For someone interested in the role city design can play in producing, distributing, promoting and shaping our tastiest of basic requirements — food — this summer in London had a few delicious intellectual treats to offer. I was privileged to attend the Food and Spatial Planning conference at University College London, organised by Sustain's Local Action for Food Network, and the Royal Statistical Society's Food Security and Cities conference, organised by Significance Magazine.
For a subject that most would consider niche, there was little overlap in presenters across the two events. Only one speaker appeared at both, meaning between the two there were 17 presentations, on topics from urban agriculture and city systems for food to the urban-rural divide and the localism agenda, with case studies of food-related urbanism projects implemented around the world. Speakers ranged from authors, academics, National Farmers Union reps, food activists, farmers, to elected local councillors, landscape architects, urban designers, international development experts, community group representatives and NGOs.
This focus has induced a sort of myopia, which seems to make the whole food urbanism debate hinge on the amount of produce which can be grown within cities ... the myriad other issues around food culture, communities, infrastructure ... falling by the wayside.
This panoply of speakers, and the occurrence of two conferences on arguably the same topic, could be evidence that food is creeping up the agenda at both a grassroots level, and in the so-called city planning boardroom. However, these were not huge events, with a total attendance of no more than 150 people across the two. More importantly, in terms of audience diversity, there may have been a certain element of 'preaching to the choir'. For example, I was disappointed to be the only practising urban design consultant in attendance at the UCL conference … where were my fellow city designers?
There are however a number of common positive threads running through the discourse around food and cities these days, which becomes clear when one gets the chance to see so many people speak about their corner of a particular intellectual space.
Food is absent from planning discourse
The conspicuous absence of food-related policy in major planning guidance was mentioned throughout both conferenes. Suzanne Natelson of Sustain introduced their Good Planning for Good Food report, which suggests adjustments which can be made to the National Planning Policy Framework to give food-related projects better traction during development control.
Helen Rimmer of Friends of the Earth argued that those suggestions may yet be overshadowed by the government's planned changes for the NPPF. In George Osborne's budget speech in March 2011, he declared a "powerful new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to [new] development is yes", regardless of its real sustainability, or commitment to a better food system.
The case of Copeland v Tower Hamlets was mentioned at both conferences, in which it was ruled that for a hot-food takeaway, being near a school was a material consideration for planning purposes. Parents protested that this unhealthy restaurant was targeting a site adjacent to their children's schools and took the case to planners. They were told there was nothing in planning guidance to help them refute the planning application, but an eventual high court ruling made it clear that planners could draw on (non-spatial) government guidance on healthy food.
It was argued across several sessions that planners can in different cases be the bottle neck preventing food initiatives or the gatekeepers allowing them to thrive. Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University proposed that if planners began to practise Food Systems Planning, as opposed to simple Spatial Planning, this kind of 'joined-up' thinking would ensure more success.
Urban agriculture is only one piece of the pie
The debate around food systems in cities is often reduced to discussions around the contributions urban space can make to food production. This focus has induced a sort of myopia, which seems to make the whole food urbanism debate hinge on the amount of produce which can be grown within cities.
The truth, as ever, is broader, with urban food production being an important element for consideration alongside myriad other issues around food culture, communities, infrastructure, planning and economics (to mention only a few), which often fall by the wayside.
Whether this is the fault of a design press corps intent on focusing on those innovations which can be designed (the community garden, the solar rooftop greenhouse), or the result of a misguided notion that cities must or can produce all of their own food to achieve sustainability, it would seem that this kind of narrow vision is fading from the discourse.
Food is a window into urban complexity
Many of the key players in the Food Urbanism field are pressing for us to 'follow' food on the journey it takes to our plate. how do the dynamics of culture, community, finance, economics, climate, transport, infrastructure, governance, religion and spatial planning interact as systems?
Follow a blade of grass from its birth in a field to its landing on your plate as calories in a steak and you will find out, they imply. As Kevin Morgan put it, 'community growing is more useful for growing communities', i.e. as fertiliser to sprout complex interactions between complex beings in urban space, than as a simple method to attain food production independence.
From the perspective of Carolyn Steel, author of The Hungry City, pondering how to feed ourselves well is an essential question of ethics, tantamount to examining how to live well or live right. She urges us to conjure in our minds a 'Sitopia' (a take on Utopia, meaning 'Food Place'), where we 'think through food' to envision a sustainable urban existence.
David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, put a similar point across in a very different way, listing all the systems of a city, hard and soft, as the sum total of what is required to ensure urban food security. Satterthwaite's argument is that food security in cities is not a simple issue of food production, but that ensuring there is transport, water, sanitation, land tenure, employment, shelter, and improving the functioning of these systems, enables food security.
We all get hungry …
As someone who believes a key to urban sustainability is embracing urban complexity, the notion that the rather simple view of food as mere produce or product is beginning to fade is welcome news. What struck me most about this broadening of the food security problem space is the additional shoulders on which it puts this burden. Food Urbanism is not the realm of a niche tribe of 'gastro-planners' — it is a cross-sectoral issue which is the responsibility of the full gamut of those working in the built environment professions. Bon appetit.