Unfashionable but inevitable

This article first appeared in Rhubarb – the magazine of Sustain

The word alone may cause you to shudder, or yawn, but planning policy is relevant to those fighting for sustainable food systems. It has something of a bad reputation.  You’d be forgiven for thinking it was not only boring but also an obstacle rather than a tool.  But planning policy could actually empower communities in their bids to become more self-sufficient.  Professor Tim Lang, from City University’s Centre for Food Policy, certainly thinks planning is the solution to an impending food crisis.

Declaring it “unfashionable but inevitable”, he insists that good planning should seen as a collective response rather than an infringement on the consumer’s right to choose.  “The myth about planning is that it’s top down.  The reality is that it’s about social process to meet need.  Let’s hear it for planning!”  In order to shift our food systems towards sustainability, Lang argues we need rapid change within a coherent framework.

Carolyn Steele, author of ‘Hungry City’, believes examining how towns and cities looked in the past is a useful exercise.  Take London for example.  The street names around what was Cheapside Market reflect how food once shaped the English capital.  The navigable Thames lay at the heart of the city’s food system, Poultry and Bread Street were where people went to buy poultry and bread, and Friday Street was where people bought fish.  Livestock literally walked itself to Smithfield meat market.

In the 1800s the food system was visible, not hidden.  Things have changed, and Steele says we need to put the human back into food.  Her concept of creating a ‘Sitopia’ transforms the city into a ‘food place’, somewhere characterised by permaculture not monoculture, and where eating locally and seasonally is possible for everyone.

So far, so abstract – how does this shift towards sustainability come about, how can the human be reinserted into food systems and how can planning help community growers?  This autumn planners joined forces with architects and activists, including representatives from Sustain, to discuss all these things.

The European Sustainable Food Planning conference was a hot house of ideas and inspiration about the way our towns and cities should be designed.  Lang and Steele both spoke at the event, alongside academics and practitioners who are all dedicated to the idea of integrating sustainable food systems into planning policy.

Designers talked about how food and agriculture were becoming legitimate areas for them to take on, but warned that the flow into real projects and actual architectural practice doesn’t necessarily follow.  However, most insisted that the picture isn’t bleak, that jobs as ‘food systems planners’ are becoming more common and that cities are adopting food strategies.  Brighton and London both have done just that, and recently Sustain has been advising on a food section for the new London Plan, which will be published in early 2011.

Sustain believes that influencing planning policy is a real opportunity to promote sustainable economic development, regional food hubs and food justice, by ensuring things like access to food shops, diverse retail environments and community growing are built into town master plans.  The alliance is currently drafting a report intended to inform planners about the importance of incorporating food into their work.

The report will assess the potential of the current planning system to help create more sustainable food and agriculture, and it will highlight initiatives that already include good food and farming in planning policy and practice.  There are many positive examples, both in the UK and further afield.

In the US, the American Planning Association has a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning, which provides an overview of the connections between planning practice and the production, processing, packaging, distribution, transportation, access, consumption and waste disposal of food.

Closer to home, the Brighton and Hove Core Strategy asserts that “planning will support programmes which…recognise, safeguard and encourage the role of allotments, garden plots within developments, small scale agriculture and farmers’ markets”; the Bath and North East Somerset Core Strategy says it will “actively encourage local food production”; while the North Norfolk Core Strategy says “proposals that would have an adverse impact on the operation of weekly or farmers’ markets will not be permitted unless appropriate replacement provision is made as part of the proposal”.

It’s widely recognised that our current food and agriculture system is damaging rather than enhancing sustainable development.  Sustain has found that, while there are a range of national planning policies that could support more sustainable food systems, and there are local examples where this is the case, in general they aren’t routinely being put into practice.

Planning policy originally came out of a desire to protect public health, something that needs to be remembered.  The concept is slowly being embraced again, as policy makers begin to appreciate the importance of designing sustainable food systems.  Things aren’t likely to evolve without the help of non-planning professionals or without public support, and community groups and voluntary organisations have an important role to play, in both demanding and advising on change.  And we all have the potential to benefit.

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