5 How do we adapt in our cities?

Until relatively recently, cities were intimately connected to the sources of food that sustained their populations.

As the architect Carolyn Steel explains in her podcast, Hungry City, Supplying the City, in pre-industrial cities the complicated nature of managing a food supply was the key determining factor in the decision about where cities could be located and how big they could grow. These days the intricate web of our food supply is largely invisible to us, managed by corporations rather than our civic authorities. The ‘just-in-time’ nature of the global supply chains leaves even the most affluent countries vulnerable to insecurity of supply.

Sitopia and the role of collaboration

If we start to consider how we might use food itself as a tool for creating sustainable cities we have a very powerful tool for shaping a positive future for the planet. This concept is what Carolyn Steel calls ‘Sitopia’. Listen to Carolyn Steel talk about sitopia.

A pioneering community in London is using food to influence change towards a more sustainable London. Growing Communities is a group of Hackney residents who run an organic vegetable box scheme, farmers market and urban vegetable-growing sites. They are taking back control of their food system in their community by setting up trading mechanisms that both employ local people and support organic and fair-trade farmers further afield. Their systems for trade in food are articulated through their concept of ‘Food Zones’, illustrated in a diagram in this document.

The concept of sitopia is grounded in the idea of food subsidiarity: raising what we can as close to the centres of habitation as we can, taking into account a number of factors such as:

  • soil type

  • climate

  • what grows best where

  • size of plots available

  • infrastructure and transport links available

  • the degree of mechanisation that makes most sense

  • the perishability of the produce.

However, this isn’t simply a call to grow more food in cities, though it very much starts with that.

Growing Communities’ food zones manifesto asserts that as individuals we can direct our purchasing power through joining together with others in our community to support existing farmers and growers, giving them a market for their food at a fair price and in turn being able to influence the way in which food is grown. In this way we could radically alter the future of farming, making it less fossil fuel dependent, healthier and more sustainable. In this way too, instead of cities being part of the problem, they could become part of the solution.

See the Growing Communities Food Zones Manifesto at their website.

Agriculture has always been practised in and around cities but in the West we have become used to farming being confined to the countryside. Relatively recently there has been a renaissance in urban agriculture, which encompasses a wide range of physical spaces and productive food stuffs from back gardens to aquaculture and vertical farming.

This family of four in Pasadena, California are managing to grow almost all of their summer-time diet from their fifth of an acre back garden. See their video, Path to Freedom – Urban Homestead, on YouTube.

This form of urban agriculture in back gardens is being explored not only as a step towards self-sufficiency, but also as a service that could provide viable and sustainable urban livelihoods.

Another example you can view on YouTube is My Farm, a video created by Community Supported Agriculture, San Francisco.

The relatively low-tech, community-based examples above contrast with this short film, Urban Aquaculture, about high-tech methods of raising fish for food in urban buildings.

Activity 3

The following video shows a debate between architects on how cities will feed themselves in the future. It features a proponent of ‘vertical farming’ – a system of stacking greenhouses or animal feedlots on top of each other and recycling nutrients by growing hydroponically or making biogas energy from animal manures. This contrasts sharply with the visions of a low carbon farming future discussed in this unit.

Watch the National Building Museum of America's debate on how cities will feed themselves in the future.

Consider the social and cultural aspects of agriculture and how they might be reconciled with urban agriculture. Also consider the implications of urban agriculture for animal welfare. Bearing these considerations in mind, make a list of the pros and cons of producing food in an urban environment.

Identify the questions that this unit has left you with that you would like to explore further.

  • Are you motivated to make changes to your lifestyle now that you have learnt about how agriculture will need to change in order to mitigate climate change?

  • What motivates you to take action?

  • Is there anything holding you back?

4.2 The need for structural change