How Food Shapes our Cities – interview with Carolyn Steel

Interview with Carolyn Steel author of Hungry City for Bettery Magazine, 2012

Both very simple and infinitely complex, food is an extremely powerful factor in our lives. After all, every human on the planet needs to eat – ideally, 2,000 calories a day spread out over three meals. But where does this food come from? And what are the ecological, social, and ethical implications of this process? Tackling the tricky topic, author Carolyn Steel (Hungry City) calls this question civilization’s biggest challenge.

rome map- ancient food miles

Rome map, ancient food miles, photo: Hungry City

Although your background is in architecture, you decided to devote your research to urban food systems. Why is it so important to understand how food is produced and distributed in cities?

In my early years of teaching design studios, I would always assign my students food projects. This angle allowed them to imagine the city and inhabit their projects much more easily. It only occurred to me much later that I could actually use food as a subject in itself. I remember when I had this idea. I was really excited and thought, “this is the type of challenge I have been looking for all my life!”

What is “Sitopia”?

It took me seven years to write Hungry City and every chapter of the book was based on a stage of food’s journey. In the final chapter I wanted to see and describe how all of those stages come together. So, I was looking for a word that means “food-place” and used “Sitopia” to describe a practical utopia, a utopia without the perfection.

The Greek word – “sitos” meaning food and “topos” place – acknowledges the many ways that food influences our lives. It proposes food as a lens for understanding how we live as well as a practical agent of change for moving towards a better world and a better society.

While meat consumption is on the rise in line with the growth of our cities, conscious consumption also thrives. But do these people constitute an insignificant minority? 

One of the key drivers of changing eating habits is, of course, a justified distrust of the industrial food system. If you have the means to eat organic food, then it is a very sensible thing to do. Not only for yourself, but also for the land it is grown on. If many more people started to demand lower input food, then the cost of natural food production would also go down, triggering a virtuous cycle.

So, can we hope for a positive impact and influence?

There is a direct link between people’s eating habits and food production. Interestingly, it is a symbiotic relationship in which one side has all of the information and the other side has almost none. In other words, food producers know exactly how they are producing their food, what they are putting into it, what the effects on the landscape are and so on, but what they present to the consumers is often a very different story. Therefore, the consumers are not in power to act because it is unbelievably difficult to get all the information. Even if you want to do the right thing as a consumer, the lack of information makes you an unwilling partner in a series of transactions that you might choose to opt out of if you knew more about it.

What would we need to change in our daily habits to ensure a healthy and safe food intake?

If you want to make sure that the food you are eating is actually good and safe, the best would be to grow your own, which many people are already turning to. Another answer is to have some small-scale consumer buying circles that work directly with trustworthy farmers and, of course, to campaign for greater visibility and traceability within the food system. The upshot is that changing our eating habits does make a difference.

Can urban farming make a realistic contribution, given the population density and lack of open spaces in contemporary cities?

A short answer would be that a city cannot feed itself from within its own limits because, by definition, that is what the countryside does. However, if we look at historical patterns of farming in cities, this offers some excellent clues of what might make sense to grow in a city: For example, pigs and chickens were kept in cities because they could be raised on human scraps and in turn be eaten by humans, making it a very efficient cycle. Cities also had plenty of fruit and vegetable gardens because it used to be very difficult to transport fresh fruits and vegetables over long distances and now the added benefit of having it very fresh and very local really adds up.

Can you think of a city that has successfully implemented projects and policies that govern food production, packaging, distribution, consumption, and disposal? Ones that strike the right balance between environmental and social sustainability as well as economic viability?

In India, for example, food is still very central to everyday life and a lot of traditional habits still exist. When you study a city like Mumbai you get insights into many different aspects of the food culture. And while it is by no means ideal, it is very positive in many ways. You see the huge amounts of people who are directly involved in anything from food transportation to street food, encounter a lot of homemade food, and marvel at this extraordinary and efficient system, the dabbawala, that sees countless of meals cooked by wives, collected from their houses, taken into the city on trains and bikes and then delivered to their husbands’ desks. I think that it is absolutely wonderful! What we could learn from Mumbai is the huge amount of love and care that is poured into food production and preparation. A lot of people make a very good living from simply cooking and selling food in the streets – arguably a rather rewarding way of leading one’s life.

And what about the Western world?

While developing nations are deciding that their food systems are outdated and that they want to modernize them by saying yes to Starbucks or McDonald’s, people in other nations like the mother ship of industrialized food, the USA, are rediscovering their roots and going back to old-fashioned home cooking. Portland, for instance, got a massive street food movement going again, while Toronto installed a food policy council and New York enjoys widespread urban farms, farmers markets, or restaurants selling local food and food-buying co-ops. The so-called food movement, which is really the rediscovery of the value of food, is very healthy, particularly in nations where the food culture has become extremely industrialized, like in the USA.

Are you working on something special right now? Could you tell us about it?

I am just about to start writing a follow up to Hungry City, exploring the notion of Sitopia in more detail. How do we get closer to this idea(l) – and what kind of amazing projects are already out there, inspiring people to actually bring food back to the center of society again? So, I am very excited about writing a positive primer on how to use food as a transformative tool.

Also, there is a lot of traveling, lecturing and of course researching ahead. And while traveling has plenty to teach, I also need to maintain the right balance to really tease out good ideas in more depth.

Read the full article at Bettery Magazine.