Monday, January 08, 2007

What is Food Urbanism?

A few months ago I was talking with my good friend Donald Chong, who I had met while studying architecture. Our focuses had diverged over the years - his towards architecture and urbanism and mine towards environmental issues and food systems - but lately our discourse, and our interests, have converged towards the relationship between cities and food. In the middle of our latest discussion, he suggested that we needed a name for the wide variety of interconnected issues that both of us had been exploring. He was right, a label was needed, something that not only did justice to the complex relationship between food and cities, but somehow encouraged a broader recognition and exploration of this relationship. He claims that we came up with the term Food Urbanism on that day, but it was only when I was trying to find a good title for this blog, I 'rediscovered' it.

I was originally going to focus this blog on Urban Agriculture. I wanted to explore the many ways in which growing food close to where so many people live can benefit our societies, our mental and physical health, the local and global environment, our economies, our livelihoods, and how it can provide for real community security. Urban Agriculture is a major interest of mine, but as a primary focus, and a title of this blog, I came to realise that it is not broad enough. When I talk of Urban Agriculture most people do not automatically think of the relationship between food and culture, or about how food production affects the local economy, or about how our culinary habits affect the global environment. For most people, Urban Agriculture simply means growing food in the city. Food Urbanism, on the other hand, could be a much broader heading, covering a wide area of interrelated topics.

More than simply finding a unique title for my blog, this search for a label is based on a belief that something does not really exist culturally unless it has a label (or a 'signifier' as my brief study of semiotics at university taught me). For example, when the term 'Global Warming' is used these days, it means a lot more than simply the global increase in average temperatures. We are just as likely to think of rising sea levels, hurricanes, drought, polar ice caps, SUV's, heat waves or, depending on your point of view, of the economically destructive rantings of left-wing eco-fascists. This one signifier represents a broad concept that brings together so many ideas and thoughts beyond its basic definition. But more importantly, it allows us to talk about this huge issue and to (hopefully) do something about it. The search for an appropriate title for my blog led me to speculate that we do not talk about the relationship between cities and food because we have never taken the time to name this relationship, or at least to name the study of the diverse interconnections between food and cities. To me, Food Urbanism seemed to be both broad enough to include a wide range of topics and precise enough to define a field of study, but the more I looked into it the more appropriate it seemed.

I was surprised to find that Google found no reference to the term "Food Urbanism" and I realised that if I am to use a new term I should at least attempt to define it. My dictionary defines Urbanism as "1. the culture or way of life of people who live in cities, 2. urbanization", but Wikipedia, the definitive source of collective knowledge, offers this definition:
Urbanism is the study of cities - their economic, political, social and cultural environment, and the imprint of all these forces on the built environment. In addition Urbanism is also the practice of creating human communities for living, work, and play; covering the more human aspects of urban planning. Urbanism assumes that there is such an entity as the "urban" with its characteristic high population density, and that it can be clearly distinguished from the "rural". (quoted Jan 6, 2007)

I have used the term urbanism for years, but looking at it again within a new context what struck me about this definition was the absence of food. Could we not talk about the food environment of a city and how it imprints on the built environment? Can food be described as a force? Isn't food a major part of human communities? I was also intrigued by the distinction between urban and rural, which seems obvious enough, but how does that relate to food? Is there such a thing as urban food and rural food, or even suburban food? Are there fundamental differences between urban food systems and suburban food systems?

Following a few links, wikipedia brought me to a relatively new term "Landscape Urbanism", which I had only come across a few times, with the definition:
Landscape Urbanism is a theory of urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience. (quoted Jan 6, 2007)

Could a comparable definition be that Food Urbanism is a theory of urbanism arguing that food, rather than anything else, is more capable of organising the city and enhancing the urban experience? That is a rather bold and provocative statement, one which the architect in me is uncomfortable with, but why not? What would a city and the urban experience be like if food was the primary organising force?

I searched through a number of different references and sites relating to Urbanism and failed to find a single meaningful reference to food. This caused me to speculate about what cities would be like today if the study of urbanism over the past century had seen food as a major aspect of a city, worthy of serious consideration (comparable to, but distinct from, economy or transportation)? Perhaps many of the social, cultural and environmental problems that have been caused by the relentless urbanisation of the world's population, would have been greatly reduced if the relationship between food and cities had been seriously considered.

In trying to find an appropriate label for this blog, I have come to realise that a major part of the mess that we have made of, and the damage that has been caused by our cities could be traced back to the fact that food was not included within "urban studies". It was not considered an important topic, either through ignorance or perhaps because of the belief that food was simply one of many "goods and services" to be provided within a city rather than a primary need with considerable social, economic and environmental consequences.

Perhaps the reason that the complex relationship between food and cities continues to be ignored outside of small circles is that we have not established an appropriate label or signifier for this relationship. So, I offer Food Urbanism which I would define as the study of food as a fundamental aspect of a city, the study of how food relates to the economic, political, social and cultural environments of a city, and the study of how food imprints on the built environment. I would also see Food Urbanism as a theory that positions food is a primary transforming force capable of organising the city and enhancing the urban experience.


Shah said...

Hi, my name is Shah Turner, coming to you from Melbourne Australia.
I am absolutely thrilled about the timing of my discovery of your blog. I am a landscape architect, currently about to co-run a landscape architecture design studio at the design school at RMIT. A desgin studio involves the participation (6hrs in class, 21hrs out of class/wk ) of about 12-15 university students in 2-4th years who have balloted for the topic of the studios on offer that they are most interested in. The topic of our studio, which Jane Shepherd, my colleague and senior lecturer at the university, and I had a reasonably difficult time trying to define or name, is... well... to be honest, its food urbanism.
I think this is going to be interesting, what are the opportunities landscape architects, or other desing disciplines, could create for food urbanism, through design in the built environment.

I was hoping we could begin a dialogue over the coming months so that I might contribute the findings and processes emerging from this topic amongst design students.

PS Nice video work. Reckon I have a few to show you too some day.

Shah said...

If I can briefly clarify...(?!)
When I said... "its food urbanism" I actually meant that food urbanism seemed to encompass exactly some of the issues we are interested in, it was just the kind of name that seems to capture so much of it.

Bruce Darrell said...

Hi Shah. Thanks for your comments (and sorry for not responding sooner).
It is comforting to hear that someone else has experienced the satisfaction of finding a label that captures the complexity of issues that you are dealing with. Once I had the name "food urbanism" so much seemed to come into focus.
The design studio sounds great. It is exactly the kind of work that should be done in design schools. I would be very interested in beginning a dialogue with you, Jane and the studio. You can send me an email to or from my complete profile page.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, what phrase..., a remarkable idea