The return of food

Kalle Hakala’s December 17th post  (“After the thaw: could this be a farm by next spring?“) brought to mind the relationships between food production, consumption and urban landscapes. Community gardens, community-shared agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, patios, street vendors and even Ottawa’s new green bins are among just a few examples of the presence of food in public and private spaces of the city. The following post by Emily Sinclair is the first of series in which she will examine the impact of food issues on the experience of urban space.


Easily dismissed as an antithesis to modern city-building by planners and other urban administrators at the turn of the 19th century, issues of food production and consumption have helped shape the physical form and social content of the modern city. Activities relating to food production – the messiness of soil, pests and livestock; the rural nature of labour for food cultivation – contradicted the cleanliness and modern appeal of urban life. Through zoning and land development, food production was banished from city parks and lawns to the rural countryside where it was deemed a more “appropriate” use of land. On the other hand, activities relating to food consumption, and in particular the decidedly urban pursuit of food retailing, quickly became the realm of private enterprise. The regulation of food consumption was assumed almost entirely by private market forces and surfaced only as a social concern in the narrow contexts health and welfare agencies.

The effect of this dual separation of food production and consumption from city life is two-fold. On the one hand, vast amounts of infrastructure (i.e. transportation networks, land distribution programs and waste disposal operations) were developed to connect spaces of food production to spaces of food consumption, thereby contributing to the physical shape of the modern city. On the other hand, by subsuming any social responsibility for food under the guise of the private market, the very real physical connection of food to the city was erased. Therefore, while the origin and physical form of cities can be historically understood in part through its relationship to food, the primary relationship of food and cities today is understood mainly in terms of its absence. A common example of the manifestation of this relationship is the problem of food deserts: vast areas not served or underserved by food retailers, contributing to food insecurity as defined by the lack of access to healthy, culturally appropriate food. And because of planning’s early jettisoning of food issues to either the rural or the private realm, urban planners and city administrators lack the tools with which to comprehensively engage food issues as an important urban concern.

While the above is as much a description of problems with modern food systems, it also suggests the need to find ways of welcoming food back into cities – or discovering the ways in which it has never left. To return to Hakala’s post, the CSA model he describes draws attention to more communal models of food production in which ownership and cultivation of land do not have to happen solely in the realm of private enterprise, located outside the city. As his example highlights, food issues can become more prominent features of urban landscapes. As food features more prominently in urban landscapes, food systems have the potential to become more visible, more publicly accessible and better understood.

My next few posts will be an effort to better understand how food issues shape, and are shaped by, Ottawa’s urban landscape. I’d like to start by looking into a history of Ottawa’s relationship to agriculture and how that relationship affects the city today. I’d like to explore the ascendancy of farmers’ markets in the city as spaces of cultural and social interaction. Urban farming, community gardens and the politics of patio licensing all contribute to the enlivening of urban environments (perhaps these are best suited to summer pursuits) and would also be excellent subjects of investigation.

I’d like to think that looking into and writing about the relationships among food and urban landscapes can contribute to more socially and environmentally just, equitable and accessible food systems as well as to increased awareness and enjoyment of urban space. I’m excited to start my project and share my findings with everyone at Spacing Ottawa. And, of course, look forward to hearing about everyone else’s food encounters as well.

Emily Sinclair is an environmental planner working in Ottawa. She is keenly interested in the production and experience of urban spaces, and in particular the myriad relationships among the social, natural and built environments that enliven cities of all shapes and sizes.

photo by Gary Soup

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