Imagining the future of food in cities / the accessible city

Thursday 26 June 2014
The Gallery, Cowcross Street, EC1M 6EJ

On Thursday 26 June, over 45 guests attended the second event in the Young Urbanists’ series exploring the future of food in cities, this time examining the topic from the perspective of urban food access. The event was chaired by Dominik Hoehn, an MRes student in Anthropology at UCL. Dominik began the event by welcoming the attendees and introduced the topic and all the speakers.


Ashley Dhanani – Suburban Food Basket Project, UCL

Ashley spoke about the ‘suburban food basket’ project, which looks at shopping habits, cost in different locations and spatial accessibility. The notion of food deserts draws links between lack of access to healthy food and higher rates of obesity and diabetes – but the research is largely US-based, where the urban layout can be sparse and car dependent. As part of the suburban food project, Ashley Dhanani and his colleague and Sadie Boniface visited a school in Borehamwood and handed out surveys about food-buying habits. They found that most respondents went to Tesco (located next to the school) – but some people travelled long distances for speciality shops. In this way access, food and culture are all interrelated. In London you can access 130 different cuisines and ‘consume culture’ through food. We need to think about cultural access to food in cities.


Marina Chang – Knowledge Exchange Associate, UCL Advances

Marina explained that food is about the cycle and the whole system – and that we need to link up different initiatives to interact. Most community groups in an area do not work together to create synergies, but a lot of positive results could come out of this. We should coordinate existing practices and bridge gaps between theory and practice. Food security is an issue but it is not taken seriously in policy. Marina cited the Calthorpe Project in King’s Cross as a great example of a sustainable and effective community project.


Dr Susan Parham – Head of Urbanism, University of Hertfordshire

Susan discussed how food and urbanism have always intertwined. Architectural aspects of urbanism are often about access in a limited sense. The “food axis” of the home has shifted over recent decades – the kitchen has become a social space. Communal gardens have also become convivial green (often food-producing) space. Private space has become increasingly about conspicuous consumption. Access to productive green spaces in cities has always increased at times of crisis (ie. WW2). Access improvements are both spatial and process-related, for example in the rise of guerrilla gardening. We are seeing the rebirth of food-centred spaces such as farmers’ markets. But we are also in a post-urban stage of problematic food landscapes, including “food swamps” and obesogenic environments.

Elizabeth Maytom – Norwood and Brixton Food Bank

Elizabeth focused on the aspect of financial access to food and spoke about the work of the Trussell Trust, which partners with organisations in order to open food banks. Food banks supply people for whom access to food doesn’t exist. We have in recent years seen a 30% increase in food bank usage across the UK. When buying food, these people’s first concern is price, rather than health or food quality. Many corner shops have a very limited stock of food, and there are pockets where there are no food shops within walking distance. People with mobility issues suffer – or, indeed, those unable to afford transport.

Among some people, there is a lack of knowledge/understanding/language about food, which can compound the lack of physical or financial access. Education around food is a key issue. The Trussell Trust give out recipe cards at some of their food banks, as well as picture sheets of cooking terms. They help fill the skills gap by teaching people how to cook and about the value of healthy meals. Food banks also provide budgeting skills – and some provide bus passes. Elizabeth suggested that access to vacant space in communities whose need is highest would help.


Steve Cole – Neighbourhoods Green Projects Coordinator, National Housing Federation

Steve spoke about his work with Neighbourhoods Green on the Edible Estates project, encouraging food growing on housing estates. Food poverty is common on social housing estates, where there are a high proportion of people with low income, disabled and elderly. Disadvantaged communities have less provision of green space (or good green space) – but housing associations own a lot of land. One of the problems is money, as housing associations have lots of financial obligations and priorities – they want to enhance and create green spaces but there is very little money available. The Edible Estates toolkit encourages the development of productive and communal spaces on estates, outlining the benefits for individuals, communities, environment and housing associations. There are four different approaches to food growing projects: community-led projects; housing association led projects; partnership projects; organisation wide approach. It would be good to link housing associations to the London green grid, encourage projects such as the 596 Acres project in New York (which maps vacant lots and provides access to communities), and start getting recognised by the Green Flag Award.


Hillary Shaw – Managing Director, Shaw Food Systems Ltd

Hillary explained how the term ‘food deserts’ had emerged from Glasgow in the 1990s. Food deserts comprise issues with physical ability (age, topography, distance, travel options, climate preventing access to good food), financial assets (ability to afford food/car/house/travel preventing access to good food), and mental attitude (food knowledge and preferences preventing access to good food). If we are to solve the problem of food deserts we need to tackle all these issues. There are similar numbers of malnourished and obese people in the world, demonstrating a problem of food distribution. He noted that 40% of food is wasted. Hillary suggested we have three options: carry on as normal, use technical solutions (hydroponics, etc) or reconnect with people and use land to be productive. Urban farms will be a key part of the solution.





Once the speakers finished sharing their perspectives, Dominik chaired a subsequent discussion that allowed the attendees to pose questions to the speakers. Dominik began the session by pondering the role of planning and regulation, as well as how we can learn from other cultures. Steve Cole noted that we have to plan land use so that people live within walking distance of food shops. In terms of creating productive spaces, there are two different kinds of approaches: the ‘just do it’ approach, adopted by Capital Growth, and the ‘get it right’ (slower) approach. In Liverpool, you could just go and grow food on land. But in London there is a higher economic weight on land. It’s all about how the planning system is interpreted.


Susan Parham explained how people’s front gardens are now given over to parking space rather than growing. Cars are wasteful of space – we need to reclaim space for pedestrians, cyclists, and food growing. The guerrilla gardening movement positively reclaims space for productive growing, and she cited Norway as an example that grows food in interstitial spaces.


Hillary Shaw suggested that we need to change habits and make vegetables part of a school education, to get kids to like them. In addition to this, each town should support its regional food to make the most of it. We need to reconnect to food as nutrition rather than something for show/novelty – “food pornography” adverts portray food as something too good to be true, something that we can’t have, whilst spicier and spicier curries and food competitions or all-you-can-eat leads to a “food as masochism” culture.


One attendee asked why food banks were not as visible in the UK as they are in US/Canada – and what the future for them holds. Elizabeth Maytom replied that food banks in the US are more established, but the growth of food banks in the UK are exponentially rocketing. We will see food banks become more visible. In West Norwood there are donation boxes in shops and libraries.


Hillary Shaw explained that the different inflation rates have led to an ‘inequality of things’ – ie. food prices rise but benefits don’t. Steve Cole further suggested we have seen a neo-liberalisation of a social welfare system.


Marina Chang put forward the notion that instead of scaling up our best practices, we should use a ‘scaling down’ approach. For instance, seeds produce trees – but we shouldn’t plant fully-grown trees, we should plant seeds so that they can grow. Food is not just about nutrition; it is about energy, politics, culture and democracy. We need to be proactive rather than waiting for people to tell us what to do. Cooperation is key. We should engender co-ownership of land. Food is an inclusive and broad subject to bring people together.


Susan Parham described the problems of “Walmartisation” – but that now, bigger supermarkets are scaling down to open smaller, “local” branches. A factor that contributed to food deserts was suburban “redlining,” in which shops drew red lines around (poor) places they wouldn’t build shops.


Steve Cole noted that for 43% of housing estates to be growing food is a positive step in the direction of supporting the social housing landscape to be multifunctional. Many estates have a ‘design out’ approach so for food growing activities to even be at 43% is amazing. We need to help people overcome the trepidation of such an innovation.


With the lively discussion period drawn to a close by the event Chair Dominik Hoehn, the evening’s proceedings were complete. The event series continues on Wednesday 15 October with The Consumer City.