Sitopia: How food can save the world

The relationship between the city and the rural countryside in respect of food and how we eat was the topic served up by the first day’s closing keynote speaker, Carolyn Steel. An architect and author, Steel published her book, Sitopia: How food can save the world, as the UK entered its first lockdown due to Covid-19 in March 2020.


From Sir Thomas More’s dreamt-up world, Utopia, to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, many visions in human history of how we should live have food at their heart. Having coined the term ‘Sitopia’ from the Greek words for sitos (food) and topos (place), Steel explored how we can use food as a medium to work towards making better places and leading a good and healthy life.


“Food is life, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t eat,” she said. “By the age of about 25, there’s not an atom in your body you were born with. Everything is made up of meals you’ve eaten.”


Noting that living as a hunter-gatherer is a really healthy way to live, she contrasted this with our modern way of living and activities such as farming, living in cities, flying and driving. Moreover, the question of how to eat is “our oldest shared question”. Steel explained: “We evolved as a species through trying to answer it. We discovered technologies such as the control of fire, which allowed us to cook food, improved our diet, and allowed us to concentrate on hunting. We created the division of labour – ‘you hunt, I cook’ is probably one of the oldest divisions of labour in the world.


Sharing, division and hierarchy

“This resulted at the end of the day in a shared meal. Everybody pooled the results of what they had spent the day doing. And we do it equitably – we’re the only species that does this.” undefined - undefined


Division of labour developed further as human beings began to live in cities, while what Steel calls “the fried egg model of urbanity” – where the yolk of the egg is the city and the white of the egg is what feeds it – also led to a growing hierarchy in society that mirrored the hierarchy of the landscape.


Referencing Aristotle’s term “political animals”, Steel explained how food brings politics, sociability and law together, but as we’re still animals, we still need the natural world. The Greeks, she commented, agonised about how to “square this circle”.


“They came up with Oikonomia, which means household management,” observed Steel. “The idea that every citizen would have a house in the city and a farm not far off in the countryside, and the farm would feed the house. If every citizen had that arrangement, the city would be self-sufficient. This would be ideal as then it could be politically independent. But both Plato and Aristotle said in order for this to work, the city must remain small.”


Food shapes the city, she emphasised, through geography, physicality, visibility and conviviality. What really broke this relationship was the advent of the railways.


Cities became emancipated from geography, said Steel, allowing them to grow to any size and shape or in any place desired. And food also became “invisible”, allowing politicians and city authorities to effectively outsource their traditional role of feeding and distributing food to citizens to a growing food industry. Railways also led to urban sprawl, with the city encroaching into the best farmland, as this had been identified to feed the cities when they were much smaller.


Post-war saw the growth of towns and cities built for the car, leading to the creation of “weird suburbs where it’s impossible to walk to do everything you need to do” and you need to drive to an air-conditioned shopping centre – a replication of the old city centre and market. “In the meantime,” Steel added, “food is being completely de-natured because it has to withstand crazy, logistical pathways.”


While this shift, and accompanying trends, such as convenience and increased standards of living and wealth for many, may be seen as a sign of progress, she warned that a lot of computerisation and automation are now taking over many of our jobs, and humans are getting very sick as a result of some of these changes relating to urban growth and living. One startling statistic she found was that just prior to the pandemic, one in five meals in America were being eaten in a car.


“Cheap food”

This has led, as well, to the creation of something that doesn’t actually exist called “cheap food”, argued Steel. Yet, in reality, we’ve simply externalised the true cost of feeding ourselves, and we’re seeing the impact in things like higher global greenhouse emissions, obesity and undernutrition, huge food waste, degraded marine ecosystems, and a massive decline globally in insect and bird life.


Unfortunately, this mechanised way of eating is going global, lamented Steel, who pointed out that there is a vast amount of money and commercial interest pushing the cheap food agenda. “Food consists of living things that we kill, so we can live,” she reminded the audience. “So, food is life. So, there is no thing as cheap food unless you want to cheapen life.”


She described, too, that mass farming and the use of chemicals have caused plants to stop forming “living bridges” with soil fungi, which are able to extract nutrients directly from the soil. 


“Plants will feed up to a third of the sugar they produce to the soil fungi, because what they want is the nutrients from the soil fungi,” said Steel. “This is the basis of plant health, so therefore it’s the basis of our health. When you feed a plant nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK), it’s like feeding your kid fast food. It grows but not in the right way. It’s not healthy. And over time, the repercussions will start to show up.”


Opposing paradigms – technology v craft

Citing a quote from influential architect Cedric Price, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”, Steel explained how opposing paradigms are now developing between those who believe technology can solve our hunger needs in the future and those who believe we must return to seeing food as a craft. As an example, she highlighted the experience of US entrepreneur Rob Rheinhart, who invented a food alternative after becoming sick on a few occasions owing to a poor diet. Taking issue with his view that “worrying about something as simple as food in the digital age is weird”, Steel argued that this “life hack” approach was effectively trying “to sidestep what is fundamental about being human”. 


The opposing paradigm is “we have to eat, so let’s enjoy it”, and she returned to the classical world to illustrate this, pointing to Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose idea was that since we’re built for pleasure, we should build our lives around the things that give us pleasure – i.e., satisfying necessity.


“This is thousands of years of wisdom,” said Steel. “How to live a good life in a particular place. There are no generics, this is all about specifics. It’s about living in a particular landscape.”


She continued: “We need to incorporate food in the way we think and the way we design spaces. It’s about bringing the city and the country together. There are a billion ways you can do this. It could be through urban food growing, embedding food in urban governance, supporting and protecting markets and farmers’ markets, the infrastructure you need if you’re going to farm regeneratively (e.g., local abattoirs), food-based hubs, and patchwork farms.”


Underlining the importance of regenerative farming – and farming with nature not against it – Steel shared examples of how a few trailblazers are “building landscapes for human and non-human flourishing”. These include PAKT Antwerp; Brooklyn Grange, New York City; Knepp Estate, near Worthing, England; and Sitopia Farm, London – projects that range from urban farming, rooftop farming, and the transformation of land once used for intensive farming to rewilding and regenerative farming.


“What’s it all about?”, she asked in summing up. “Living well, having a sense of meaning, a sense of community, a sense of belonging and purpose, and being able to engage – we can do it all through food. And if we value food and put it at the heart of our thinking again, we can build a better Sitopia. And a really good Sitopia comes pretty close to Utopia.”