In 2007, the United Nations declared that over 50% of the world’s population now lived in cities. 

This followed many centuries of rural to urban migration driven mainly by displaced agricultural workers seeking employment in industrial and other urban sectors. 

In the past decade or so a reversal of this trend has started in wealthy countries. Numerous factors initiated this change — urban traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, and the perception of high crime rates. 

This outmigration has been occurring in the US for several decades, at least among the wealthy or middle-classes. Recent data in Australia by the Regional Australia Institute has shown that between 2011 and 2016 population outside of Australia’s capital cities grew by more than 10%. For Sydney, for this period on average, 37,000 people left Sydney with just 32,500 moving into the city per year.  

And more exciting news, “Millennials who live in the regions are more likely to move to another regional place than to a capital city, and a third who move to a metro area will return to the regions” .  So once started, this trend has the momentum to continue into the future.

We have now been in the Covid 19 pandemic for over six months and it is clear that the lockdown procedures adopted to tackle this virus had a much harsher effect on urban dwellers than those in rural areas. For those like myself, in the rural hinterland of the North Coast, the impact of the lockdown has been minimal. As one neighbour quipped, “I have been living in social isolation for 17 years, nothing changed here.”

Epidemiologists and virologists have been warning of the threat of pandemics for some decades now, but governments on the whole have ignored these warnings. We now are experiencing the outcome of this neglect, and it is likely there will be more pandemics to follow.

The future of cities has been under scrutiny for many reasons, one being the unsustainable food supply, particularly for urban dwellers. This is from both an energy and nutrient perspective. Around one-fifth of the total annual global greenhouse gas emissions are emitted by the food sector (without considering emissions due to land use change).  This energy is used at the farm level for cultivation, planting, weeding, harvesting and storage. Then comes transport to processors and/or markets; refrigeration for storage, packaging etc.

From a plant nutrient perspective, consider the three main macro-nutrients: nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. Phosphate and potassium are both mined and are finite resources. Phosphates may be depleted in as little as 50 years. The more abundant potassium has several centuries. Nitrogen, on the other hand, is taken from the atmosphere using considerable energy, often from fossil fuel sources. 

The vast amount of nitrogen that has been fixed for industrial agriculture has severely disrupted the natural nitrogen cycle of the earth. This has resulted in surplus nitrogen appearing in a plant-available form, polluting our waterways. Even in the ocean, rising nitrogen levels are causing algal blooms. 

To solve this plant nutrient issue we need to change urgently from a linear system, where most of nutrients end up in ocean due to outfalls from urban sewage systems, to a circular system where nutrients are captured and reused in the food production system. This may be possible with a higher proportion of the population living on smallish rural blocks, growing their own food using recycled nutrients. (This system would fit ideally with universal basic income (UBI), but that is another story in itself.)

Australia has prided itself on efficient agriculture producing considerable food surpluses, not just for domestic consumption, but as important exports. Much of this has been heavily mechanised with ever decreasing amounts of labour required. 

We have often criticised the French for their technically inefficient approach to agriculture. On the positive side, the French have maintained a vibrant rural population, unlike Australia with our dying rural towns. In order to accommodate an expanded rural population in Australia, maybe we can learn some lessons from the French.

To encourage urban Australians to move to the countryside we need to look at land titles and current ownership structures of rural land. In the US and New Zealand, much of the farmland on settlement was for small portions at the family level. In Australia this was called “yeomen agriculture” and was the preferred style of rural development at the outset. But for some reason it was regarded as a failure, and so large tracts became the favoured development style. Hence the “squattocracy” was born. 

This may explain the origins for choosing large tracts of land, which we still seem to favour.  The council 100 acre minimum area to build a house has no logical foundation and should be scrapped. This would increase the land available to potential rural dwellers. It would also assist urban dwellers to accelerate this outmigration from unsustainable cities.

Ian Oxenford, 

Kendall, NSW

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