Food is one of our most basic needs. It is an integral part of culture and has been a driving force in the creation of human settlements. Originally, food was closely linked with urban form since most food came from local or regional sources. However, with the rise of agribusiness, cheap transport, and food preservation technology, the distance between farm and market has dramatically increased. The separation of cities from their food sources and other aspects of modern food production are being questioned because of the damage caused to the natural environment, the high energy consumption involved in transporting food and the contribution of such practices to climate change. At the same time, the quality of the food available to urban residents is subject to increasing concern. Furthermore, the question of how to feed the urban population, particularly during crisis, must be confronted. These issues are becoming more urgent every day as neighbourhoods evolve into “food deserts” where affordable and healthy food is lacking.
Reconnecting cities to their food systems is emerging not only as a way to increase access to food, but also as one of the core components of more sustainable urban settlements. Movements such as community-supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, the 100–mile diet and Slow Food put the local food supply at the heart of urban sustainability. They encourage us to consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, and in this way engage us in the many aspects of the food system. Local food production and processing (growing, selling and cooking) can also act as a focus for community participation and engagement, empowering people through learning about their food system and its cultural dimensions.
In a world where food is becoming more expensive to produce and unsustainable to ship, local food is seen as part of sustainable living, and food production is becoming an integral part of sustainable urban design. The history of the potager, kitchen gardens, and of course, victory gardens during World War II, shows that the reintroduction of urban food production is a viable and sustainable alternative to shipping food from far away. Furthermore, food production in urban spaces allows us to re-imagine both buildings and spaces within the city. This empowers designers to develop exciting and imaginative new proposals for what a future “Productive City” may be like.
Despite the historical importance of food in cities, the role of architecture and design in food production, distribution and related issues is a new area of study. The emerging alternative food movement has only just begun to engage with the possible contributions that designers and the design process can provide. The built environment and food policy meet at the point where architects and landscape architects incorporate farmers’ markets, greenhouses, edible landscapes, living walls, permeable paving, green roofs, and community gardens into architectural programs. Such examples of the connections between food issues and built form have the potential to transform not only food production and distribution, but basic assumptions about the programming required in the design of buildings and urban spaces.
Recently, urban agriculture and food security have attracted considerable interest in Toronto and many other cities. Lectures, presentations, exhibits and publications on these subjects have increased significantly in the last few years – including ones spearheaded by built–environment professionals. These activities include the Edible City exhibit at the Netherlands Architecture Institute, a focus on food within the London Architecture Festival, and several books such as Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives and Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. In addition, the “Actions” exhibit, displayed at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, featured gardening as one of its four focus areas. In May 2008, the organizers of the Carrot City initiative organized a symposium entitled “The Role of Food and Agriculture in the Design and Planning of Buildings and Cities,” held at Ryerson University in Toronto. This led to the creation of the Carrot City exhibit, first mounted at the Design Exchange in winter 2009.