Foodprint City

In 1856, George Dodd, a Victorian historian, wrote, “The supply of food to a great city is among the most remarkable of social phenomena, full of instruction on all sides.” Thus far, Foodprint Project events have borne out the truth of this statement, bringing together an audience and speakers curious to relearn their city using food as a guide, and passionate about the potential for reshaping food systems through urban design. At both Foodprint Toronto and Foodprint NYC, we have learned about creative solutions, unique opportunities, and shared challenges — and yet we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Sarah Rich and I co-founded the Foodprint Project as an exploration of the ways food and cities give shape to one another. As we told Urban Omnibus back in February, days before our first event, we wanted to see what you could learn if you used food as a lens to look at the city.

So, with two cities — New York City and Toronto — under our belts, what have we learned?

Many extraordinary and peculiar factoids, certainly: enough to keep us well-stocked at dinner parties for years to come. Toronto, for example, is the second largest urban food processing hub in North America (after Chicago) and its food factories still occasionally overwhelm certain neighborhoods with the smell of roasting coffee beans, freshly-slaughtered beef, or potato and leek soup. We also learned that turning just 10% of NYC’s private backyards over to urban agriculture would produce 113 million lbs of vegetables each year, or enough to feed 700,000 people at current rates of consumption.

We have also confirmed one of the Foodprint Project’s founding premises: the best food conversations are hyper-interdisciplinary. As Nevin Cohen, urban planner and panelist at Foodprint NYC, put it, “Food is a social justice issue and a public health issue; it’s also an economic development issue, it’s a transportation issue, it’s a regional planning issue, it’s an ecological issue.” By inviting panelists whose work engages deeply with the city’s food systems, but who come from widely differing perspectives — such as a First Nations fisherman, a food scientist working to redesign salt crystals, an architect using urban agriculture to retrofit ‘60s tower blocks, and the health official in charge of drafting Toronto’s first city-wide food policy — we’ve created new connections, both personal and conceptual.

Map via the NYC Regional Foodshed Initiative of the Urban Design Lab, a Joint Laboratory of the Earth Institute and Columbia University GSAPP

But, perhaps most interestingly, by addressing the same four questions in both New York and Toronto, we have been able to start pulling out some of the larger issues that make feeding a city — any city — the most complex, potentially rewarding, and endlessly fascinating design challenge we can imagine.

Tackling urban planning, public policy, and economics in under an hour is perhaps a trifle ambitious. In both Toronto and New York, however, street food trucks proved to be a bite-sized introduction to the way economic and regulatory forces play out to shape an important urban food delivery system. Mapping the city through the lens of food, using either analytic or social measurements, can both clarify existing problems and uncover previously unseen opportunities. As a channel of communication as well as a marker of identity, an understanding of our edible history can help us imagine our urban food futures — futures that are inextricably linked to both local infrastructures and global systems.

Map of Toronto's foodshed by Nina-Marie Lister

So — at the risk of seeming self-congratulatory — perhaps the most important thing we have learned thus far is how important these conversations really are. Sitting architects and urban planners down with farmers, food scientists, public health officials, artists, activists, and CEOs, even for an all-too-brief panel conversation, seems to prompt fresh debate and insight — and some genuine surprises. At Studio-X in New York, our jaws collectively dropped as the CEO of Jetro Cash & Carry, purveyor of bulk quantities of chips to New York’s bodegas, issued a passionate plea for radical junk food taxation (“We need to tax the hell out of deep-fried products in this city!”). And I was not the only person taken aback when Toronto’s Senior Health Advisor told us that she’d taken the city’s food purchasing budget of $2 million to the Ontario Food Terminal, determined to demand more locally-grown produce, only to realize she had far too little money to negotiate effectively with the vendors there.

My hope, then, is that as the Foodprint Project expands its own footprint to visit new cities (we are fundraising on Kickstarter for Foodprint LA), as well as engage in more sustained conversations and interventions across cities, we can begin to map the kind of food system and cities we’d like to see, as well as understand the ones we have. As a start, follow the links below to watch video of each panel from both Foodprint NYC and Foodprint Toronto, and read more about what the two cities can learn from one another in light of the panelists’ conversations.

Zoning Diet

How do zoning, policy, and economics shape the city’s food systems?
Foodprint NYC (iTunes U)
Foodprint Toronto (streaming video)

Street food vending provides something of a cautionary tale, as city planners use the design tools at their disposal to pursue frequently contradictory goals with varying degrees of success.

New York City caps vendor permits at three thousand (four thousand in summer), despite demand that Sean Basinski, Director of the Street Vendor Project (whose work Omnibus readers will remember from Making Policy Public: Vendor Power! -ed.) estimates at 20,000 to 30,000. A few years ago, the city launched its Green Carts program, hoping to leverage some of those wannabe street vendors to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to the city’s food deserts. “A great idea,” agreed Basinski, “but the way the city allocated permits means that people in the Bronx would get a permit to sell in Staten Island.” The result is that “maybe two hundred of the thousand available permits are being used, which is better than nothing, it’s true, but certainly didn’t realize the program’s full potential.”

But while New York gives with one hand and takes away with the other, Toronto has adopted a more enlightened, thoughtful, and utterly ineffective approach to mobile snacking. Until recently, archaic legislation that restricted street food to “cooked meats” translated into a streetscape filled with hot dog stands. Catalyzed by a 2007 design competition organized by urban innovation group Multistory Complex, the city jumped on board, and tried to leverage an expanded street food menu to achieve economic, health, and community building goals. Two years into its pilot project, however, Barbara Emanuel, Senior Policy Advisor at the Toronto Board of Health, readily admitted that the project has been “strangled at birth” by an overdose of well-intentioned regulations that handicapped vendors with 1,000 lb food carts (which can’t be stored on the street overnight, but which the city designed specifically so they couldn’t be towed), as well as more than $30,000 in start-up costs.

Clockwise from top left: Ravine City by Chris Hardwicke; Cover, A Gastronomical Map of Manhattan; Not Far From the Tree, Toronto; Photo by Naa Oyo A. Kwate

Culinary Cartography

What can we learn when we map a city using food as the metric?
Foodprint NYC (iTunes U)
Foodprint Toronto (streaming video)

Looking at the city through the lens of food — or putting on your “fruit goggles,” as Toronto’s urban fruit forager Laurel Atkinson described it — requires redrawing the map. In both cities, food blurs administrative boundaries, creating a new cartography of need, opportunity, or community. But while in New York, we heard from panelists who used food mapping as a diagnostic (whether it be to trace hipster geography or obesogenic environments), in Toronto, our panelists used food’s map-redrawing capacity consciously, in order to break down social barriers and build new connections.

Edible Archaeology

How has today’s food culture been shaped by social changes, economic fluctuations, and technological innovations throughout the city’s history?
Foodprint NYC (iTunes U)
Foodprint Toronto (streaming video)

A consistent narrative across both cities was the way that waves of immigration hava reshaped the urban foodscape — physically as well as culturally. New York’s pastrami and bagels are the result of Czar Nicholas III’s anti-semitic laws, but its pre-Prohibition network of German-style breweries (more numerous than Starbucks’ branches are today) not only owed their existence to German immigrants, but also to the opening of the Croton Reservoir, which brought copious amounts of clean water to the city for the first time. In Toronto, a wave of post-Second World War immigration spurred the construction of the Ontario Food Terminal — the first modern wholesale food distribution center on the continent and a model for New York’s Hunt’s Point, among others.

In addition to the aspects of edible history that continue to shape the present, panelists at both New York and Toronto pointed out the foods that have been lost forever — oysters the size of dinner plates, and vast shoals of Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon  — the natural bounty of both cities transmuted into old money and fancy mansions. But although it’s impossible not to feel some nostalgia for flavors and foods that have been lost for ever, perhaps the most interesting outcome of this panel is the way a vision of radically different historical food infrastructure — whether it’s oyster barges brokering deals along the East River, or beer caves dotting the Manhattan bedrock like swiss cheese — makes it easier to imagine, in turn, a radically different food future.

Foodprint Toronto. Photo by Stacy Lewis

Feast, Famine, and Other Scenarios

What are the opportunities and challenges of the city’s possible food futures?
Foodprint NYC (iTunes U)
Foodprint Toronto (streaming video)

Any discussion of the future of food involves an equal measure of doomsday scenarios and creative solutions: in Toronto, we heard about wheat speculation, peak phosphorus, and food’s role in the fall of civilizations; in New York, we heard about 3D food printers, military rations, and synthetic meat. But perhaps the most important topic we have discussed is how to take these local, context-specific, good ideas to scale — and, indeed, whether that’s possible or even desirable.

In Toronto, The Stop’s Kathryn Scharf articulated the dilemma precisely: “The food movement — the alternatives that have been built over the past twenty or thirty years across North America — have been built on a shoestring. They’re volunteer-based, completely precarious, and often just one dynamic facilitator away from ruin. But that’s also the reason they work: they’re organically grown and shaped by the needs of a specific community.” The Stop itself has recently decided against further expansion (“We can’t just parachute into new communities and tell them what they need,”) in favor of a more thoughtful response: sharing its best practices to help other, smaller or struggling, local food programs move toward sustainability.

Although “many municipal authorities are way ahead of state or national governments in terms of food systems innovation,” according to Foodprint Toronto panelist Evan D. G. Fraser, each individual city is still inextricably bound to a global agricultural hinterland that operates at a much vaster scale. His book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, advocates a policy-driven, “nested bioregionalism” in the urban supply chain, which would capture efficiencies of scale and climatic advantage, but balance them with a local food system that acts as an insurance policy.

But this is all an imprecise science, as both Scharf and Fraser made clear. “The hard science isn’t there,” Scharf acknowledged. The numbers don’t exist that predict the scale at which food system renewal and regeneration must happen, nor how large Fraser’s suggested “cash reserve” needs to be.

In other words, for all the innovation and success stories on display in both cities, there are enormous gaps in infrastructural analysis: understanding where and what supports are needed, as well as what role each of the food system redesign levers (consumer demand, for example, or regulation) could and should play.

Foodprint NYC. Photo by Rachel Hillery, Columbia GSAPP

The Foodprint Project is raising funds for Foodprint LA through August 26th. Visit to make a contribution. Pledge gifts include copies of The Foodprint Papers, seats at the Foodprint LA VIP dinner, and more.

Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography and a freelance writer with work published in GOOD, Dwell, Wired UK, Volume, and more. She is also co-director, with Geoff Manaugh, of Future Plural; co-founder, with Sarah Rich, of the Foodprint Project; and co-curator of Landscapes of Quarantine, a group exhibition at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture during March and April 2010.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.