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The history of the city as the history of food. Why the question of food completely determines our life.

The history of the city as the history of food. Why the question of food completely determines our life.

As part of Strelka Week in Kaliningrad, architect and writer Carolyn Steele, author of a book on the relationship between food and urban problems, gave a lecture on how agriculture influenced the emergence of urban civilizations, how Victorian London fed itself and what challenges modern industrial methods of production pose and delivery of products. Strelka Magazine has recorded the most important.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The fruits of good governance. Fresco. 1337-1339. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.


Urban civilization was shaped by the fundamental relationship between urban and rural environments. If city planners achieve balance in them, then city management can be called good. True, the history of such a balance has not yet known, but there is still an ideal city in the world – on the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which depicts the inextricable communication between the city and the village that feeds him.

The village goes into the city, and the city goes into the village. This is symbiosis, partnership. And the key factor that brings the two halves of the picture together is food..

Nowadays, you cannot see the fertile edible landscape outside the window. Food comes from the other side of the world: the food production process is industrialized, globalized. Now more people live in cities than in rural areas, but back in the 19th century, only 3% of the world’s population could be called city dwellers. Cities grew, swallowed up the landscapes that fed them, became larger and more diverse. As a result, we have become far from the sources that provide our life..

Babylon 539 BC / illustration:


Where should people live? In the village, when no one is around, but the natural world abounds in food, or in the city, where there is the strongest concentration of opportunities for socialization and communication, but there is isolation from nature and food sources? The urban paradox is that there is no answer to the question: people need both.

Twelve thousand years ago, humans were gatherers and hunters, but then the climate changed. The land became drier, the temperature rose, and a food crisis was formed. People began experimenting with a new food source – grain. Now it is possible to grow crops, build permanent settlements near the food source. Farming activities did not deplete the resources of the territory, but allowed them to stay for a long time in the same place, keeping a certain amount of food. Farming for the first time created a surplus of food and cities where the townspeople were not food producers.

CITY 1.0 AND CITY 2.0.

Ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq, was born of the discovery of how to feed people. Farming has been a significant part of the city’s life. The annual harvest is the most important event: all spiritual events, festivals, holidays, prayers were organized around the seasonality of agriculture and the temple. The temple organizes the harvesting process, the city is surrounded by farmland, people work in the fields every day, and the temple provides warehouses for storing grain. First, tribute is paid to the gods, then bread is prepared in church kitchens, which the population is fed with during the next year..

All the first cities are very similar to this one. A city-state, that is, an urban spot surrounded by agricultural land. A small settlement by the river, in the center is a large warehouse that distributes food – a temple.

Another famous ancient city that did not follow this trend is Rome. He exported food from distant countries. Rome had access to the sea – a critical factor. Moving food by water at that time was about 50 times cheaper than by land. Thus, Rome colonized virtually the entire Mediterranean to feed itself..

Port of Rome / illustration:

Rome expanded because it needed more food, the city imported not only grain, but also wine, ham, fresh oysters from London. Rome fed itself as we feed ourselves today.


16th century London was surrounded by fruit and vegetable gardens. The grain is floated down the river because it is bulky and heavy, and is delivered to the two main river ports – Queenhife (Big Ben) and Billingsgate (East Thames port). After that, the products are moved to the main market of the city – Chipside, but are partially sold on the way to the “street of bread”. Food actually flows into the city through this street.

The main fish market until the 1980s was Billingsgate. When markets are formed, they rarely move anywhere, because the food supply is a big issue for the city and shouldn’t be disastrous. Food always follows the same route, and these paths are reasonably named after the procession meal. Fish Street, Friday Street – a place to buy food on Friday when meat was not allowed.

Animals do not flow into the city, they enter on their own four legs. They come to London from the fields of the North-East, Scotland, Wales. Adam Smith called these fields “unimproved pastures” where there was nothing to do but raise livestock..

Having reached the desired size, the cattle traveled 500 miles. On the way, the animals lost almost half of their weight, they were fed in the suburbs with grain from the mills and brought to Smith Field, a small field outside Newgate, still the main meat market in London. There were 184 slaughterhouses around this market, the waste was sent to the River Thames, and water was obtained that was not drinkable..

London Smith Field / illustration source:

London’s population by 1830 was nearly 2.5 million, and food was still in the center of the city, causing chaos. But the inhabitants of the city of the XIX century knew exactly where their food came from, because it hums under the window..


Before industrialization, there was a typical urban structure: a bustling market square, ports, horse carts, a church next to the market. Commercial activities, civil and spiritual authorities are close by. Everything around feeds the city – the countryside, houses with huge gardens, large fields of grain, cattle in pastures. The proximity of the river was important for the townspeople.

Food and its consumption physically set the shape of the city, including the countryside near the city..

Trains have radically changed the way the city travels to food. Firstly, food has ceased to be tangible, for it there is no physical space in the city. Secondly, the geography has changed: cities have ceased to be limited in their size, because the railways began to feed them. Thirdly, the city government has changed its attitude to food control, has ceased to worry much about the local crop failure..

The market is no longer in the center of the city, it ceases to be a space where everyone communicates, meets, learns how to live, what to do. Trains not only allowed cities to grow larger, but also opened up vast intermediate areas previously inaccessible. North America, Brazil, South America, Australia became huge pastures, grain producers, because trains could now bring food to cities.


Warehouses in Chicago were formed as a result of the transformation of the US Midwest into large areas of grain production. For the first time in human history, it turned out that there was too much grain, so they began to feed animals, and this led to the appearance of cheap meat. Products were exported to Europe, for this they invented wagons with refrigerators to transport meat over long distances. Today, 97% of the world’s meat is produced in this way, even though cows were not created by nature to eat grain. The animals take special antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. The insane system that creates this cheap, affordable meat.

& # x27; Union Stock Yards & # x27 ;, Chicago, 1947 / photo:

Cars replaced trains, and urban landscapes appeared that were not really related to cities. This happened thanks to Viktor Gruen, the Austrian architect who built the first mall. Carpet urbanization has taken place: a city without markets, no busy streets, no communication – only a few hypermarkets where it is comfortable to be.

There is a clear separation between the traditional city and food logistics because food has changed its natural route..

There is a fundamental change in the relationship between city and food: distribution becomes the most important.

Food travels great distances and needs cans. If before people came to the central market almost every day, talked to the butcher, bought only what they really needed, now they go out of town to buy food at the distribution warehouse and stock up on it for a week.


New York has a highly industrialized food system: food doesn’t go where there are people, it goes where there is money. For example, Manhattan, Central Park, where rich people live – they have fresh food within 200 meters, and there is the Bronx, Harlem, where supermarkets do not sell fresh food: no one has money for them..

Central Park, New York / photo:

At the same time, we pay less and less for food than at any other time in history. In the middle of the last century in England, a person spent about 30% of their income on food, now less than 10%. America has the lowest rate – 8%, and they became the creators of “cheap food”.

Cheap food has a price: 30% of the cultivated land is degraded by monoculture. Including because of deforestation, in the place of which they create pastures for livestock. At the same time, about 1 billion people are hungry, and 1 billion are obese..

Half of the food we produce is thrown away because it is no longer valuable..

There is a correlation: the more people come to the city, the more people start eating meat. This lifestyle requires huge amounts of water and grain. We are feeding animals, therefore we are eating meat. We spend ten times more grain than if we consumed it ourselves.


You need to understand where the food came from. Jamie Oliver, a famous chef from England, showed fresh vegetables to children from poor parts of England, and they did not know what it was. People are true slaves to the food industry if they don’t understand what kind of foods the food was made from on their plate. Our life passes through the prism of food, food forms the way of thinking, body and space. Food is ethically valuable, if only because we kill a living being. You need to be aware of this.

A coherent, fair, democracy-like structure will only emerge when producers and consumers come together. You can put it in one word – co-production, that is, you do not just passively wait for food to end up on your plate, but think about where it came from, meet with producers, and are engaged in food production yourself. The author of this term is Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Italian slow food movement, an opponent of the industrialized food system.

Rooftop garden / photo:

Brooklyn’s rooftop hosts an agricultural space that hosts educational events where people learn what farm products are and how the city can feed itself. Organic boxes in the UK, Farmdrop movement. There is an online list of all the farmers who are near you. You can visit them once a week, you can order them at home. Thus, food consumers and producers become one.

Meal planning is a very important discipline. It is necessary to understand that food shapes cities, the urban landscape of constant production, that is, thinking through the prism of food when there is no problem with fresh food in the city.

Brighton’s architects wanted to create corridors so that food could flow freely from the village to the city. In New York, there is a plan for the production capacity of the nearest local lands, on which you can form a market for certain products..

My favorite metaphor for good society is a meal we eat together at the same table because we intuitively know how to eat meals together at the same table. I invite you to join me and build a better world through food.

But with different alternatives, there must be local food distribution centers. Food has to be incorporated, introduced into city planning at the city council level, this has only been the case for the last 20 years. Farmers’ markets are becoming patches in cities because food is finally visible and people are starting to get involved..

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