How to feed a city

| 1st June 2009

Illustration: Clare Nicholas

We can continue to squander our resources and react to food crises as they happen, or we can fundamentally change the way the food systems work, says Carolyn Steel
Sitopia is really a state of mind; a way of recalibrating the values by which we live. It privileges food.

Feeding cities has never been easy. On the contrary, it could be described as mankind’s oldest self-imposed dilemma. The problem is that even though people living in cities don’t tend to produce their own food, whether they realise it or not, they still dwell on the land. The resultant distance (in all senses) between city-dwellers and their food is a paradox at the core of civilisation; resolving it is the greatest challenge of our time.

Cities have been around for some 5,500 years, yet for most of that period the number of people who lived in them represented a tiny fraction of the global population. In 1800, just three per cent lived in towns of 5,000 inhabitants or more. Today that figure is more than half. Three billion already live in cities, and a further three billion are expected to join them by 2050. If so many are to be fed on current principles, the threat to global reserves of oil, water, fish, soil and rainforest – to say nothing of the climate change associated with plundering those reserves – is stark.

A few statistics state the case: 95 per cent of the food we eat today is oil-dependent, yet peak oil is imminent; 70 per cent of global freshwater is used for agriculture, yet many sources, such as the China’s Yellow river and Hai basin aquifer, are running dry; 75 per cent of global fish stocks are exhausted or overfished. Each year, 4.6 million hectares of tropical rainforest are destroyed to make way for agriculture; a further 10 million hectares of existing farmland are lost to salination and erosion. Food and agriculture account for an estimated one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

One could go on. Manifestly, current food systems are so destructive there is little chance of their lasting another 40 years – the only question is how and when they are to be replaced. In 2008, a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, including a failed Australian harvest, increased use of biofuels and an oil-price spike gave a taste of what may lie ahead if we carry on as we are. Food riots broke out in numerous countries, producer nations placed embargoes on food exports and 150 million people joined the ranks of the hungry.

A global summit convened at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome concluded that the era of cheap food was over, and that increased volatility in world food markets must be expected in future. The summit called for greater investment in agricultural technology to increase productivity, the stockpiling of grain to buffer against future shocks, and the liberalisation of trade barriers. What it did not call for is a fundamental questioning of the assumptions upon which the current global food system is based.

Feeding cities is not just a question of food production; it is also one of culture, an aspect that is frequently ignored, yet is vital to our understanding if we are to find a way out of our current predicament. Seen from a cultural perspective, global food systems reveal a very different set of statistics. Four Earths would be needed to sustain the world on a US diet, yet half the food produced in the US is wasted. Half of those in Britain under the age of 24 never cook from scratch, and one in three meals eaten is a ready meal. Chinese meat consumption stood at 2kg per person per year in 1960; today it is at 60kg and rising fast. A billion people worldwide are obese, while another billion starve. Such statistics reveal the true complexity of the challenge we face.

Under scrutiny, very little about the modern food industry makes much sense. It is the product of an evolutionary logic that has everything to do with profit and little to do with the sorts of priorities – sociability, sustainability, equality, health, happiness – that most of us would probably sign up to as reasons for living in a civilised society. The real question is not how we are to feed ourselves in future; it is about the values by which we choose to live.

Deconstructing the good life

In an era of grabby headlines and Twitter it can be hard to connect to the underlying values that structure our lives. Yet many of our choices are based on inherited ideas we would do well to reconsider. Take the practice of living in cities, for example. Today, the notion that mass migration from rural to urban areas is both inevitable and inherently beneficial goes largely unchallenged. The trappings of urban life – a TV, a car, a washing machine – are thought easily to outweigh the disadvantages of rural poverty. What is less commonly acknowledged is that rural poverty is itself often the consequence of urban migration. In many places, living in the countryside is no longer an option precisely because the countryside has been transformed in order to feed cities.

Last April’s G20 summit in London, where $1 trillion was pledged to kick-start the engine driving that transformation, is a case in point. Once again, the pertinent question (whether or not we might be better off without any such engine) was off the agenda. It would take a brave politician to announce to the electorate that their material aspirations were neither desirable nor achievable. Yet, globally speaking, that is clearly the case. In our rush to fulfil the lifestyle epitomised by 1960s US sitcoms, we have failed to see that both it and the so-called ‘growth’ that fuelled it were a fantasy. The worldwide trend towards urbanism – and consequent severance of people from the land – is an unfolding tragedy based on a fundamental muddle over what might constitute a good life. Like the Industrial Revolution before it, the global economy is a machine driven by its own internal logic. Social transformation is its byproduct, not its goal.

When cash injections and financial regulation are the only language we can find to discuss what is ultimately a matter of human dwelling on Earth, we have a problem. This vacuum at the heart of our thinking has left us in the grip of an inertia that is as much of a threat to our future as the cracked economic logic that sustains it. What we need is a new vision; a reassessment of the way we use space and resources to create an approach to dwelling that is not only ethical and sustainable, but also, crucially, desirable.

So how might we set about creating such a vision? The question is hardly new. For as long as people have been building cities, the concept of a theoretical ideal community – utopia – has been a way of imagining a better world. From Plato’s republic and More’s fantasy island to Howard’s garden city, utopias have come in many guises. However, the genre is more remarkable for its consistencies than its differences. Persistent themes include bringing man closer to nature, the fusion of town and country, the sharing of labour, personal fulfilment, a strong sense of community. Times may change, but the strands of human life are remarkably enduring.

Utopia has much to teach us about aspiration, but as a practical tool for change it is useless. If we actually want to build a better world, what we need is a model that aims not at perfection but at something partial and attainable. That is why I propose an alternative: sitopia, from the ancient Greek sitos (food) and topos (place). If we analyse the broad themes of utopia, we find that food is implicated in them all. Just as in the real world, food is what connects everything together, making it a uniquely effective tool that we could harness to shape our lives better.

Urbanity originated just after the last Ice Age, when people in the ancient Near East first began to harvest grain, the food of all cities. The parallel emergence of agriculture and settled communities led, around 3,500BC, to the urban ‘Big Bang’, with the creation of the ancient Sumerian citystates of Uruk, Eridu and Kish in what is now southern Iraq.

These prototypical cities consisted of dense urban cores surrounded by highly organised farmland, the latter made fertile by irrigation from the diverted floodwaters of the Euphrates river. Each was dominated by a large temple complex, which presided over public festivals that echoed the agricultural seasons, gathered in the harvest, and redistributed the grain among the people. The temples thus formed the cities’ physical and spiritual cores, expressing the vital bond between city and country that remains, despite appearances, fundamental to all urban life.

Unfortunately for the Sumerians, their skill in irrigating the soil was not matched by theirs in draining it, so farmland gradually became salinated and infertile. After that, the civilisation that gave us writing and epic poetry descended into civil war and self-destruction. So the pattern has gone.

Whether it was Rome waging war on Carthage and Egypt to secure grain reserves, or Paris succumbing to revolution through its inability to do likewise, the fates of cities and civilisations have been bound up with their ability to feed themselves. Perhaps most significantly for our time, London never struggled in that way. Thanks to a helpful combination of geography, politics and timing, the city was always able to import its food with ease, incidentally providing Adam Smith with the model for his theory of free trade and its byproduct, consumerist capitalism.

An urban-rural rethink

Over the past 200 years, that approach has predominated. Industrialisation has made feeding cities seem easy, while in reality it has exacerbated, rather than solved, the problem. It has allowed us to build cities any size, shape and place, without considering (as our ancestors did) whether it made any ecological sense. Thus we have cities blooming in deserts and above the Arctic circle, totally reliant on external sources to feed them. The result is we now face a double challenge: we must not only find new ways to house the additional folk who will soon inhabit the Earth, but also adapt existing cities to make them sustainable.

However we choose to tackle these problems, both will necessarily involve the same thing: a radical rethinking of the urban-rural relationship.

Five and a half thousand years after the urban ‘Big Bang’, we still have much to learn. The world’s first cities got so much right. They recognised the overriding importance of food. They were built next to their food sources and limited in size. They treated food as a sacred gift and never took it for granted. They collaborated to produce and share it. Their one fatal mistake was their inability to see into the future, and realise that their stewardship of the land was failing. Theirs was a flawed sitopia: a world created by food, dominated by it, and ultimately destroyed by it.

Today, few of the fundamentals have changed. Food remains our greatest priority, yet we aspire to live beyond mere subsistence: to write poetry, build monuments, seek meaning and pleasure in life. How to combine all of the above in an equable and sustainable manner remains our greatest dilemma. In order to answer it, we need to start thinking differently. Instead of asking how we can feed cities most ‘efficiently’ (a question that, by its very nature, can only yield one result), we should be asking what sort of communities we want to live in, and designing food systems to match. That is where the cultural aspect of food, so powerful in the ancient world, so debased in ours, is crucial. Sitopia is really a state of mind; a way of recalibrating the values by which we live. It privileges food because nothing is more important, but it also uses food to structure space and as a lens through which to see the connectedness of things.

Founding Sitopia

If we were to design a community along sitopian lines, what might it be like? Clearly, it would have strong urban-rural ties. There would be busy markets, independent shops and a strong demand for local and seasonal produce. Houses would have large, comfortable kitchens, and children would learn to grow food and cook from an early age, eating regular meals with their parents. There would be neighbourhood allotments, community farms, perhaps a local abattoir. Government regulation would intervene to prevent the formation of food monopolies, ensuring that regional and small-scale networks thrived, and farmers would get a fair price for their produce. Kitchen waste would be composted so that urban areas, whatever shape they took, would form part of the local organic cycle. Above all, food would be valued, enjoyed and celebrated as the central pivot of a good life.

In its ideal form, sitopia is clearly utopia by another name. The point is that sitopia is partial, so it can exist anywhere, any time, in any form. Indeed, wherever food is valued, sitopia already exists. Community allotments, food co-ops, farmers’ markets, organic farms are all sitopian, as are international movements such as Transition Towns and Città Slow. Dongtan Eco-city near Shanghai, designed by Arup and due for completion in 2020, may become a sitopia of the future, with planned elements such as inner-city ‘food factories’, green roofs and municipal sewage farms.

Traces of sitopia and sitopian thinking are everywhere – the trick now is to join them up so they become more than the sum of their parts. Whatever form it takes, sitopia is always the product of our creativity, commonality and decency – the physical reflection of the way we choose to live, and what we value.

Carolyn Steel is an architect and author of Hungry City: How food shapes our lives (Vintage, £8.99)

Sitopia is really a state of mind; a way of recalibrating the values by which we live. It privileges food.