Building and Feeding Our Growing Urban World
In the fall of 2000, just after I earned my degree in philosophy from Iowa State University, a unique opportunity landed in my lap: to become the first Communications Director for the World Food Prize Foundation.
In the early years of Ambassador Kenneth Quinn’s and the Ruan family’s leadership bringing the Prize to Iowa, a very small team brought to life a spectacular vision for a global dialogue on the future of food.
The annual Borlaug Dialogue was transformed from a small conference in a charming, bucolic place to a Davos-level international symposium that regularly welcomes global leaders like Sir Gordon Conway, Bill Gates, Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon, Tony Blair and literally hundreds of experts on pressing issues in global food security.
But there’s a story that might be missed in the middle of all the World Food Prize’s success: our impact on the city that the Prize calls home.
Those of us that remember downtown Des Moines in the late 1990s and early 2000s remember a place where, after 5 o’clock, you could have easily set up a bowling alley in the middle of Grand Avenue and enjoyed yourself without disruption for a good couple of hours.
Much has changed in Des Moines in the 20 years since Amb. Quinn took the helm of the World Food Prize Foundation. Though there are many important players and major social and economic forces at work, it is important to note the accomplishments that the Prize’s small team of “non-profit entrepreneurs” and risk-takers have brought to the story of the Des Moines Renaissance.
To make the Prize’s presence in Des Moines permanent, the Foundation, with support from Iowa’s Legislature, Governors, and Economic Development Authorities turned a remarkable, but aged, Public Library into the magnificent Hall of Laureates,which is truly one of the most spectacular urban redevelopment projects anywhere in the world.
Stories like these are popping up all over the United States--and around the world. In my new book The Next American City with former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, we explore the ways that mid-size cities with distinct ideas and big visions are building paths for smaller communities’ ability to create global impact in an increasingly connected world. At even a cursory glance, many cities across the world have a unique role to play.
This is a major trend and a significant story for policymakers, investors and social leaders to grapple with. But in truth, Des Moines’ history and relevance is especially unique--and a topic that worldwide visitors to the Prize each fall can benefit from learning. Here’s why:
Perhaps the biggest force in the world - the force building human challenges and creating real opportunity - is urbanization. The force of urbanization driving people to live closer and closer to each other is relatively well-known and discussed in the human development and hunger disciplines.
What may be under-recognized in this global debate is a pair of ideas that can bring cities like Des Moines and their fast-growth peers into the spotlight. They are:
Mid-Size Urban Growth: First, even in an era of urbanization and coastal cities’ growing influence, the ballast of job and population growth is happening in surprising places, away from the global capitals. In the US, this trend has been documented by many researchers, including Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox of New Geography and recent coverage by The Wall Street Journal in its analysis of the most promising growth happening in cities.
The Urban Agriculture Greenfield: By 2050, about 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. This movement of a billion people or more to cities seems incredibly daunting under our current food production and distribution systems. On the other hand, this same United Nations document makes the point that less than half of the world’s projected urban landscape has yet to be built.
Alone, these two points may be frightening. But together they might present an opportunity for creative thinking about the best paths to human food security.
Here’s the upshot for Des Moines leaders: Fast-growth urban areas (like Des Moines) around the world have a brief moment to rethink the ways that urban spaces can join the mission to feed the world.
For instance, 2001 World Food Prize Laureate Per Pinstrup-Andersen recently wrote a Borlaug Blog about new thinking on ways high-rise farming can deliver nutrition and micro-nutrients to expanding urban populations and take our collective efforts to fight world hunger and malnutrition to a literally higher level.
It is clear that the future of the human race is urban. It’s even more clear that the future of our prosperity depends on well-fed and nourished populations. And if the bulk of urban growth is to happen in smaller and mid-size cities like the Prize’s hometown Des Moines, should we not set a vision to connect these ideas together?
As luck would have it, leaders in Des Moines and across Iowa are paving the way. Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor, a regional collaboration of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Iowa State University and the private sector, is building an effort to make Central Iowa’s “traditional” agriculture industry a strength for the state’s move into the global, information economy. Others in the city’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, like Geoff Wood, founder of Des Moines Gravitate Co-Working Spaces and Megan Vollstedt of the Agritech Venture Fund, are building the region’s strength in ag-tech and entrepreneurial presence.
In my emerging work with the Darden School of Business at the CITEE Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Initiative, we will be looking carefully at the ways cities like Des Moines are building big ideas and innovative companies to tackle the biggest challenges humanity will face in the coming decades. We will explore how cities large and small can build big ideas on the future of food into their plans for urban growth. The core findings that inspire our work are dozens of cities like Des Moines that are finding their footing in an increasingly tech-driven and competitive global economy.
One of my favorite ideas from Dr. Borlaug has always been his challenge to “take it to the farmer.” Perhaps another, equally worthy goal is to think of farms and food in new ways as the world population urbanizes. Exactly what a farmer looks like --and where we might find them--could be one of the greatest surprises in our quest to feed the world.