On Monday 3 November Stroom Den Haag (an independent centre focusing on the urban environment from the visual arts, architecture, urban planning and design) organized a small workshop as part of its program entitled ‘Foodprint – food for the city”. Foodprint takes place over the course of several years and focuses on the influence food can have on the culture, shape and functioning of the city, using The Hague as a case study. With a series of activities Stroom aims to increase people’s awareness of the value of food and to give new life to the way we view the relationship between food and the city.
The Foodprint program commenced on 25 March 2009 with a lecture by Carolyn Steel, author of the book “The Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives“. In this book she gives a beautiful account of the role of food in shaping urban development. In a nutshell she shows that the size and shape of cities were directly related to the amount and kinds of food that the rural hinterland could provide. For a long time this implied that there was a food provision related barrier to urban growth. However, with the introduction of modern production, transportation, processing, preservation and storage technologies, global agriculture became the city’s hinterland and thus the ‘natural barrier’ to urban growth disappeared. According to Carolyn Steel on her blog:
“One important consequence of this was that urban authorities began to loosen their grip on the food supply, relying more and more on commercial companies to feed the urban population. That might have seemed a good idea at the time, but the result today is that we are totally reliant on trans-national corporations to feed us, who have no civic responsibility and no interests at heart other than making money. That puts them in an extremely powerful position – especially when you consider how difficult it is to feed cities as large as those we now live in.”
Carolyn Steel shows, like others have done as well from complementary and partly overlapping perspectives (e.g. Tim Lang, Michael Pollan, James Howard Kunstler), that most contemporary urban dwellers have become disconnected from and ignorant about food provision and are too a large extent, if not completely, dependent on a global industrialized food provisioning system that is intrinsically unsustainable.
The Hungry City ends with a chapter about the future, in which the author asks how we can use food as a tool for re-thinking cities and the way we live in them. For this, she introduces the term Sitopia (a word based on a combination of the Greek words Sitos, meaning food, and Topos, meaning place, hence food-place):
“The world is already shaped by food, so we may as well start using food to shape the world more positively.”
At the workshop we (i.e. Carolyn Steel, people working at Stroom Den Haag, scientists of different universities, architects, etc…) mainly discussed ideas and exchanged information about ongoing activities that are in one way or the other related to the notion of Sitopia. For me it was very interesting to exchange visions and experiences with disciplines (in particular visual arts and architecture) I normally do not interact with in education or research. And there was a shared desire to find ways to really collaborate, for instance by participating in each other’s projects. Although no concrete future plans were made, I do believe that workshops like this as well as the sustainable food planning conference I organized a month ago are the seeds of new interdisciplinary networks focusing on sustainable urban/regional foodscapes.
To learn more about Carolyn Steel’s vision on food and the city, I highly recommend her recent talk at the TED conference in Oxford.