Food Trends

Lisa Feldstein's picture

A comment I hear frequently from planners is that the focus on food and planning is "trendy". I must admit that this puzzles me quite a bit. Professional planners in rural areas have concentrated on planning for agriculture – food planning – for decades. Before we had professional planners, human populations planned their communities around food, whether they were planning how best to follow herds for hunting, structuring early agricultural societies, or developing the first cities where food proximity and trade were central considerations.


What is emergent in planning are new questions of food in urban settings. Our cousins in public health first began to raise some of these questions around food, health and place about a decade ago; planners are still moving into this work. In the hands of planners, the topic is morphing and diversifying. Planners are now aware of health, place, and food access in low-income communities, especially those of color, but also of food trucks, farmers' markets, urban agriculture, and more.


Some of what planners are looking at has a ‘back to the future' quality. Urban agriculture's demise was relatively recent: Manhattan had a working farm as late as 1930. Small specialty markets, such as butcher and cheese shops, used to be commonplace. In Baltimore, Arabbers still sell produce from horse-drawn carts – not, as you might imagine, in tourist areas, but in poor neighborhoods that rely on these mobile markets for access to fresh fruits and vegetables.


For decades, planners have treated food provision as a private sector issue, one that is best addressed by market forces or, at most, within the context of economic development. Treating food access as a component of a complete neighborhood,one for which planners might provide extra attention or incentives (like affordable housing, for example) has not been part of the approach.


It isn't that food is trendy, it is that it is only recently that planners have understood why their work should include attention to food. Does this make it a passing fad? One that doesn't merit an infrastructure that includes new planning school courses, tracks at APA conferences, or its own conferences? I don't think so. The planning problems presented by food, from its production and processing to access, and to what kinds of food are accessible, and by whom, are not going to disappear until humans no longer require food to live. If we do a good job addressing these questions then food will become ‘one of those things' that is part of the routine work of a planner. It will cease to be trendy because it will have been successfully incorporated into our understanding of the communities for which we are responsible. The present problems will be addressed (but never completely die away) and new food-related issues will emerge to take their place. Food planning may cease to be a focus in its own right, but only because it has taken its rightful place with other components of community development. It is only if we ignore its rightful place that it will continue to stand out.

Lisa Feldstein seeks to use land use as a tool for social and economic justice.



Good points

I think we have an interesting synergy happening with food right now. It is trendy to go for locally grown, sustainable, fresh foods and this represents an opportunity to address 'food deserts' and overall access to fresh foods.

Not to jump on the 'end of oil' but rising oil costs will naturally make it more expensive to truck food in from across the globe. Locally produced foods will become more accessible and cost competitive because of reduced transportation costs. In shrinking communities it may make sense to convert vacant lots to community gardens or even small scale farms.

It may be trendy and faddish, but isn't most planning on some level? Would anyone argue that New Urbanism could be called trendy? Let's be real, planners are responding to a growing demand from the market (local foods) and at best we can take this trend and harness it to address real issues so this trend benefits our cities as a whole, not just those that can afford it.

This is "boutique", not necessity. And a good thing.

One thing that is little understood about food production, is that international "terms of trade" have trended against it for most of the last century. New Zealand is an outstanding example of a nation that is slipping rapidly down the international wealth rankings by concentrating on food production and export.

Meanwhile, nations that have to import most of their food, but who export value-added manufactures, have steadily left New Zealand behind.

The fact is that the world is not at all running out of land on which to produce food. Rather, the political stability that has at last lifted hundreds of millions of Asians in particular, out of poverty, has also enabled massive increases in food production right where the people used to be the world's most under-fed. Africa needs to go the same way.

Brazil is just cranking up its food exporting, which is further doom for NZ.

"Local" food production in first world cities is a "boutique" activity, not a necessity. It is a good idea precisely because of the kind of utility it provides to people who are largely already well fed and wealthy.

But it is also a good idea if POORER people CAN grow their own food. Self-sufficiency is ennobling. One of the best things for "equality" and human dignity, is the massive democratisation of land ownership that has been possible through low cost urban land, underpinned by "automobility". If not for this, Karl Marx would have been proved right; rising incomes would have driven up the rents of land in the dense, low-mobility Victorian style city (only the wealthy could afford to keep horses?), and incumbent land owners would have got steadily wealthier while the poor got steadily poorer.

We really do not credit "automobility" and urban growth with half enough. Sure, minimum lot sizes are unnecessary and downright wrong from every economic point of view. Leave them out. Sure, "subsidies" of inner city road space and parking, are wrong too. Abolish them. But we would still have a lot of the "sprawl" we do have, because of decentralisation of urban form and the "democratisation of land ownership".

The crucial thing to understand here, is that inflated land prices in consequence of artificial (or geographic) "constraint" to natural free market growth, are ALWAYS a greater cost to society and the economy, than the cost of "automobility" and the freight of goods.

Urban "green space" enclaves and urban food production enclaves are a logical pinnacle of the process of sprawl and decentralisation and land ownership and "having it all". We've come a long way from the Dickensian gloom.

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