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Food for thought

Updated Sunday 20th June 2010

Architect, lecturer and author of 'The Hungry City', Carolyn Steel talks about her passion for the 'Dirt Cafe Sitopia' project, and how food can bring people together and shape our lives in the future.


Copyright The Open University


Carolyn Steel: Where I am? I’m in a thing called a kolonihavehus, and that may not be perfectly pronounced. But it’s an allotment house, and this is a tradition in Copenhagen, and I believe all over Denmark, they’re kind of like 'dachas'. They’re little allotments close to the city where people come and they build little houses and they either spend, you know, the weekend there or sometimes actually, you know, the whole summer kind of growing vegetables and being happy in the suburbs.

And the reason I’m here is frightfully complicated, but basically to try to put it briefly: it’s for a project called Dirt Café. And Dirt Café is a project I’ve been involved in for about four or five years, and it’s the idea that you have a debate about an issue to do with food, around a meal.

And we had a meal today – very exciting meal actually – but you might be about to ask me about it so I won’t tell you any more than that at the moment – cooked by Trina Hahnemann, who is the Danish chef to parliament, and the subject was Sitopia and the real reason I’m here now is because Sitopia is a word that I’ve invented. Can you invent a word? Anyway I’ve put two other Greek words together to make it and it means food place. And it’s from the Greek words “sitos” for food and “topos” for place. And I’ve invented this word as an alternative to utopia, because I think we need a new model for questioning human dwelling. And I think we can do it through food, and maybe I’ll come on to tell you a bit more about that in your next question, I don’t know.

Interviewer: Okay well the next question is do you remember the starting point for your interest in environmental issues? I mean the very first moment, was it kind of personal or political?

Carolyn: It grew up on me or it grew, because I am an architect and I taught architecture and, inevitably, you teach urban design if you teach architecture. So I was thinking about cities and trying to work out what cities were, and it struck me that the architectural discourse at that time – and I think I’m going back to the sort of, you know, mid 1980s, maybe late 1980s – was very much to do, still, with public space and buildings and, you know, it was really quite a formal idea of what a city was. And although there was a cultural interpretation of that, it didn’t really stray yet into the environmental area.

But for some reason the question of sustainability, the city, had sort of arrived in my head and so I began to invite people to come and crit my students and talk about the designs they were doing, that were not architects but were actually people in, working in the environmental sustainable world.

As it turns out that person is now running this project that you’re interviewing me for, so that’s just how weird life is but anyway…

Interviewer: Can you say a little bit about your book actually?

Carolyn: Yes. Well I was working in urban design or trying to teach it, in any case and, as I say, the discourse seemed to me to be missing something. And actually for me, you know, the decision to be an architect came when I was very young, you know, under the age of ten, but I never really understood what that meant. But, increasingly, as I actually began to practice architecture, it struck me that there was something that I always thought architecture was going to be, that architecture seemed not to be, which is the bit beyond the buildings, really. And through a very, very long and painful process that you won’t want me to go into, I came up with the idea of trying to describe cities through food, essentially.

And the minute I had that idea I knew, that is a moment I do remember incredibly clearly, because I was sitting in a bar, I was chatting to a colleague from the LSE, Roger Zogolovitch, about maybe writing a book together about cities. And this idea of food kind of came up. What I can’t remember is whether it was him or me, but we both knew we were interested in food and this idea of talking about cities through food emerged out of that. And we both agreed we’d go away and work on this idea for a month, and I went away and basically wrote the proposal, for what is now my book, and he just went away and was busy.

So after a month I’d basically formulated this idea and, you know, as I say the minute I had this thought in my head, whether it was my idea or not, the way I saw it was almost kind of clicked into visibility instantly; how amazing this would be to try to describe a city through food. What I didn’t realise was how very difficult it was going to be, or how enormous the implications were going to be. I realised that when I began researching it, kind of the next day, basically, I suddenly realised this was huge. But then it was also incredibly interesting and exciting and I just pursued it.

So essentially the book, which is called Hungry City: How Food Shapes our Lives, it talks about how everything in our lives, not just cities of course because cities have to be fed from the countryside, so really everything is shaped by food in some way, you know, whether socially or politically or ecologically or geographically or economically, culturally food is there. So what’s emerged out of it, for me, is this idea that not only can you describe a city through food but you can describe the world through food and understand it through food. And this becomes very, very exciting because you can then, I believe, and, what I’m trying to do with Sitopia, use food as a collaborative, conceptual and practical design tool to rethink human dwelling to design it better basically. So that’s what I’m doing now.

Interviewer: Okay so that’s, is that the particular project that you’re working on at the moment?

Carolyn: Yes.

Interviewer: And what really motivates you in that project?

Carolyn: A very deep passion that’s kind of addressing lots and lots of different areas, because yes it’s absolutely about sustainability, but it’s also about what are we trying to sustain. You know, what is a good life? And not just for us sitting in you know our kind of Westernised, cosy houses in Europe but the whole world – what is a good life for everybody, you know? And food, I believe, is a medium for addressing that question. But it’s also, so it’s not just for sort of saying how are we going to sustain life, but what kind of life is it that we’re trying to sustain?

The reason food’s good for this by the way is, not only does it sort of stray into every territory, and I mentioned a few of them before, it’s connecting, you know, it’s multilateral, it allows you to actually focus very, very broadly but also come back to something very specific and vertical, you know, in my language, which means it’s absolutely about the business of survival, but also, you know, higher aspirations: the poetic, the cultural, you know, religion, belief, all of that rolled into one. It’s an amazing tool. It’s an unwieldy tool at the moment but, trying to formulate that tool more powerfully, is a great passion of mine. I mean it’s what my life is now dedicated to.

Interviewer: Okay so over the next ten years, if you look out over the next ten years, where do you see yourself in a year’s time and then in five years?

Carolyn: Hopefully with a bit more funding.

Interviewer: And then, finally a decade where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

Carolyn: Well, in the next year, I mean I’m applying for funding to research Sitopia through an architecture school in London, University of Westminster. It apparently takes them about nine months to decide whether they’re going to give you the money or not, and it’s going to take me about two or three months to get the application in. So in a year’s time, I’m going to have a very happy look on my face, or a very unhappy one depending on whether they say yes or no. But, interestingly, there are other kinds of connections I’m making all the time through this what I call the Sitopia project.

Certainly in the next year I’m hoping, well, very much in the next year hoping to have a Sitopia website, which is an interactive site where people can use it as a kind of ideas bank. They can kind of deposit ideas about Sitopia in there, they can take ideas out, but, in the action of doing that, the structure of the site changes, so this is like a kind of new kind of computer mechanism that in a way apes the way food behaves in the real world. Of course, computing is in the real world as well, and I’m collaborating with some designers, some computer designers, on this at the moment, who are based in Amsterdam, so that’s the first year is really trying to set up the Sitopia project.

The next five years, I hope, is actually going to be spent developing this tool. So food as a tool, what does that actually mean? How can we use it? I mean I’m already gathering an enormous network of people who are interested in collaborating on it with me, so it’s a kind of spreading community in a way. But, as I say, it’s shareware. Sitopia is shareware; it’s not like my idea, I’ve just put two Greek words together and called it Food Place. But the idea is that actually we can use food in a practical way to rethink how we dwell.

So that is something that I’m hoping lots of people are going to want to explore in their own ways and I just become, you know, the instigator of that and then people I hope will just start doing it in their own way. And, of course, they already are, this is the point. You know, at this lunch today there was somebody, well lots of people, but particularly Thomas Harttung, you know, he’s working on a farm that he’s about to develop some very, very interesting ideas about how he can be self-sustaining in food, or at least bring a lot more food production locally. That in my terms is a deeply Sitopian project.

So I’m just giving a name to something that already exists, but I hope, by doing that, and bringing people together around these ideas I can augment them and find new connections. It happened at lunch, it was the most exciting moment in my Sitopian life that he had a conversation with Kirsten, who’s working in the IPCC, and she basically, they did, they got together, they'd never met. But they’re actually going to change the way they work now, as a result of this meal that we just had. That was for me exactly what Sitopia is about is bringing people together that would never normally meet in a conversation around food and sparking new stuff – it’s amazing.

Interviewer: And that’s how the Dirt Café project works?

Carolyn: And Sitopia in a weird way and the Dirt Café, which is not my project originally, but I’ve been involved in for a while now and I’m just very, you know, it’s become my network, actually, is the Dirt Café network and I’ve met a huge number of people through it, but that’s very much how it works as well.

So the weird thing is Sitopia, which is my concept, and the Dirt Café, which is not, are so mutually complementary, I just feel it’s all the same. It’s all the same sort of intention and it’s out there in the ether anyway. I mean it’s not like, you know, this stuff’s kind of new and “oh aren’t I clever I’ve invented it,” it’s already there. I’m just naming something that’s already there and seeing it in a different way.

So, absolutely, I mean the answer to your ten year thing, in ten years I very much hope that Dirt Café will still exist. Sitopia will be out there, it’ll be something people talk about and use. And, you know, I will be in related territory. As yet unspecified.

Interviewer: Something to eat and talk and?

Carolyn: Absolutely, doing all of those things for sure.

Interviewer: Okay so looking out over the next decade, Carolyn, do you see yourself as an optimist or a pessimist, particularly in relation to our or humanity’s capacity to act on, well to make sense of and act on, global environmental change issues?

Carolyn: I’m actually an immense optimist because I meet, well, I meet people all the time, and food does this by the way. If you start talking about food and meet people who are interested in food you meet positive people. Because these are people who actually they love life; to love food is to love life, to value food is to value life. These are people that are actually doing something already about it, you know, and through food, I’ve met so many other people. I mean, you know, it’s not just people who are, as it were in food, food becomes a network that allows you to meet all sorts of people that are in related fields to do with sustainability. But also not just sustainability as a kind of, you know, way of green washing what they’re already doing, but as a way of really challenging and asking how do we want to live in the future and finding out what this good life could be.

So, absolutely, I mean I think it’s about this kind of positive thinking and augmenting the positive thinking that I believe is innate in all humans. I mean, I believe humans are inventive, positive, resourceful, you know, good – people are naturally good and they want to do the right thing.

Interviewer: Have you had a good day?

Carolyn: A really good day, absolutely. I mean a very special day, actually, and there’s going to be an even more amazing thing happening tonight. Well, I don’t know, I won’t say more amazing, but another Dirt Café salon, so called, this evening where we’re going to carry on talking about the Sitopia. And no, I’m really very optimistic, it’s just been – there’s a word we had that came up in the conversation ‘hygge’ which is Danish it means kind of cosy. But I mean it was cosy but something happened at a much bigger scale also happened, with this conversation; it went beyond conversation, it went into a real new collaboration across scales. And between disciplines and, you know, a farmer and somebody working in the IPCC went “whoosh”, that’s just awesomely exciting, so, yeah, I’m in a good place.


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