12 September, 2011

Hungry City - Carolyn Steel

I've rarely enjoyed the pleasure of a non-fiction book that brings together so many of my favourite themes for consideration.

I came across Carolyn Steel as the presenter of the keynote address for this year's State of Design festival. Steel is an architect by trade, but some years ago started researching how the design of our cities reflects, is influenced by and (especially in modern cities) ignores our relationship with food and its supply.

Steel is a rapid and enthusiastic speaker, unable to resist delving into tangents, then berating herself for not sticking to the vital facts in her allotted time. Despite both the restrictions and diversion, she did an impressive job of precising much of the book's 300 pages of content in an hour. Steel is clearly intimately engaged with her subject and it's a further credit to her that the book is so nuanced; she doesn't run away with passionate polemic, but her message is forceful regardless.

So what is that message? Hungry City argues that we cannot persist with building cities that ignore the realities of food supply. The 'sustainable city' is a common theme in today's media, whether in discussions about more bike paths, urban gardening or solar power rebates. Steel's argument, however, is more fundamental than that. It's not about improving what we have, it's about rethinking design and paying closer attention to the chains of power that control the supply of food around the world.

This is also about much more than food miles, which themselves aren't a new phenomenon. In Ancient Rome, the citizens dined on delicacies from as far away as Egypt and Spain. Steel traces the history of town- and city-building back to Sumerian times, when the first zoned habitable areas appeared out of a need to store and trade grain. (Ironically, it was our evolution to eat grass, rather than just meat, that was the first step in the journey that led to today's megalopises - we were no longer limited to town sizes that could be supported by the amount of livestock within walking distance.)

The story travels from Sumeria to Rome to post-industrialisation, to the development of the shopping mall in mid-20th-century America, the decline of independent stores in Britain and absurd zoning allowances for megamarkets, all the way through to a futuristic city of vertical factories. It's a lot to stomach, but in a fulfilling way.

No comments:

Post a Comment