Rurban Revolution: Can ruralising urban areas through greening and growing create a healthy, sustainable & resilient food system?

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


Food is a growing challenge for us as a society.

Food is damaging the nation's health with overconsumption and poor dietary choices leading to an epidemic of obesity and associated diseases such as diabetes in the UK and other countries. Part of the reason behind this obesity crisis is a crisis in mental health - stress drives poor eating habits. Another aspect is poor access to nutritious food - the UK has very high levels of food insecurity compared with other high income countries.

At a global level, agriculture is a major cause of environmental harm and raises important questions about the sustainability and longevity of our current approach to food production and consumption. The need for land expansion to meet our growing food demands is causing widespread deforestation and soil degradation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions derive from agriculture, contributing to climate change with major knock-on effects for ecosystems and people.

In addition to the challenges that increasing land use pressures and climate change are presenting to ensuring stable and adequate supply of good quality nutritious food into supply chains, the UK is facing further challenges as we prepare for Brexit. Potential changes to labour and farm payments throw a lot of uncertainty on the viability of domestic horticultural production, and uncertainty around trade agreements creates questions about the future supply of fruit and vegetables - 30% of which currently derive from the EU.

This project will investigate the potential of a new idea - rurbanisation (rural-isation of urban areas) - as a holistic solution to these problems. Rurbanisation is a vision for radically increasing the amount of space we devote to greenery and food growing in cities. This idea could combat our food problems by:

- helping to reconnect people with food and nature, reducing stress and increasing access to fruit and vegetables.

- increasing urban food production, reducing the amount of food we need to grow outside cities, making space for nature inside and outside cities, and shortening supply chains, and

- increasing domestic production and supply of fruit and vegetables that are key to the nation's health. In the past, food system shocks have created rapid rises in urban growing, and individuals and communities taking more responsibility for growing their own food e.g. Dig for Victory and Cuba post-Soviet Union collapse. Could we use rurbanisation as a pre-emptive measure for increasing food security?

The idea of rurbanisation also poses many questions and problems. Community urban growing already exists and can be very beneficial for those involved. However, there are barriers such as land access, skills and time availability that hinder the expansion of these activities. How can we upscale this activity and are there business or regulation solutions for promoting this? How does urban food compare to conventional food in terms of nutritional value and safety?

In this project we are bringing together expertise across nutrition and psychology, crop and food sciences, ecosystems and climate change and political and social sciences to build an evidence base on the potential of rurbanisation for transforming our food system in a sustainable and resilient way, so it can contribute to healther lifestyles. We give particular importance in exploring the barriers to rurbanisation and potential ways to overcome these. Through spatial data analyses, surveys, interviews and field and laboratory experiments we will explore how would rurbanisation influence:
- Healthy and sustainable diets by improving availability, access and consumption of fruit and vegetables.

- Food production in terms of quantity, quality and safety and the resilience of the UK food system.

- Ecosystem service delivery inside and outside cities.


- How we could overcome the barriers to rurbanisation and maximise benefits.

Technical Summary

This project aims to build an interdisciplinary evidence base on how rurbanisation could help transform our food system, promoting health, sustainability and resilience.
We will:
- Use a cross-sectional survey to gather data to test hypotheses on connections between urban greening and growing on dietary behaviour.
- Undertake lab-based virtual reality experiments, immersing participants in a variety of environments and collecting quantitative data on food choices to explore the mechanisms behind dietary change.
- Perform a UK-scale analysis of the horticultural productive potential of urban areas, intersecting land use and climate data, identifying areas and surfaces suitable for urban growing, and analysing the potential for growing a number of horticultural crops suitable for UK production and relevant to nutritional health and supply chain resilience. We combine this with a material flow analysis of current domestic production, imports and consumption of horticultural crops to explore the resilience effects.
- Study the nutrient and contaminant profile of urban and conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. We will simulate the effects of supply chain delays on nutritional quality. We will perform a transect analysis of the effects of roadside pollution on urban food safety.
- Develop a number of rurbanisation scenarios for two scoping study regions, that will include high and low tech growing solutions and mixes of greening and food growing and undertake an ecosystem services analysis for these scenarios.
- Analyse the potential land-use change effects increasing growing in urban centres could have and the associated ecosystem service benefits therein.
- Conduct interviews with key actors across the food system on the barriers to increased urban food growing and greening and identify opportunities for new business models and solutions.
- Run a co-design workshop in the scoping study regions with key actors to explore and develop rurban solutions.

Planned Impact

This project will enable us to build an interdisciplinary evidence base for the potential of rurbanisation as a transformational food system solution. However, there are numerous barriers to upscaling urban growing including land access, engagement and skills, food safety and access to market. In order to achieve impact, it is critical for our project to directly consider and understand these barriers. To do this most effectively, an integrated co-design multi-actor approach is needed in order to develop solutions for enabling rurbanisation and to maximise the benefits. By doing this, our project will address the following impact gaps:

- How do we overcome the barriers of land access, urban food access and safety, engagement in growing and access to market?

- How can we maximize the potential for rurbanisation to transform our food system for health, sustainability and resilience?

The key stakeholders who would benefit from this research are:

- Policy makers. The research aligns with the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan of which DEFRA is a key deliverer, and with government strategies to reduce obesity and improve health (e.g. the Department of Health & Social Care are currently consulting on new measures as part of the childhood obesity plan). It is consistent with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government's strategy to create great places to live and work, and to give more power to local people to shape what happens in their area. There is tremendous potential for the skills of urban agriculture to be used in teaching, learning and training for young people and adults (for examples of how this is already happening see and this aligns with remit of the Department of Education.

- Urban planners, regulators and businesses. The project will create a "Rurban Sandbox" which will contain co-designed scenarios and business models to facilitate rurbanisation in local areas.

- Health care professionals. Obesity and poor mental health are two of the most pressing health issues that the UK currently faces. There is considerable potential for rurbanisation to have impact in health care settings and clinical practice as a solution to both issues.

- The general public. The project will increase awareness and promote the rurbanisation concept and potentially inspire a new generation of urban growers, leading to a range of benefits at an individual and community level.


10 25 50
Description Contribution to UK Defra National Food Strategy consultation
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Description Participation in the N8 AgriFood Network 
Organisation N8 Research Partnership
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution - Organised and delivered an N8 AgriFood conference session on urban agriculture at 2019 conference in York (
Collaborator Contribution - Provided financial support for our researchers to attend conference - Provided our researcher, Beth Mead, with training on Rapid Evidence Synthesis and how to write a policy note. - Supported dissemination of our research nationally and internationally
Impact - Contacts and partnerships widened and strengthened through N8 AgriFood Conference session
Start Year 2019
Description Rurban Revolution contribution to Science in the Community outreach programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Our post doctoral research Bethan Mead represented Rurban Revolution at a "Science in the Community" outreach programme with local young people and the University of Liverpool. She participated in training and co-designed a series of outreach activities with school pupils on the topic of urban agriculture. She delivered these activities at an outreach event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Rurban Revolution website and social media 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our website shares information about our project and is regularly updated with blog posts. We have had ~4000 views to date.
We have a twitter channel helps disseminate project news with ~250 followers and 8000 impressions per month.
We have a quarterly newsletter for engaging our stakeholders which has a mailing list of ~50 people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Rurban Revolution: Hosted a session at Global Food Security Programme Stakeholder event, Edinburgh 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The project team contributed to a stakeholder event held by the GFS research programme 'Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context' (GFS-FSR). The two-day event, Towards more resilient UK food system outcomes, took place at the University of Edinburgh on 4-5 September 2019 and drew a wide range of stakeholders from across government, academia, NGOs and industry.

The theme was echoed across 13 interactive workshops, all co-delivered by researchers from the GFS-FSR projects and stakeholders from organisations such as Defra, the National Farmers Union, 3Keel and Obesity Action Scotland. The sessions challenged delegates to reflect on areas such as innovative production methods, the resilience of supply chains and the consumer view of the food system.

Charlotte Hardman, project Co-I, delivered an interactive workshop called "Changing diets in changing times".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Rurban Revolution: Six monthly project partner meetings 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact We held a series of project partner meetings to discuss project results and progress and help shape our future work. These meetings also allow partners relating to urban agriculture from various communities to meet and exchange knowledge.
These meetings are highly useful for the project, allowing us to gain insights from practitioners and policy makers to enhance the potential impact of our research.
We have held the following meetings:
Lancaster January 2019;
Liverpool October 2019;
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Rurban Revolution: Stand at Oxford Farming Conference UKRI session 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Our project provided a stand at the Oxford Farming Conference UKRI Innovation Hub session to discuss fworld-class research and innovation, and how it's helping to grow our society. We had many conversations with delegates and members of the OFC working parties regarding our research, with requests for further collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020