Carolyn Steel is an architect and one of the leading thinkers on issues of food and our urban environments. Her book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives, was published in 2008. She has won the Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, been acclaimed by The Ecologist magazine as a ‘21st Century Visionary’, and presented at the TEDGlobal conference in 2009 (see the video here). This is the first of three interview pieces with Steel on food, sustainability, and the future of our cities.
On arriving at Carolyn Steel’s home, the first thing she did, “of course”, was to offer me a drink. This simple act is indicative of the way that food offers structure and ritual to our day-to-day lives, yet it was so mundane that it would typically go unnoticed.
Such perceptions of ordinariness have long been of interest to Steel, going back to the mid 90’s when she was a Rome Scholar and wrote an essay titled ‘The Mundane Order of the City’, on 2000 years of everyday life in Rome’s Rione Sant’Angelo. “It goes back to a fascination with the word mundane. We use it to mean ‘boring and everyday’ whereas actually it means ‘of the universe’. It [food] could not be more important, so we call it boring. That tells you a huge amount… Food has to be part of everything. It’s because it is so important that we tend to forget it.”
This social dismissiveness of food is exemplified by an industrialized food system that attempts to render its production invisible. Even at the point of sale food has become sanitized; you probably only need think back to your last trip to the supermarket to recognize this, after all what is it that you remember? The overwhelming scent of fresh clementines? The earthy smell of mud-covered potatoes? Or how about the slight roughness of the skin of a pear, or the crunchy satisfaction of a bunch of kale? Probably not. Supermarkets today are de-sensitized places, the plastic wrapping that engulfs even the humble spud cuts off our senses, rendering touch and smell irrelevant. These over-abundant, artificially-illuminated sheds are an extraordinary culmination of a food industry that has gradually removed food – of rather the experience of its production – from most of our lives.
Even within our own homes, the endless march of the ready meal, or the just-add-water cake mixes, have further separated us from the processes of making and preparing food. For Steel, it is a cultural question: “Historically if you were rich there was high status in not knowing where your food came from. You paid someone else to grow it, prepare it, do all the nasty stuff, cook it. You just sit there in glorious state, the stuff comes in, you eat it, and it’s taken away, and you don’t need to think about it again… The reason we have accepted this [current] system is that we are all in the cultural position of being rich. Not knowing where our food came from is something we aspire to.”
With this willful ignorance of the origin of our food we have gradually designed it out of our lives, and designed it to be cheap, which “of course it can never be”. The infamous £2 chicken is a case in point. How is it, you have to wonder, that a chicken could possibly be this cheap? Can the cost of rearing the bird, slaughtering it, disposing of the waste, transporting and packaging it, along with profits for farmers and supermarkets, all be included in that price?
With such cheap food, and such detachment from the processes of food production, it is no wonder that so much of the food in this country goes to waste. As Steel notes in Hungry City, “we throw away 6.7 million tonnes of household food a year – one third of all the food we buy.” Such wastage she attributes to a singular reason: “[it] all boils down to the same thing: our disconnected food culture.”
Countering this, and reconnecting people with the food they eat, requires its production to be made visible again. We need to grow more food in our cities. For Steel however, this will never be in the form of the large-scale urban farm much beloved by architecture students, “high-rise vertical urban farming… is just utter fantasy. Smaller scale production, which is just about making food production more visible in the city, is extremely important.”
What form this takes, from allotments and window boxes, to complete hydroponic farms in your living room, will inevitably vary. None of them are going to provide all the food we need, but for Steel that is not the point, it is about making evident the process of cultivation, and making people more aware of the value of food. If it makes cities somewhat more self-sufficient and sustainable in the process, so much the better.
© Thomas Stoney Bryans 2012