Q&A with Carolyn Steel
Soon, I’ll publish a Greener Homes column in The Sunday Age based in part on our conversation, but here’s a longer, edited version of the interview. We chatted for so long, we even spoke about Masterchef. Carolyn loves it and loathes it. Read on to find out why…
Why do we need to think about cities and food?
In trying to describe a city through food, I’ve come to the conclusion that food – which is the most important thing in all our lives – has been sidelined, culturally, politically, economically and mentally. We’ve constructed this bizarre idea that food should be cheap and convenient, which it clearly isn’t and shouldn’t be. We’ve lost our sense of the true value of food basically. We externalise all its true costs.
It’s also the case that about a billion people globally don’t have access to food. They’re hungry. But actually a large proportion of that is directly attributable to the globalised industrial food system. Demonstrably there’s more food available globally at the moment than we need, but it’s not reaching everybody.
Because I’m an architect, I’m interested in how those iniquities of the food system relate to cities. I talk about what I call the urban paradox, which is essentially that as humans we have two key needs: sociability (each other) and sustenance (all the natural resources necessary to sustain us, of which food is a key element). The urban paradox comes from the fact that if we live together in large blobs in order to be sociable, if we gather in cities, then we get further and further away from the sources of our sustenance and there’s no solution to this.
What’s the role of architecture and design in responding to this problem?
Is it right that we design houses that don’t have a kitchen, as we now do in the UK? Because, basically, people aren’t cooking, so don’t bother to get them a kitchen. That’s a design issue. If you start saying food is important, you start asking: How do we design the food system so that it is equitable? How do we design the whole journey of food, from the producer to the consumer?
In the case of the pre-industrial world, the countryside was basically a short little chain where you had multipurpose farms and people living nearby and you walked and got it. Now we have these global systems. That’s a design problem because frankly the way we’ve got it set up at the moment has been designed by people who are not designers of society, they’re designers of food systems. I’m saying we have to bring the question of how food travels, how food is produced, how it is bought and sold, directly into the architectural and urban design frame.
People talk about eco-cities and they go on about the u-values and saving water, but the food comes from the supermarket. That’s not an eco-city. If you want to design an eco-city, food is central to it. We have to eat every day – where’s it coming from? Food and agriculture, together, account for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions currently, so if you’re talking about the environment, you have to be talking about food.
I’m not saying that cities should grow all of their own food inside the city, because that is the definition of the countryside. But what is that balance? There are so many models that begin to address how you get a balance between urbanity and rurality.
What model are we using now, and what alternatives are there?
At one end of the possibilities is that we all move to Shanghai and we make Brazil the farm. Behind the global industrial food system model is the logic that you live in urban blobs of up to 30 million people and the farm is thousands of miles away and it uses mono-cultural production.
At the other end, we all go back to being farmers, which is what Frank Lloyd Wright was suggesting with his Broadacre City concept. He said we’ve got to stop building cities altogether, we’ve got to cover the whole of America in little farmsteads and everybody has got to go back to growing their own food.
I’m very interested in solutions that somehow look at the middle ground. In Ebenezer Howard’s garden city model, people would live in urban blobs of up to 30,000 people, with productive farmland around and then a network created with railways, and that gives you the urbanity.
So what kinds of things can people do to make change?
There’s a series of things that can be done at all levels. If you live in suburbia, grow your own. When you think about it, low-density suburbia is fertile land that has just had houses built on it. So there’s capacity for people to do fairly serious home food production in their gardens, which they probably don’t use anyway.
If you have a compact urban core, with farmland nearby then you can create networks that allow producers and consumers to come together. This is the Slow Food ‘co-producer’ idea. Carlo Petrini talks about consumers becoming co-producers. You become aware of food and where it’s been produced, and through your choices you actively promote ethical, local, seasonal good food.
If you go to one supermarket and get all your food from there, it’s got an unacceptable level of control over your life. In the middle aisles of the supermarket, where all the packaged and processed food is, it’s very likely that unless it says explicitly on the label that it is sustainably and ethically sourced, that it isn’t. Once you start to understand that the food you’re buying is not good, you actually start looking for other sources.
There are many models for how can we get together and use our buying power to create alternative, better food networks. In the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn every member works a four-hour shift every month. And so the people own the supermarket. Now it’s got 14,000 members and it’s been going for 38 years.
It’s a model that’s now being copied in London by The People’s Supermarket. These are the models that hopefully will start to scale up. But it is about people getting interested in food – not just what is in the food, but the social and political implications of the way we eat food, and becoming proactive about changing it.
If you’re operating at the global scale, which all cities do, then you begin to use your city-wide power to question the international food system and the political and economic frameworks that allow it to have such free reign.
Toronto has a food policy council, which means that any law that is passed in Toronto it has to go through the food policy council first and the implications for the food system are addressed before that legislation is passed.
Masterchef has been hugely popular in Australia, but a supermarket sponsors it. Can these kinds of shows help change the food culture?
I’m a Masterchef addict – I’ve watched every episode that’s ever been broadcast. I always call programs like Masterchef ‘food porn’, because people go to the supermarket, buy the cheapest possible, hideous ready-meal and then they sit in front of these programs eating crap and watching somebody cooking incredible food.
I’m afraid the more cookery programs are on television, the more it’s a sign there’s something wrong in the food culture. There’s a complete disjunction. If you go to countries like France or Italy, where there’s still a reasonable cooking culture, people don’t sit and watch chefs on television because why on earth would you do that? They just do it themselves. It’s a symptom of the problem, really. I do still love the program, but I also cook.