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Green Sky Thinking: London's Food Legacy

Ash Sakula hosts Hungry City author Carolyn Steel

Talking about cities from the perspective of food provides a fascinating alternative narrative about our cities and offers architects fresh insights into a familiar problem.

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AshSakula’s ‘Food City’ Image: AshSakula Architects

Steel is an exuberant and engaging speaker, she covered the history of food and cities from the origins of human settlement to the present in little over an hour. This was an excellent talk. If you get an opportunity to hear Steel speak, take it. 

Carolyn Steel’s food facts:

  • 30 per cent of greenhouse gases are related to food production
  • It takes 10 x more grain to feed humans via animals than by eating grain directly
  • 1/3 of harvests feeds animals not humans
  • 1/3 of meals in the UK is a ready meal
  • 19 per cent of meals in the USA are eaten in a car
  • 10 calories of energy goes into 1 calorie of food we consume
  • The real cost of a hamburger (taking into account the environmental damage it does) is $200

Steel described food as a multi-disciplinary way of thinking about and changing the way we live. Opening her presentation with Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government, Steel explained that when she first saw the Sienese painting she didn’t understand the significance of the juxtaposition of the city and the countryside. Only later when she understood the relationship of food to cities did the fresco take on a new meaning. Steel described it as ‘not just an image of Siena but an image of Siena and its productive hinterland without which the city could not have existed.’

Effects of Good Government

The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338 -1339)

Steel described the ‘urban paradox’: the more that we crowd into cities the more we move away from the sources of food that support them. Before cities, we dwelled in the landscape and shifted from one place to another. When we started eating grain, human behaviour became stationary. From 8000BC settlements such as Jericho evolved from semi-farming settlements. Agriculture and cities co-evolved as people needed to be in the right spot at the right time and eating grain required administration and refinement that the city system could provide. The next stop in the development of food and human settlement was Rome. Steel showed how the expansion of the Roman Empire was driven by the need to feed Rome, arguing that food miles and just-in-time supply of food are nothing new. 

Moving on to Paris and London, Steel argued that one of the drivers for the French Revolution was the food shortage caused by the constraints of the Seine. Only large enough to accommodate small river-going barges, food was restricted to imports from inland France. The wider Thames made London more robust because it could be supplied by ocean-going vessels from further afield. 

AshSakula cake

AshSakula’s ‘Food City’ Image: AshSakula Architects

The introduction of railways freed cities from these geographical constraints. People were disconnected from livestock markets and food supply became less politically troublesome. Steel described how this geographical detachment has, over time, turned the formerly intensely social activity of obtaining food into an anti-social activity that involves people in boxes buying food in boxes in a depersonalised manner.

Steel believes our current relationship to food is damaging the environment and our health. She outlined various utopian approaches to food provision, including the idea of ‘vertical farms’. Steel estimates that 2,000 100m x 100m 30-storey farms would be required to feed London. Using the term Sitopia, meaning ‘food place’, she talked about the small number of food buyers being undemocratic and the whole system as unsustainable.

The restriction of energy in the future could cause a return to a geographical approach to food. In this light, Steel questioned the wisdom of closing London’s Smithfield market. Her final flourish was to highlight the absence of food from current political discourse as worrying and something that needs to be addressed. 

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AshSakula’s ‘Food City’ Image: AshSakula Architects

This lecture reminded me of a Margaret Mead quote: ‘If a fish were an anthropologist, the last thing it would discover is water.’ The most siginifcant constraints to our lives are the ones we can’t see because they are so fundamental to our daily activies. Carolyn Steel’s explanation of city design through the lens of food provides an alternative from the mainstream discourse on urban space. Her approach suggests that architects could benefit from questioning other social practices that shape our world. 

Looking at a problem through the lens of food offers a way for us to ‘zoom out’ and provide some distance. Similarly, looking at architecture through the lens of fossil fuels provides another narrative about how the design of buildings reacted to an abundance of energy that never existed before. Questioning our assumptions about our strongest influences can improve our thinking, and Steel’s talk made that point well.

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