A future when London can feed itself

This article was written for BBC London

Food experts have said that London will need to look very different in the future if it is to have a sustainable supply of food.  Faced with population growth and decreasing food security, the people who design and develop our cities are keen to see agriculture become a central part of the urban landscape.

The European Sustainable Food Planning Conference last weekend saw academics, activists, architects and planners join forces to bash out a vision for urban areas that are greener, cleaner and, most important of all, able to do a lot more to feed themselves.

Bigger is better

London is currently doing a lot to promote urban growing, with campaigns like Capital Growth and organisations like Growing Communities working to give Londoners access to local, seasonal and healthy food.  But, while small-scale and not-for-profit growing projects have massive social importance, the consensus was that their usefulness was limited when it actually came to feeding people.

Referring to an edible garden in Brighton, Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University, said “growing food like this is piddling and useless in terms of food production, but it’s important culturally and should be done.”  Lang explained that “there are lots of exciting little projects but none of them are right, the bigger picture is eluding us.  Alternative food systems exist but they lack weight.  The public policy response has been weak and we haven’t won the argument with politicians.”

Shock stats shared among delegates included the fact that ten calories of energy are used to produce every calorie of food we eat; that 30% of food fit to eat is currently wasted; and that 19 million hectares of valuable rainforest are lost each year to food production.  Lang believes we are in something of a crisis when it comes to food and we need rapid and coherent change.

Let’s hear it for planning!

It may be deeply unfashionable but planning policy is the only way to make cities sustainable, according to Professor Lang.  “The myth about planning is that it’s top down, that it’s an infringement on the consumer’s right to choose.  The reality is that planning is about social process to meet need, it’s a collective response.  Let’s hear it for planning!”

Determined to make something dreary seem relevant, he suggested that private companies plan successfully all the time, but that current UK food policy was to leave decisions to the big shops.  He believes we’re all scared of a nanny state, but that that option is better than a “nanny supermarket” determining the shape of our food systems.

The future is ‘glocal’

More positive voices rang out during the course of the weekend and an idea emerged of cities like London being transformed into ‘Sitopias’ – a phrase meaning ‘food place’, coined by architect, writer and Londoner Carolyn Steel.  Celebrating a long gone London that centred around daily markets on Cheapside, she noted that the navigable Thames could have huge implications for improving our modern day food systems.

Her prediction for future eating habits was awkwardly labelled ‘glocal’, where Londoners eat as locally and seasonally as possible, but with room for more exotic goods like coffee.  Agriculture was to be dominated by permacultures rather than monocultures.

Steel was, however, dismissive of popular proposals for things like vertical farms, saying they wouldn’t work ecologically or socially and that London would need a thousand, each towering 30 floors into the sky, if we wanted to feed the city.

London Garden City?

Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes’ was one of the tongue twisting concepts put forward at the conference.  It means creating corridors of productive green space that run through cities and connect them with the surrounding countryside.  It was suggested that the potential for successful growing on the outskirts of London was very high, and that we should be looking to adopt ‘bio-regional’ ways of living, returning to an era of the city-state.

The idea that London could be re-shaped along the old Garden City model also came up regularly, as did the assertion that the ideal population of a city was a mere 30,000 people.  In the future, sustainable food systems would be an integral part of cities and there would be a new urban agriculture jobs market.  In an edible city, street trees would be fruit trees and kids would learn farming skills at school.

The mood at the meeting swung between pessimism at the current state of our food systems and the lack of action being taken to improve them, to optimism and excitement about a future where cities were designed to be much more self sufficient.

Work is already being done in London to address food security.  Alongside numerous community and personal food growing projects, the capital has a celebrated food strategy.  And insiders hinted that food systems will be part of the new London Plan, which is due to be published early next year.

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