Sitopia: how food shapes the city

Picture of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City

Author: Ian Babelon (Northumbria University)

On Wednesday 6 November 2019, I had the pleasure to attend Carolyn Steel’s public lecture at Newcastle University where she presented important insight from her former book Hungry City: How Food Shapes our Lives, and her forthcoming book Sitopia, to be published March 2020. Carolyn Steel is an architect, and was  inaugural studio director of the LSE Cities Programme. Her TED Talk ‘How food shapes our cities’ reached 1.2 million views. You can follow her on Twitter @carolynsteel. Below is an adapted summary of the lecture by Carolyn Steel punctuated with personal reflections of my own. The blog post closes with some resources to further address this growing issue, including a link to the AESOP thematic group Sustainable Food Planning.

Food shapes the city shapes food

Food shapes cities in ways that we largely take for granted. Paradoxically, because it is so pervasive and essential to human societies, food is almost invisible. The point of departure for Carolyn Steel’s current work lies in the notion of Sitopia: that food and places shape each other in intricate ways. Sitopia is a term that Carolyn Steel coined, merging together two Ancient Greek terms: sitos (food) + tópos (place). Sitopia distinguishes itself from the term utopia, which denotes an ideal, perfect place that does not exist: ou (not) + tópos (place). In English, the term was first used by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in his landmark book Utopia which continues to influence the way we relate to ideal societies. While the state of perfection conveyed by utopia cannot exist (by definition), sitopia describes the historical relationship between place and food which has governed place-making ever since the days of hunter-gathers and early agricultural societies of yore. This relationship will endure and need to be addressed, for example in regards to the projected 68% urban world population for a global population of nearly 10 billion in 2050. Because food has been so central to human survival, it has necessarily shaped the way we live and build our living environments. By extension, place-making is all about food (alongside all the other things that keep our societies burgeoning), even if we fail or do not care to see it.

Carolyn Steel identifies two main approaches to food today, each with their own implications for spatial planning. The first current approach to food is technology-driven; it is grounded in the view that technology can fix all our food needs. Its roots date back to the origins of modern agriculture in the 19th century, with the observation by German chemist Justus von Liebig that the NPK combination (Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium) were key to plant development. Together with the advent of the combustion engine and the spread of railways, the emergence of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and concentrated livestock husbandry transformed agricultural practices toward large-scale industrialisation. These co-dependent dynamics that characterised the industrial revolution completely reshaped the city’s relationship to its hinterland. Prior to the 19th century, cities were largely reliant and limited in size by the productive capacity of their hinterland. Each in their own way, varied works such as that of von Thünen about the Isolated State, Stephen Kaplan’s Provisioning Paris, and Aristotle’s on the polis (city-state) all highlight the necessary interdependencies between urban and rural areas. Up until the 19th century, the geographical boundedness of place-making remained primordial. There were exceptions, however. The population of Ancient Rome reached 1 million or 450,000 inhabitants in the first century B.C.E. (depending on the geographical scale of historical estimates), and evidence suggests the food Romans eat came from the whole empire rather than Rome’s immediate hinterland, which may have partly led to the fall of the empire. In many ways, Ancient Rome stands for our modern relationship to food, and the spatial planning that goes along with it.

Since the industrial revolution, food eating practices have evolved alongside mass production and fast-evolving urban and rural landscapes. The advent of supermarkets and shopping centres simultaneously transformed food habits and urban landscapes and economies, leading to a decline in inner city food markets. Iconic modern food eating practices include ready meals, fast food and its undesirable health impacts, and Soylent, the expedient liquid nutrient solution that bears the promise of replacing actual foods (including fast food). Large-scale corporate food outlets are also associated with the advent of suburbia, which emerged as a somewhat unintended outcome of Ebenezer Howard’s (and others’) garden cities of ‘tomorrow’. Interlinking car-bound mobility, obesity, and segregated land uses, the once heralded suburban dream provides the classic textbook version of unsustainable spatial planning which New Urbanists and progressive place-makers are striving to transform.

In inner city locations, on the other hand, residents  can now face ‘food deserts’ (i.e. areas with a shortage of fresh food outlets). However, the latter may arise as a matter of preference and may not necessarily be related to income. In the more distant hinterland, large-scale monoculture and intensive animal husbandry have taken their toll on soil fertility, wildlife habitats, climate regulation and health (both animal and human, rural and urban). Tech-based approaches can also take on an alluring green veneer, such as vertical farming, hydroponics, and underground farms. See for example the world’s largest vertical farm located in Dubai, and the awaited world’s largest rooftop farm on the edge of Paris. While innovative and more or less tech-intensive, the latter solutions alone will not be sufficient to feed the urban masses. Furthermore, solutions like vertical farming use up a lot of energy. Lab meats are also increasingly considered a food option for the near future.

The second current approach to food identified by Carolyn Steel is one characterised by craft, do-it-yourself, environmentally and socially-friendly agriculture, grounded in a renewed appreciation of the ‘virtue of necessity’ advocated by Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurius (who was not a hedonist as many untethered pleasure-seekers would like to have it). This approach to food is somewhat low-tech and can be less consumerist. It also tends to be feature a greater consciousness of the need to cut on substantial food losses and food waste in the food supply and consumption chain. Among other solutions, examples include: the slow food movement, community supported agriculture, organic farming, permaculture, forest gardens,  urban community gardens, and guerilla gardening (e.g. see the TED Talk with 3M views by guerilla gardening apostle Ron Finley in Los Angeles), among other solutions. A noteworthy example of local community food growing is the Incredible Edible initiative in the town of Todmorden in Yorkshire (UK). Some technologies can be innovative and yet stay relatively low-tech and low-intensity, such as acquaponics which combines fish farming with vegetable production in a closed nutrient cycle. Not to mention edible insect production, which will remain a more traditional alternative to lab meat in the future.  

Picture of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City
Rooftop organic farming contributing to reshape cities, sometimes with prime views over urban landscapes, as here in Brooklyn, New York City. Credits: Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City, which functions as community supported agriculture

In essence, a more people- and nature-based approach to food calls for a reconsideration of a city’s relationship with its immediate hinterland. As highlighted by Aristotle, the place of food in society is also immensely political, both figuratively and geographically. It is also a key part of Aristotle’s wider philosophy of the Good Life (in modern planning terms, this could translate as quality of life and well-being), where perfection was conceived both as a balance in terms of personal individual traits and in terms of oikonomia, i.e. a household economics of self-sufficiency, where each household had a plot of land in the country to cater for its own consumption. The latter could perhaps be seen as a sort of early version of One Planet Living. It is premised on the notion that a city should only take up so much ecological footprint as can be realistically afforded, while ensuring that individual households a direct personal connection with farmland. This ‘perfect’ place-based approach to food as economic, social and political stands can be seen to contrast with to the utopian ‘non-place’ of the sustainable city. The utopian sustainable city could seem in some respects to be a modern neoliberal version of El Dorado, the lost city of gold so prized by 16th century conquistadors, a kind of mirage that always seemed to glimmer on the horizon of their quest for wealth but was never actually reached. Because of a perceived neoliberal economic and (post-)political status quo, some critical analysts perceive the sustainable city as ‘impossible sustainability’. Rather than branding itself as sustainable per se, a ‘sitopian’ approach to cities attempts to relocate one of the most essential aspects of life (i.e. food) at the centre of the places we inhabit.

Rekindling a more local and place-based relationship with food also puts Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s (1338) Allegory of Good and Bad Government back on the spatial planning agenda to ensure good governance in terms of harmonised town and country planning. Urban farming alone will never feed cities. Nonetheless, Carolyn Steel views it has an important part to play in reconnecting people with what they eat (e.g. through educational community growing initiatives), and in nurturing an awareness of the environmental and health effects of different food choices.

Effects of Bad Government on the Countryside _detail of fresco in Palazzo Pubblico Siena 1338-1340
Detail of a fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Bad Government on the Countryside (1338-1340) in Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy

Pending issues for spatial planners include what to do with the food question in big cities like Mumbai, Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, New York, or Rio de Janeiro in the years ahead, considering climate change, environmental change, and resource scarcity, and the associated risks of climate migrations, hikes in the price of food stuffs, growing demand (i.e. growing global population), and peak everything (not just peak oil). The issue of food in cities is a quintessentially wicked problem for which Carolyn Steel says there is no silver bullet. It is certainly not a simple matter of pitching organic food against GM food. Notwithstanding, it appears that a vegan diet can do a lot to help fight climate change, but minding consequences in terms of food miles and impacts of growing global demand for some foods on local economies (i.e. eating a locally-bred piece of lamb can be dubbed more ‘environmentally friendly’ than an avocado that has flown across the globe). Researchers and some government agencies and professional bodies increasingly recognise the need to integrate food in urban planning. The issue of food in cities, in Ancient Greece as now, remains highly economic, political, spatial and geographical in nature, notwithstanding today’s highly networked channels of commodification and distribution. The cycle was and will continue to be recursive: Food shapes the city shapes food.

Food for thought (and action?)

Examples of direct spatial planning interventions will be discussed in future posts (do send in your contributions to if you have investigated or have experience with edible cities in various shapes and forms). Below are a handful of useful networks and repositories of resources:

First and foremost, check out the research events and outputs of the AESOP thematic group that investigates Sustainable Food Planning.

The City University of New York (CUNY) hosts an active Urban Food Policy Institute that addresses food from multiple perspectives.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) addresses food in a cross-sectoral manner in order to help alleviate hunger and malnutrition and reduce poverty in developing countries.

Urban Food Futures brands itself as ‘the first online science magazine dedicated to sustainable urban food systems’. Do read their article: How can food fit into urban planning?  which is based on a book edited by Cabannes and Marrochino (2018).

Cardiff University hosts the Research Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Food (SURF) which investigates food security, welfare and health dimensions of food systems, including the interplay between local and global food networks and related socio-economic and spatial dimensions.

The University of Sydney’s Food Systems research group investigates best practice for local food interventions, access to food, and community engagement in food governance.

Foodsource ‘is an open and expanding resource for information on sustainable food systems, led by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at the University of Oxford’. The available resources investigate diverse components of food systems.

The Global Food Security Programme addresses is a UK cross-government programme that addresses the UK food system in a global context.

Finally, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems published a vision report entitled Towards a Common Food Policy for the European Union in 2019. It “draws on the collective intelligence of more than 400 farmers, food entrepreneurs, civil society activists, scientists and policymakers consulted through a three-year process of research and deliberation.”


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