintan Raveshia Chintan Raveshia Cities Planning + Design Leader, Singapore

New supply chains that replace environmentally intensive foods like beef and chicken will bring huge benefits for the planet and its ecosystems. Arguments about what is and is not healthy to eat – like the fuss around the Impossible Burger – will likely rage on. But there are demonstrable environmental benefits, like better land use and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, associated with guilt-free, ethically-minded cultured “happy meats”. These cultured meats do, however, require a lot of water.   

Basil seeds being grown in Singapore Basil seeds being grown in Singapore

This is where a country with a strong start-up environment, like Singapore, can bring agricultural tech, water and energy specialists together to solve these problems and contribute to changing our food culture and social expectations.

Education on food production and consumption will be key to success

It’s likely that some people will have reservations about new sources of protein or fibre. Fostering a deeper understanding of what’s required to grow food can help with making the transition. “There is work to be done to enable people to take the changes on board,” Chintan says. “People will be more willing to give-up year-round access to a seasonal fruit like apples if they have a better understanding of the broader context.” On this front, the Framework looks at the importance of enriching people’s immediate relationship with food production. For example, having children helping to water and weed a community garden alongside their grandparents builds an understanding of food generation as well as social connection and community spirit.

The Framework addresses a global problem by offering local solutions. It also meets Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 2: Zero Hunger via sustainable food production systems and resilient agriculture, and SDG 12: Responsible production and Consumption, to reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses. 

Singapore can set the benchmark for other countries looking at food security

Following testing in Singapore, the team is already working to bring it to other cities like the new capital of Indonesia. With climate change and population growth likely to catalyse global change in land use and food production, we’ve ensured that the Framework also applies in less dense countries with more direct access to land. It’s no wonder countries like Australia, already experiencing a change in arable land availability, are expressing interest.

If we act now, we can improve our policies and social perspectives to enable urban food production before our cities reach a crisis point. As a collective, we have an opportunity to implement new ways of providing food security and in doing so increase resilience through a more integrated and circular approach to water, electricity, and transport connections.

Implementing new logistics for waste, water and tech, creates holistic industrial estates that enable circular manufacturing. It’s this multidisciplinary approach, this ecosystem, that can solve many of our problems. Like bringing an energy specialist together with a food lab technician. ” Chintan Raveshia Chintan Raveshia Cities Planning + Design Leader, Singapore