Urban visionary Carolyn Steel has captured the public imagination by giving us food as a way to understand how we live our lives and build our cities. With food at the centre of our civilisation, we have a medium to practically design an ideal world for the future and live a good life.
“The shared meal is a metaphor for a good society.”
A leading thinker on food and cities, Carolyn was profiled by The Ecologist magazine as a ’21st Century Visionary’. With reason. The London-based architect, lecturer, BBC presenter and TEDGlobal speaker coined ‘Sitopia’ – now a widely-recognised way of seeing the world through the lens of food. Her book ‘Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives’ won the BBC Food Programme book of the year.
To speak with Carolyn is like being pulled by a metabolic thread through the multiverse of food. She breaks down how ‘food is a powerful agent’. It shapes many of the things that we do, our bodies, habits, homes, landscapes, cities, politics and economics. But we don’t see it, because it is too big to see – it is everywhere.
We are inextricably tied to our food and in asking the question ‘how are we going to feed ourselves?’, you are also asking the question of how we are going to live and share and how we are going to balance our existence with nature. Eating is an ecological and political act and we can’t step away from it. You have incredible power through the fact that you eat.
Carolyn has spoken with governments, institutes and schools all over the world, explaining how we can make revolutionary change simply by understanding and valuing our food, and how by looking through the lens of food we can practically design a better future. This is her FutureHero interview…
Food is a metaphor for life. I was teaching and practicing as an architect, but I had an intuition that to really understand what architecture was about and what I was trying to do in the field, I had to step outside it. I spent 20 years agonising over how to understand ‘the city’, and I had the idea that looking at it through the lens of food would be a revealing and useful thing to do. So I followed the journey of food through the city, from the land to the road, the market and supermarket, the kitchen, the table, the waste dump and back again
Many utopians spend a lot of time talking about food… the size a city should be so that it can feed itself easily, how to farm, how to divide labour and share meals. Utopia is the closest thing that we’ve got to thinking in a multidisciplinary way about how we should live.
But ‘Utopia’ is also a kind of joke word. It means ‘a good place’, but also ‘no place’. Utopianism is probably the best means we have of dreaming about a better world, but it can’t exist – which i remember finding really depressing!
‘Sitopia’ is a practical, doable, reachable version of utopia. It is a word that I made up from the Greek ‘sitos’ (for ‘food’) and ‘topos’ (for ‘place’). It uses food as a lens and medium to how ask how we would live in an ideal world. If you take food, which is latent in all these utopian tracts, and put it in the centre of your thinking, you would be asking all the same questions you would be ask if you were trying to design a good society, because food makes you deal with everything that matters.
Aristotle calls us political animals. I love this term, because it describes our primary dilemma when we are trying to work out how to live. It means we are social, so we need each other, we need to live in groups and gather together in cities. But we are also animals, which means that we need sustenance from nature, which is harder the more we gather in cities. So there is a fundamental dualism that I call the ‘urban paradox’ when we are designing places for political animals to live.
Most early cities were based on what I call the ‘fried egg’ urban model, with a dense urban core as the ‘yoke’ surrounded by farmland. It was a model that evolved at a time when most people lived in the countryside. There is a theory, going right back to Plato and Aristotle, that you should keep the size of the city small, so that you can feed it from its rural hinterland. This was the basic model of the ‘polis’: it was effectively a city-state.
Food is a really useful tool for architects because, understandably, we tend to spend most of our time thinking about buildings. Architecture is a discipline that tries to provide spaces in which people can lead good lives. But what the discipline doesn’t cover is what a good life actually is.
As we try to imagine a good life in the twenty-first century, cities are not changing as much as they should or could be. We are still rolling out the old urban models to a large extent. We could be doing thinking in a much more interesting and challenging way about how we live in the future, because we still rely on that place we call the countryside to feed us. However urban we think we are, we still dwell in nature.
Let’s rewild the way we produce food. We need to stop farming with chemicals and work with nature instead of against it. Natural systems are productive and fertile to the extent that they are wild. We currently feed plants with the equivalent of fast food. This makes plants sick, then they can’t keep us healthy and then we get sick. It has to go back to the soil and to wildness and complexity.
We also need to look again at the way we design cities, to maximise the urban-rural interface. There is a very strong line of thought now that we have to live in cities and pull up the drawbridge and retreat from wilderness. But I believe the opposite is true: we need to embrace wildness. Yes, of course we must preserve some areas of wilderness, but we can also create wildness in the way we grow food and eat. Densifying and localising food and habitats is where I’m at: rethinking the city as an extension of the wild landscape and making it productive at the same time.
When we start looking at the statistics of the next extinctions on their way, it’s clear that… we have to completely reconsider not only our relationship with nature, but actually what nature really is. Even naming things as city or as countryside or wilderness can be limiting as labels. The relationship between nature and culture is actually to do with how we dwelling in the wild. Culture is an amending of wilderness to allow us to coexist better with nature.
Food is the great connector. That is the structure of my forthcoming book, ‘Sitopia’, which came out of my attempt to understand where food sits in our lives. I drew a plate of food, then a table around the plate, then people around the table, then a cook figure, perhaps a mother, and I started drawing arrows connecting them all saying things like ‘sharing, love, gratitude, trust, family’ and so on. Then I drew a market space where the food had come from which sat inside a city, then a modified landscape beyond that called the countryside, then a wild landscape further out called nature – and then finally out to the ocean and then the universe – planetary time and space.
The idea of the book came from that drawing. There are seven chapters that go from a plate of food out to the universe, unfolding in a series of overlapping scales that go through the body, the home, society, city and country, nature and time, asking at each scale, “how can we use the lens of food to ask what is a good life?”
On these scales urban agriculture is only a small part of the equation. What would it mean for cities to feed themselves? It would take approximately 2,000 vertical farms of 100 metres by 100 metres to feed the city of London, and that’s even if we were to stop wasting food and stopped eating animals. If you populate the green belt of the city with those vertical farms you really haven’t solved anything, because the question then is where all the nutrients to grow that food would come from.
That is the essence of the urban paradox: you can’t feed a city from within itself. You wouldn’t have solved what the British farmer Simon Fairlie calls the ‘Geography of Muck’. We need to close ecological loop of returning nutrients back to the soil.
We can be close to nature and still be close to people if we farm differently. If the farm of the future begins to look a lot more like a forest garden than a field of wheat, we can have both. I went recently to visit Martin Crawford at his forest garden in Dartington. It’s an amazing, highly productive yet very natural place. As Crawford says, you learn which plants want to be there and what they want to do.
Most of forest gardening is about curating wildness: enabling natural stuff to happen and editing out what you don’t want it to happen.
Learning to let nature teach you is a fascinating process. As the US organic farmer Eliot Coleman likes to say, “plants want to grow.” We don’t have to battle nature to feed ourselves, we can work with it. There is an assumption out there, which is that site specific agriculture or natural farming has to be extremely intensive in terms of human activity, but that is not necessarily true. What is intensive and interesting is knowledge-gathering about a particular place.
That is precisely where technology and robotics can be most useful. It is not necessarily a dumbing down, technology can enhance our basic wisdom. It can enable us to be wiser and more knowledgeable about a particular piece of land.
Our relationship with technology is in urgent need of revision. Technology and skilled human activity and knowledge are not mutually exclusive, and nor is the use of technology and wildness. Yet we often use technology to blunt our own thinking or to simplify nature. We need to flip this on its head and realise that we flourish to the extent that nature flourishes. Our greatest use of technology is to help us co-exist with nature.
To live well, we have to understand and dwell in complexity. To do that without losing our humanity will get us closer to where we want to be.
If I had a ‘FuturePower’, it would be… the power to comprehend extreme complexity whilst remaining a down-to-earth human can still find her socks in the morning and make a good cup of tea!
Carolyn Steel was talking to Jonathan Minchin, Coordinator of the Green Fab Lab at Valldaura Labs and European Project Manager of the Horizon 2020 for Robotics and Agriculture ROMI at the Institute for Advanced Architecture Catalunya (IAAC).
Carolyn was one of the ‘Cities’ speakers at Fixing the future 2019 in Barcelona.