Food shapes every aspect of our existence, says architect and author Carolyn Steel, so focussing on food is the key to better cities, and better lives


Architect Carolyn Steel has been interested in the relationship between food and architecture for more than 20 years. She began researching the subject formally as inaugural Studio Director for the London School of Economics’ Cities Programme in 2000, and in 2008 published her first book, ‘Hungry City’ , which showed how the mammoth task of feeding the city gives shape to it.

Her newly published second book, ‘Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World’ (Chatto & Windus, March 2020, £17), asks what we can do with this understanding of the connection between eating and urbanity to improve lives. She spoke to AT about the ideas it explores.


AT  You’ve been writing about food for 20 years. How would you characterise our food system now? Even in the weeks immediately before the coronavirus crisis, you could read two widely different points of view in the newspapers: Professor Tim Lang arguing that we are walking into food security disaster, and the government economist Tim Leunig reported to have said that in the modern world countries like the UK shouldn’t try to be self-sufficient in food.

CS  I’m more on the Tim Lang side of things than I am the “We don’t need farmers”. In fact, we often end up on the same convention platforms. Where we are absolutely in parallel is that we both think that we’ve got to a point where we take food for granted, we don’t pay enough for it, and the system is stretched to breaking point.

That was true before coronavirus. Of course, one doesn’t legislate for global pandemic, and one would hope that another isn’t going to come along in the near future, but I have to say it probably is, given a number of issues that are food related: we have drastically narrowed the biodiversity of the farmed world, and we’re also encroaching on areas of wildlife where we’re likely to encounter nasties that we didn’t historically have any relationship with. Those two factors make us very vulnerable to this sort of shock, which is just the latest in a series that we’ve more or less ignored – SARS, ebola and so on.

Food security is important, but the argument I make in ‘Sitopia’ is that we are living a life that is unsustainable, and food is just the most grabbable, obvious aspect of that – and responsible for something like 30 per cent of carbon emissions. We are radically reducing biodiversity and entering the sixth mass extinction. There is increasing inequality in parts of the world where everything is being left up to the market (I talk a lot about the UK and the USA as two centres of neoliberal thinking, which is very much the “we don’t need farmers” end of the conversation). We urgently need a plan B – a new idea of what a good life is, which isn’t predicated on endless consumption. Food is the ideal medium through which to reconsider how we live because food is the one thing that we have to consume every day.

AT  Can you summarise the argument of the book?

CS  The book begins with a plate of food and asks, “What is food?”. My answer to that is “living things that we kill so we can live”. If you express it like that, you’re saying that if you expect food to be cheap, you’re saying life is cheap. You expose a schism at the heart of our value system. In a society predicated on food being cheap, the counterpoint is housing being expensive, for example. 

We’ve got an unequal society, and we’re eating really badly. The paradox is that the supermarket shelves until two or three weeks ago were never empty, and offered incredible choice, but if you look at what we’re actually eating – particularly in countries like the UK and the USA – the food’s not good for us: too much salt, sugar and fat. And it’s a very ecologically damaging diet because of the amount of meat that we eat.

So from that plate of food in front of you, you can extrapolate out, though the body, through the home, through society, through the landscape, nature, and time, to the universe. 

AT  In ‘The Hungry City’ you showed how food had shaped the form of cities historically. Is it that case now that the design of our cities bears less obvious relation to the ways we get our food, and therefore it’s not until you have unexpected events like lockdowns, or empty supermarket shelves, that we question it?

CS  It’s totally invisible, and that’s the problem. From a philosophical point of view, what I’m arguing in the book is that you can’t lead a good life when that life depends on you making some very negative impacts that you’re not even aware of – for example Amazonian deforestation, which is a catastrophe occurring because of the demand for meat, mainly in the West but increasingly in nations like China. If I roast a chicken at the weekend, unless I’m incredibly careful about where I get the bird, it’s very likely that it has been reared on soy feed grown in Brazil on cleared forest land.

AT  Could the design of our environments reveal these relationships better? You talk about ancient Sumerian irrigation systems or grain stores which were infrastructural, but were considered part of the civilization of the city – they had a instructive as well as a functional role.

CS  If you look at the traditional food culture depicted in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s ‘Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ in Sienna’s Palazzo Pubblico, it’s a version of the repetitively idealised form of urbanity, which is the city-state. You have a city, and the countryside, and they are very closely bound together. That’s almost never existed in history – it’s been very rare that you’ve had a city that has treated its rural citizens in the same way as it has treated its urban citizens – but it remains the ideal.

That’s not to say that London should –  or could – be fed from the South-East of England. In fact London never has been fed predominantly from its immediate hinterland; it has always been a trading city. But it is to say that we should be looking at a more local, regional and seasonal approach to feeding ourselves. The Coronavirus underscores it, but there is in any case a madness in the Great Chicken Swap, where we fly all of our dark chicken to Thailand and they fly all of their white chicken to us, because we don’t like dark meat and they don’t like white meat.

We’ve had a 200-year party in which we’ve been able to ignore geography, because we invented trains and cars and other ways of pretending that geography doesn’t exist. And now geography is coming back to bite us. I often say that we’re entering a neo-geographical age: how we sustain our lives with respect to space is once more becoming critical.

I’m not saying we have to go back to farming the way that we did in medieval times – that would be ridiculous – but it seems to me blindingly obvious that we have to farm organically to the greatest extent possible, which means more people on the land, less monoculture, more mixed farms, stronger supply chains with cities. Again, some of these are things that coronavirus is making us think might be quite good ideas anyway.

In London we can clearly see the distinction between two food systems: the ‘get it and sell it as cheap as possible’ system, which the majority of people engage in, and then this other level, which is the farmers markets and the artisanal box schemes and the rest, where people are paying probably double what they could be paying for food, but it sustains good lives, preserves landscapes, doesn’t involve cruelty to animals slavery and so on.

Patrick Holden from the Sustainable Food Trust reckons that we pay twice for food in this country. The cheap food has a hidden cost of about the same amount again in terms of the externalities that we don’t take account of.


The Effects of Good Government in the City and the Effects of Good Government in the Country, two of six scenes in Ambrogio Lorenzetti ‘s fourteenth century fresco series, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

AT  How might architecture and urban design contribute to or be affected by a reformed food system? Is it right to say that there are two main ways: first, the question of urban agriculture, and whether it can make a useful contribution, and second, how we might think more holistically about urban and rural or regional planning as being part of the same thing?

CS  Those are both key issues. I would add another, which is that the home used to be arranged around food. Most people throughout history, until the urban age, either lived ‘in the larder’ as hunter-gatherers, or on a farm, which is predominantly about adapting the land to feed yourself. Obviously when you move into a city, you become a consumer but not a producer of the most important stuff in your life, so there’s a fundamental lack of agency about being an urbanite. Historically, many people living in cities have also had some land outside. It’s no accident that in history, most rich people have had a place in the city and a place in the country, because that is the ideal – we need both. Aristotle’s term ‘political animal’ is very useful because we’re political, which means we are social – we need to gather together – but we are also animals, which means that we depend on the natural world for our sustenance.

So if one asks the question “What does a landscape for human flourishing look like?”, ideally it is one where you have easy access to the urban on the one hand, for job opportunities and sociability, but also for being close to nature, which is essential for our wellbeing.

If I put a window-box on my kitchen cill and grow herbs there, I am maximising the urban-rural interface at the scale of a room. If you have a street with fruit trees in it, you’re doing it at the scale of the neighbourhood.”

I came up with a formulation that describes what we need to do design-wise: ‘maximisation of the urban-rural interface’. You can do this at any scale. If I put a window-box on my kitchen cill and grow herbs there, I am maximising the urban-rural interface at the scale of a room. If I have a house with a garden, I’m doing it at the scale of a house. If you have a street with fruit trees in it, you’re doing it at the scale of the neighbourhood.

The two things we need to do are design new cities with productivity as an inherent part of them, and retrofit existing cities with productivity. There are limits, however, and I refer to the ‘urban paradox’ to describe our dilemma as political animals: we want to live in cities but we want to live in nature, and we can’t have both.

It’s also important to understand that cities can’t feed themselves from inside themselves, and this is why enthusiasm for urban vertical farming can get very out of hand. There are a few problems with it as an answer to local production: one problem is that the food is not growing out of soil, it’s growing out of nutrients that have to be imported from somewhere else. Another thing is the ownership; a lot of urban farms doing well now have huge corporate backing, and I don’t particularly want Google or Goldman to feed me.

AT  If it’s not possible to meet a significant proportion of a city’s needs from within it, what is urban agriculture good for?

CS  I find looking at pre-industrial models very instructive, because by definition – with the exception of places like Rome –  they were low-impact circular models. Historically there are two things that urban agriculture used to be. One is essentially circulating the local nutrient cycle, so manure – human and animal – was collected and dumped on the land outside the city, where fruit and vegetables were grown. Those were luxury foods – only the rich tended to buy them, but lots of people in smaller cities would have had their own little vineyard or orchard outside the city. The other one was the keeping of pigs and chickens, which could eat household scraps, so people would have them in their back yard. And then in a big city like Rome you had villa farming – luxury high-end farming aimed specifically at the banquet market – but all the grains and oil were being imported from all over the Mediterranean. That’s a very clear antecedent to what we do now, which is bring in the bulk of our food from Brazil or America, and grow high-end microgreens for Whole Foods on our doorstep.

AT  So the skyscrapers full of cows imagined by speculative architecture projects is a dead-end?

CS  I’m not saying that growing food in cities is a bad idea –  I think it’s a good idea – but there is an absolute upper limit and it’s not much. Pigs in towers are an interesting provocation, but you look at those designs and think maybe we should just be eating less meat.

But one of the real benefits of urban agriculture now is to reengage city-dwellers with what their food is – the educational side of it and the community-building side. Of course vertical farms aren’t very good for that either, because you have to get dressed up in white wellies and hairnets, and you aren’t in nature.

AT  Might they be counterproductive, by presenting a misleading impression of how much food-growing is needed to feed the world?

CS  Yes, and I spend my life disappointing fresh-faced architecture students by saying exactly that.

Agribusiness is currently what feeds us, but it’s in trouble, and it will be in more trouble going forward. The question we need to ask is not how are we going to feed ourselves, or the world, in future. The question is how are we going to lead good lives, and then what kind of food system do we need to support that, and where should food sit in our lives to make that possible?

The Garden City movement was obviously one way of maximising the urban-rural interface, but fits into the anarchist vision as well. It’s a life in which you are not just a cog in a capitalist wheel, but a fully-fledged human with the possibility to do more than one thing in your day. It’s bringing production – making – into more people’s lives. Growing or working with food is just a very low-hanging fruit in terms of how we can all get involved and work with something that is crafts-based, and allows us to increase our skill levels.

That implies an approach to urbanity going forward that makes the opportunity to get involved in food production more available to people. I’m not saying everyone has to be a farmer – just that at the moment there’s almost no opportunity to be one even if you wanted to be; we’re moving farmers off the land at a rate of knots because the vision is that only big-scale agribusiness can feed us, whereas I argue that the opposite is true.

AT  Singapore’s announcement that it will increase urban farming to improve food security in reponse to the coronavirus crisis  is an early example of a government changing planning or food supply policy in response to the pandemic. If more follow suit, what would you recommend?

CS  Garden cities would be a good model, but taking it seriously as opposed to just fannying around with it. The UK government already had about six garden cities on its drawing board, but they were not what Ebenezer Howard was recommending in the late-nineteenth century, which was actually incremental land reform. I would die of surprise if the government took that seriously, but you live in hope.

We need to take our food seriously – not just because of future resilience but also because of what brings joy to us. It’s really critical in housing design as well. We’re building flats that don’t have kitchens on the assumption that residents are going to Deliveroo their way through their 20s and 30s. That’s depressing and also non-future-proofed. Likewise, flats should have community gardens. None of these are new ideas, but there’s so much evidence to show that, for example, where you have allotments available for flat dwellers, neighbours get to know each other better than they do otherwise. Why wouldn’t we build this in?


AT  It may be that the rapid and radical adjustments in response to coronavirus make it easier to imagine fundamental social or economic reforms in the future. In ‘Sitopia’ you suggest that changing the way we think about and produce food – because it is a large-scale and essentially collective enterprise – could be the means for accomplishing other major changes.

CS  A powerful definition for a good society would be one in which everybody eats well. You can’t eat well if you haven’t satisfied the bottom third of Maslow’s pyramid, of course: you have to be safe, and have a roof over your head. But food is a metaphor for life that is so close to life that if you sort food out, everything else follows. And it’s true at every scale. It’s true at the scale of a house, an urban block, the city and its region. It’s true at the scale of international cooperation. When you undervalue food things go wrong.

We learn to be civilised by sharing through food; you don’t lean over and grab your neighbour’s food off their plate. But we’re really terrible at sharing through money – there leaning across and grabbing from your neighbour’s plate is precisely what we do all the time. If we go back to sharing through food rather than money we’re on the right track.

From an architectural perspective, I would say whatever you are designing, ask how the occupants or residents are going to eat, because they’ve got to do it three times a day. Where’s the food coming from? How are they going to encounter it? Is the social opportunity of that moment going to be expressed? Is the economic opportunity of that moment going to be expressed? Will the world be made a better place by whether that group of people – whether they are the workers in a factory or the dwellers in a home – by the fact that they ate that day? Is a landscape somewhere going to be more beautiful, more sustainable? Are people on the other side of the world going to have better jobs or worse jobs? Are animals going to be abused or not? Is the world going to fry to a crisp or not? It’s all there in that plate of food.