thoughts on our urban future

Book Review – Hungry City

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives

Hungry City – How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel (Published by Chatto & Windus, London 2008)

Carolyn Steel’s Hungry City “is a book about how cities eat” (this is her own definition). It explores the urban dweller’s relationship with food and highlights the incredibly complex systems put in place to bring it to our tables. It’s a very interesting book, dealing with an issue which is of most importance (we all need to eat) and highlighting this very fact, often overlooked. It is entertaining and easy to read – perhaps too easy to read. Maybe it is because, after all, food is a very mundane subject, but I suspect the author may have just made it a little too light, risking it slipping under the radar of those in charge of developing planning policy, who I actually think should read it.

The book is divided in chapters which analyse the processes by which cities feed themselves: from countryside to supply chains, from suppliers to consumers, kitchens and cooking (or not cooking), to eating and all the way through to waste to complete the cycle and start again. It provides a fascinating account of the evolution of these processes through time; influenced by the evolution of societies, technologies, economies, and how these relationships have shaped the cities we live in. It highlights how much all these are interconnected with the way we live and ultimately demonstrates how unsustainable the whole system is, and how much harm it is doing to the environment.

At the start of the book Steel introduces us to the issue by highlighting the incredible amount of food required to feed a city like London (about 30 million meals a day, according to her), and how little awareness we all have about how this is achieved. And there lies the issue which the book really deals with: putting food at the centre of how we understand cities and how we live in them could provide some of the solutions on how we deal with urban growth in a sustainable way. Given the fact that it is expected urban populations will double in the next 40 years, it does make sense we start thinking now how all those people are going to be fed.

After the introduction, Steel starts by describing the food industry as it is today, particularly in London and the UK, and in the rest of the developed world. Market driven, globally managed by large corporate players who, unsurprisingly, are in it for the financial return: no considerations are made for what is it that we are actually eating, or what it takes to get it to us. The book provides a harsh criticism of how disconnected we are with the land, how we like to feel so civilised that we over sanitise our food to the degree we no longer know what it is, or where it comes from; we like to eat meat, but we don’t like to think it is actually a dead cow we are eating. It explores the different attitudes to food through history in different places, tracing how we got to where we are now. It covers issues such as the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers and their impact on the land and its ability to continue to produce food, the way the global food market deals with farmers and the impact on their ways of life, the over reliance on oil for energy used for food production/distribution and the impact all these have on food prices and ‘the real cost of cheap food’. It also touches upon the available options, organic produce, independent food markets and their ability to compete with supermarkets, portrayed (not unfairly), as manipulative marketing entities which encourage us to keep consuming without thinking of the consequences, both to our bodies and the planet.

In describing how food actually gets brought into the cities for consumption, Steel provides a very interesting analysis of how, in the past, food literally shaped cities. From the routes used to bring fresh produce and cattle into town to the strategic location of markets and how different products shaped the functioning of neighbourhoods. We can still see today how important this once was by looking at the names that remain today, Poultry, Bacon Street, Baker’s Row. It makes a lot of sense, and the analysis is brought all the way into the home – the place the architect gives to the kitchen within a house also reflects the ‘actual’ place the kitchen as a space has had over time, in family life and in society.

I enjoyed the exploration of the role of cooking and how this has evolved through time. Steel looks at the whole range of options, from haute-cuisine as cooked in posh restaurants through to ‘foodies’ and the cheap ready-meals sold at supermarkets, touching upon the role of women in the kitchen, class divisions, table manners, and how all these have had an impact in the way we eat. She often compares the different attitudes to food in various cultures, where the Anglo-Saxon ways fare rather poorly. Whilst it is apparent that some European countries have a healthier relationship with their food than the British and the American, I do think she over-romanticises the French and the Italian ways.

The circle is closed with an analysis of how cities deal with waste. I think this is actually one of the most interesting sections of the book, because it points out how cities have gone from seeing waste as a valuable, reusable asset which played a part in the food production cycle to completely losing sight of this connection and its potential for actually dealing with it. Whilst clearly once most waste was organic, which made things rather simpler; nowadays the amount of waste we produce, of all types, is a threat to many life forms in the planet, not to mention that we actually are running out of space to put it.

It isn’t until the final chapter, Sitopia, that Steel reveals what all of this is really about. What she is proposing is actually a complete re-think of how we do design cities, to put food at the centre of the equation. Throughout time humanity has been looking for ways to shape the world – and the proposal here is to use food as a design tool, and in the process put right all the wrongs of how we produce it, distribute it, cook it, eat it and deal with the waste produced. I wish she had started by telling us that in the first place – or, as I say above, the book didn’t feel so much as a casual read, so we’d realise what a good idea this is. In her website, though, she hints at the fact she is in the process of writing another book that follows this one. I hope this one will be the one that puts the proposal forward.

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