Exploring the spatial planning dimensions of urban informal food systems in China

Zhao, Luoman; Lohrberg, Frank (Thesis advisor); Neugebauer, Carola Silvia (Thesis advisor)

Aachen : RWTH Aachen University (2023)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2023


Rapid urbanization and the growing urban population in China have raised concerns about food issues. The continuing migration of rural people to cities is accompanied by growing economic insecurities from rural to urban. Dispossessed farmers and low-income urban residents produce food on vacant urban land or temporarily abandoned agricultural land not only for self-consumption but also for income generation. Small-scale farmers and informal food producers provide affordable fresh food for urban households through informal food vending. Food security is the top priority of food planning in China, while the role of the informal sector in food systems has seldom been considered. The thesis aims to optimize informal food systems by integrating related food activities from production to consumption into different types and levels of spatial planning. Informal food systems contribute to the resilience of food systems to risks, including the economic crisis, climate change, and pandemics. Formalizing, optimizing, and transforming informal food systems can reduce the risks of informal activities and increase the benefits of diversified food supply chains. The thesis analyzed the components and characteristics of informal food systems in China. The risks and benefits of informal food systems are summarized by literature research. Informal food systems contribute to the reuse of abandoned land resources, food availability improvement, and the livelihoods of low-income groups. It is essential to play a positive role of informal food systems and reduce their risks. Based on the case study of Nanjing, including literature research and field research, this thesis analyzed typical spatial settings of informal food systems. It summarized typical challenges faced by informal food systems based on spatial planning dimensions: disadvantaged groups, short food supply chains, and abandoned land resources. These issues identify why disadvantaged people join informal food activities and what conditions the physical environment provides for informal food systems. According to three perspectives of challenges of informal food systems, case studies of Cologne and Rotterdam were conducted to provide the experience of small-scale food production systems in urban planning. Three innovative solutions are summarized, including vulnerable groups supported by urban agriculture, direct marketing and other short food supply chains, and temporarily used land for food production, which can provide experience for improving informal food systems in China. Then, this thesis analyzed the possibilities of integrating informal food systems into food planning based on Chinese policy and spatial planning structure. Food planning at the national level should strategically place small farmers and informal employment in a position that cannot be ignored. The city-level food planning towards food sovereignty can integrate informal food systems by promoting transparent trade and equal space use right that guarantees just income for all people, including small farmers and vendors, and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. Finally, spatial planning instruments from two perspectives, including territorial spatial planning framework and spatial integration, were proposed to optimize informal food systems. Spatial planning instruments aim to transform negative systems into positive and adaptive systems by focusing on topics: 1) farmland resources for local farmers; 2) spatial opportunities for urban food production; 3) urban agriculture types and market access to improve short food supply chains which can help small-scale farmers and urban food producers; 4) measures to integrate food production into current urban fabric; 5) availability of food from local and small-scale farms for urban residents. These instruments cover issues such as how vulnerable groups have access to land and spatial opportunities, how informal activities can be formalized and promoted at the spatial dimensions to contribute to resilient and sustainable food systems, and how underutilized land and space resources are available for food production and marketing.


  • Chair of Landscape Architecture [214110]