Urban ecology that saved Argentina’s Rosario held up as a model for others

  • The Argentine city of Rosario has over the past two decades developed private-public partnerships to set aside land for farming and create a network of local markets where farmers locally sell their crops.
  • Local sustainable farming is seen as a solution to mitigate climate change and promote biodiversity, and Rosario’s urban agriculture program does this by growing food for domestic consumption.
  • This reduces greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation, boosts the amount of green space within the city to reduce the urban heat island effect, and allows diverse wildlife populations to thrive alongside crops.
  • Rosario’s detailed maps identified vacant land unsuitable for other purposes and reimagined that land to create farms within the city, while collaboration with neighboring jurisdictions has led to the development of an agricultural green belt surrounding Rosario.

In the Argentine city of Rosario, an award-winning urban agriculture program is marking nearly two decades as a model for how to put local farming and agroecology at the heart of a system of equitable and sustainable development.

Throughout this period, the program has manifested many of the benefits of such a system: improved public health outcomes, job creation, efficient repurposing of underused real estate, and mitigation of greenhouse gases caused by food transport. But proponents say local farming and agroecology — agricultural systems crafted to enhance yields and benefit the natural environment — remain largely overlooked by policymakers, urban planners and activists seeking to build a better world.

In the case of Rosario, it took desperate times to spark this shift.

“A perfect storm of financial factors coalesced in the early 2000s to trigger an economic collapse in Argentina,” says Anne Maassen, the global lead for the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Ross Center Prize for Cities.

The Argentine Great Depression, as it’s known, saw income for more than 50% of the country fall below the poverty line. The city of Rosario, long an agricultural hub, saw 25% of its workforce lose their jobs. With inflation rising and food supplies declining, people looted grocery stores out of hunger. Compounding the economic woes, Rosario faced a vicious cycle of wildfires in the nearby delta that eroded the soil and vegetation, leading to flooding.

Rosario suffers from floods and the urban heat island effect, both of which climate change has exacerbated. Photo by the Municipality of Rosario.

In the years leading up to the economic collapse, Rosario had increasingly taken to monocropping: growing soybeans to meet global demand, and importing the vast majority of the food for domestic consumption. In 1998, the market for soybeans collapsed along with the rest of the economy, and Rosario was left with a sharp decrease in revenue and nothing to eat.

But Rosario still had a community of highly skilled farmers and widespread need for food and jobs. It also had maps showing vacant and underutilized land that was either abandoned or degraded, and therefore unsuitable for other purposes.

“Converting these areas to farms transformed them into productive agroecological sites to produce high-quality food, boost biodiversity, reduce air pollution, regulate temperature, and enhance soil quality,” says María Cantore, Rosario’s municipal undersecretary of the environment.

Urban agroecology also created jobs, a critical component of Rosario’s recovery. Taking an ecosystem approach, Rosario’s government not only helped more farmers grow more food on more land, but also created a system of pop-up markets where the food they grew could be bought and sold locally.

More heartache driven by global demand

“The strength of local community agriculture was tested again in 2008,” Maassen says.

A rebound in the global soybean market caused landowners to allocate more cleared land to soybean crops. For this, they had to push cattle off cleared land and into the Delta del Paraná. And to make the delta suitable for the cattle, they set fires to clear the vegetation.

The fires quickly grew out of control, destroying land and wildlife populations, with the thick smoke posing a public health hazard. The rains that followed retriggered the vicious cycle of flooding. The delta caught fire again in 2020, this time because of climate change issues.

‘Win-win for everyone’

In 2015, Rosario had expanded the urban agriculture program beyond the city’s borders and into neighboring jurisdictions. Together, they created a first-of-its-kind land ordinance known as the Green Belt Project that permanently designated 800 hectares (1,980 acres) of land for agroecological fruit and vegetable production.

The project produced intricate maps that provided an unintended benefit when the delta caught fire in 2020: With the maps in hand, Rosario and its neighbors could see clearly that the Green Belt Project areas maintained soil integrity and reduced flooding and temperatures. In addition to soil integrity, the lack of pesticide use in the program also enhanced biodiversity.

Over the years, as Rosario’s political leadership has changed, the community agriculture program has maintained strong support across administrations.

Local residents walk and cycle to a produce market in downtown Rosario. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

“The many benefits to the people, land, and wildlife have firmly embedded the program into the long-term urban planning process, policies, budgeting, and environmental plans,” Maassen says. “The stability of the program has shown how government can foster public-private partnerships that are a win-win for everyone.”

To recognize inspiring urban development programs around the world, the World Resources Institute created the Ross Center Prize for Cities. The prize includes a substantial cash award for the winning program and a global communications plan to raise awareness about the efforts of the five finalists. On June 29 this year, WRI awarded Rosario with the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities for its efforts in sustainable food production. From a field of 262 entries from 160 cities in 54 countries, Rosario’s work stood out for its longevity, commitment to inclusivity and social justice, multidimensional benefits, and philosophy to develop partnerships across geographies and in harmony with nature. The 2022 Prize for Cities is now open for submission and entries will be accepted through Feb. 15, 2022.

From vicious to virtuous cycles

Today, 300 urban farmers in and around Rosario temporarily own a combination of public and private land where they grow 2,500 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables in harmony with the land and wildlife for local residents. A study by the National University of Rosario and RUAF Urban Agriculture and Food Systems showed that this has lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 95% compared to imported food. In a boost to gender equality and social inclusion, 65% of Rosario’s farmers are women.

With an eye toward inspiring other elected officials to embrace urban agroecology, Rosario Mayor Paul Javkin recommends a community-wide approach.

“Listen to farmers and give them a voice to co-create short-term opportunities that also consider the future,” he said in an interview regarding advice to other mayors around the world. “COVID-19 has shown us what our essential needs are. Food and health care are more important than ever. The climate crisis emphasizes that any solutions we create must be in harmony with nature.”

Mayor Pablo Javkin with Marta Queñas in a Vegetable Garden Park. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Banner image: The Urban Agriculture Program’s expansion to areas outside the city protects the land from urban development and conversion to soy cultivation, helps reduce flood risk and lowers air temperatures. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.