We live in a world shaped by food. Our cities and hinterlands were shaped by it. Our daily routines are structured around it. Politics and economics are driven by it. Our ecological footprint is determined by it. Our sense of identity is inseparable from it. Our survival depends on it. How, then, have we come to consider food as just another commodity: something to be made as cheap and convenient as possible, while we get on with the ‘more important’ things in life?
Our profound disconnection with food, our most vital necessity, is the curious legacy of industrialisation. It is also the symptom of a way of life we can no longer afford. With a rapidly increasing global population, urbanisation, climate change and peak oil, we face a ‘Neo-Geographical Age’, in which our ways of life and use of resources will matter as much to us as they did to our ancient ancestors.
Food is not only a powerful shaper of our lives, but one that we can harness as a tool. My term sitopia (food-place) describes this approach. Sitopia’s goal, like that of utopia, is to question what a good life and society might be like. Unlike utopia, however, sitopia is already with us, albeit in a largely negative form. In order to change it for the better, we need to recognise food’s influence over our lives and direct it positively.
Since food is essential to life and consists of living things, its value approximates to that of life itself. Food has inherent worth, which gives it unique potential as a metaphor and tool. By thinking and acting through food, we can question the values by which we live and act accordingly.
Sitopia is a tool with which we can address such questions as how and where we should build cities, how we should feed and live in them, and how we might ‘post-fit’ existing ones to make them more sustainable. It explores how cultural attitudes toward food shape our habits, beliefs and relationships. Food is the great connector: by thinking, not just about food, but through it, we can gain vital insight into the hidden structures of our lives, and change them for the better.
Carolyn Steel is a leading thinker on food and cities. A London-based architect, lecturer and writer, she has won international acclaim for her 2008 book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives, now a key text in the field of food urbanism. Carolyn has run successful design studios at Cambridge and London Metropolitan Universities and at the London School of Economics, where she was inaugural Studio Director of the Cities Programme.