Cities and food

I’ve spent my entire adult life living in cities. And at the moment I seem to be spending every spare waking moment reading about them — part of some research I’m doing on how cities are fed.

Cities are complex — an extension of the human beings they house, I suppose. I’m finding the research fascinating, even though I’m still in that stage of not really knowing what I’m going to pull out of it. Most of what I’m reading suggests that we should treat cities as living things, allowing room for them to develop organically.

Geoff Mulgan, from the Young Foundation, says their research suggests that we need to practice “designing in incompleteness, recognising that the best cities evolve themselves rather than just following somebody else’s master plan… the more perfectly planned and conceptualised the new city, the more certain you can be that it will fail.” (You can access the transcript of his presentation, The Social Life of Cities, on the Grattan Institute‘s website.)

Allowing for uncertainty and growth, I guess. As a teenager, I was interested in architecture, and briefly considered going down that path when I left school. Design on that scale — and broader still, looking at urban and suburban planning — still interests me. What we see around us, in urban and suburban environments, is very rarely there arbitrarily. Mulgan (and a number of other people whose work I’m reading at the moment) suggests that much thought needs to be given to how our built environments impact our social lives, because one of the very basic human needs is interaction with other humans.

Food, of course, is another basic human need. I think the two can and should cross over.

But enough for now. Back to work for me.

4 thoughts on “Cities and food

  1. Depressingly, most cities would collapse in only a few weeks if the food supply was cut off. We are so dependant on the automated food system that should, say, petrol become unavailable, or worse, electricity, the food stock in a major city at any given time is only about 3 days for fresh food and a week and a half for everything else. And presumably less if there was a catastrophe and people started panicking.

    Not to be a wet blanket or anything 🙂

    • I’ve come across those figures as well. And it’s precisely that risk that originally prompted this research, and that I’ll hopefully address in what I’m writing.

      One of the things that gets me really foot-stampingly cranky is the stupidity of building systems that have such a vulnerability. Of course, we don’t need to even think about doomsday-type scenarios to find the other vulnerabilities in the system — but they’re a little harder to measure. I’m thinking of environmental issues, but also broader issues of public health and social dysfunction.

      But I’m pleased to say that, in my research, I’m finding some more positive developments.

      • I think the problems are an emergent phenomenon based on the fact that humans have exceeded their biological limits through technology. We’ve never actually evolved past living in family groups of 20 or so individuals, and having encounters with perhaps a hundred or so more. Most people, in fact, still live their lives in reference to this: they have one or two very very close friends, twenty or so family members and semi-close friends, and then around a hundred friendly acquaintances.

        When we live in cities, therefore, we are brought into contact with far more people than we can comfortably deal with in any meaningful way. Most people cope with this, but inevitably there will be people who are not suited to this kind of ambiguity.

      • I tend to agree with you. The technological developments haven’t always considered the psychological impact of the technology. I guess it’s much harder to measure that.

        Mulgan, who I quote here, says that many cities are starting to consider more fully their ecological impact, but argues that we also need to start thinking more about the social impact of the places we live in. In some of the other reading I’ve done, there’s this concept of ‘socially responsible’ design — that is, design that promotes the overall wellbeing (physical, mental and emotional) of the people who use the object or place. Of course, in permanent settlements like towns or cities, that often means trying to adapt existing infrastructure.

        You’re right though: it’s inevitable that there will be people who are not very well suited to living in cities.

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