"Hungry City" author at Urban Thinking Forum

Carolyn Steel, author of “Hungry City,” tonight gave a broad and deep overview of how food shapes us and our cities, at the first “Urban Thinking Forum”. An audience of around 60 were treated to an historical and geographical tour of the world, focusing on how we got into our current mess and how we might, via “sitopia” get out of it.

Kerenza McClarnan, who has set up the Urban Thinking Forum a project within “Buddleia“, briefly introduced the event. Andy Spracklen, whose “Ning” restaurant provided some of the food (with salad coming from Glebelands) gave a brief account of Steel’s varied work. Steel, started and finished her talk with an aerial image of Shanghai, all glass and steel and nights at light. She warned us never to think of cities without also seeing her next slide- of a row of giant combine harvesters on the Alto Plano of Brazil, harvesting the food to feed those cities.

She looked at how we construct our visions of the city and of rural idylls in paintings, pointing out that “natural” places like Yosemite in America had actually been altered and maintained for thousands of years before Teddy Roosevelt turned it into a “national park” and shifted the locals off. Staying in America, she showed photos of the industrial meat production of Cincinnati (aka Porkopolis).

This segued into a discussion of the positive correlation between increased urbanisation and meat consumption..

Steel then laid out the meat (sorry!) of her talk, under the themes of ‘how we got here’ and ‘what to do about it’

With great humour, fluidity and erudition, she galloped through the birth of civilisation (without mentioning the linguistic link between culture and cultus (plant growing) and the Fertile Crescent, the importance of sea transport (especially in feeding Rome).
She drew an intriguing analogy between the various edicts to deflate the cost of maritime transport then and the current tax-free status of aviation fuel.

She gave a quick spin around the theories of Johann von Thunen(1826, the Isolated State), and showed how this ‘ideal type’ of how and where a city would get its food is borne out, with maps of London (essentially you’ve got a ring of market gardens providing perishables, then a band of 20 miles of grain growing until transport becomes too expensive, at which time- animals get walked in, the fattened up on grain leftovers).

Did you know that “shambles” is the medieval word for ‘slaughterhouse’? MCFly certainly didn’t…

All this changed, Steel says, “almost overnight” (she had the good grace to apologise for the cliche, while defending it) with the coming of the railways, which allow essentially instantaneous transport of goods, especially animals. She zipped ahead to the 1950s and the vast tracts of suburbia, all of it dependent on the great car culture.

She said some choice things about supermarkets as urban developers, sitting on land until the local city council lets them build a giganto-market in exchange for a couple of ‘affordable flats’. Barnbury in Oxfordshire is a Tesco town- 6 of ’em and nothing else…

On what to do, Steel was possibly less sure, partly because she is – as she re-iterated in her Q and A session answers – not so fond of big overarching ideas which don’t work.

She pointed out that as long as there have been cities, people have worried about their sustainability. She looked at Thomas More’s Utopia with its deliberate ambiguity on whether it was “good place” or “no place”, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities, and said some suitably rude things about Frank Lloyd Wright.

She spoke of her neologism “sitopia”– from sitos, the Greek for food and topia for ‘place. From there she looked at Dutch polders, Vertical Farms (they don’t work, she said, to some consternation from architecture students in the room) and then onto Dongtan, the much fabled ‘eco-city in China

MCFly was about to intervene by quoting from Cleo Paskal‘s “Global Warring‘-

“Unfortunately, the location the Chinese government has chosen for this low-carbon vision of the future was a low-lying alluvial island off the coast of Shanghai, one of the areas almost certain to be hit by rising sea levels and storm surges. It’s not building utopia, it’s building Atlantis. This is a classic case of focusing on our impact on the environment while ignoring a changing environment’s impact on us, giving rise to potentially disastrous consequences.”
page 176

In the end it wasn’t necessary- Steel pointed out that it hadn’t left the drawing board and wouldn’t.
She cited the “Growing Power” program in Milwaukee and the recent “Requiem for Detroit” film. She gave a shout out to permaculture and her penultimate slide was of Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Governance.

All the questions came from men, and were of varying quality. Steel used each as an opportunity to expand on previous points, including explaining that squeamishness was not an option before railways externalised animals and their ways from cities, that Escher drawings where what you draw out depends on your presuppositions, on the turn around in HMG thinking on food security after the 2008 price spikes.

All in all, a tour-de-force. What was lacking? Well, more time of course. A focus on the practicalities of implementing solutions (this was more an event for those who don’t yet have an overview that satisfies them, rather than those who have clocked all this and are busy creating facts on the ground).
A few of my favourite concepts- Permanent Global Summertime etc

Further readingsuggested by MCFly
Why look at animals by John Berger
Much depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser
The Oil we eat: following the food chain back to Iraq by Ricahrd Manning
Ecology of Eden by Evan Eisenberg
Zdt by the late great Julian Rathbone
What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe
Community Technology by Karl Hess

Further reading suggested by Steel
Family Meals (NYT thing)
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
All Manners of Food by Stephen Mennell
Paradox of Plenty by Harvey Levenstein

Billy Bragg “The World Turned Upside Down
Leonard Cohen”The Future”
TV Smith “Free World”


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1 Response to "Hungry City" author at Urban Thinking Forum

  1. Katie says:

    The examples that Carolyn gave of food projects that are making a difference were, as ever, little pockets of hope in the midst of a vast sea of despair. Although, as you say, she didn't give any solutions, I think she hinted at what we need to turn this around, and that's government backing. Showing examples of urban growing projects lifts the heart but we have to be realistic that they are just a drop in the ocean. Without society as a whole changing its attitude to food production and consumption we have no hope. I think Carolyn suggested at one point that the way forward was to lobby government. But she also said that the only big shift in government opinion in the last few years came as a result of the 'food crisis' in 2008, not as a result of campaigning. Yet again it seems that we have to wait for the horse to bolt before anyone will do anything. Sorry, feeling a bit pessimistic this morning!!!

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