A new model for feeding the world’s expanding cities

How do you feed a city? It’s one of the great questions of our time, yet one that is rarely asked. We take it for granted that, if we walk into a restaurant or supermarket, food will be there, having arrived magically from somewhere else. But when you consider that in a city the size of London enough food for 30 million meals per day must be produced, transported, bought and sold, cooked, eaten, and disposed of — and that something similar must happen every day for every city on Earth — it is a miracle that we get fed at all.

We live in cities as if that was the most natural thing in the world, forgetting that, because we still need to eat, we are as dependent on the natural world as our ancient ancestors. It is the hidden paradox of urban life. For the past 50 years, food has become increasingly plentiful and cheap in the West, but whatever price we pay for it in the supermarket, its true cost to the planet is many times higher. An estimated 19 million hectares of rain forest are lost annually to agriculture, and another 20 million of existing arable land are lost to salinization and erosion. Every calorie of food we consume has taken an average of 10 calories to produce. Four planet Earths would be needed if we all ate like Americans, yet half of the food produced in the US is thrown away. A billion people worldwide are obese, while another billion starve. None of it makes much sense, but then, very little about the modern food industry does. So how did we get here, and what can we do about it?

The origins of modern urban life can be traced back to the Neareast some 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began to harvest wild grasses: the forebears of modern wheat and barley. The invention of agriculture made cities possible, because its primary product — grain — was the first food source plentiful and static enough to support large populations in permanent settlements. Life in the world’s earliest cities (a group of small, compact city-states in southern Mesopotamia) was dominated by the annual grain harvest. This was organized by large temple complexes that gathered the grain, stored it, and redistributed it among the people — sometimes after baking it into bread. As the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley observed, these proto-urban institutions were more like kitchens than temples.

Whatever their size, food remained the dominant priority of every city before the Industrial Age. The Roman Empire’s expansion, for example, was largely driven by the capital’s ever-growing demand for grain. But with the arrival of the railways, all that changed. Once it became possible to transport fresh food across large distances, cities were emancipated from geo-graphy: able to grow any size, shape, and place they liked. Cities began to sprawl, and as they did, we industrialized food systems in order to feed them. The modern food industry, with its vast mono-cultural plantations, processing plants, distribution networks, and fossil fuel dependency, has made feeding cities seem easy. But the reality is very different. Far from resolving the urban paradox, the modern food industry has made us reliant on unsustainable processes, while obscuring our vital relationship with nature.

The first thing we need to do is to stop seeing cities as inert objects and recognize them as organic entities, inextricably bound to the natural ecosystem. The language may be new, but the thinking is not: Philosophers as diverse as Plato, More, and Marx have tried for centuries to resolve the urban paradox by imagining ideal societies. The trouble is, such societies were utopian, so they never came to pass. What we urgently need is an alternative to utopia: a model that aims not at perfection but at something partial and attainable. My proposal is sitopia, from the ancient Greek words sitos (food) and topos (place). Sitopia, in essence, is a way of recognizing the central role that food plays in our lives and of harnessing its potential to shape the world in a better way.

The good news is that sitopia already exists. Wherever food is valued and celebrated, from ordinary family dinners and food co-ops to international movements such as Slow Food and Transition Towns, there is growing recognition that, far from waning as an issue, food is set to become our greatest global challenge. The trick is to scale up such recognition to the point where it affects not just our daily habits, but our socio-economic structures, cross-cultural understanding, and value systems — our very conception of what it means to dwell on Earth. Food is the great connector. If we can learn to share it as a conceptual tool, we can use it to shape a better common future.

Carolyn Steel is a London-based architect and the author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. She was a TEDGlobal speaker.

The Future of The City


The adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment—and in some cases, replace—the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it in a recent talk. To celebrate the New Cities Summit where frog hosted a workshop on the Meta-City, design mind presents a special digital issue exclusively on the future of the city and live coverage from the event.

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