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Why is it that so few people – and especially so few people in government – see food and cities as a match made in heaven?

I think it’s a case of mistaken identity, in two parts.

First, the production end of food is understood to be about agriculture and fisheries. Neither happen in cities. End of discussion.

Second, the consumption end of food is about nutrition. Nutrition is about physical health, health is not the jurisdiction or business of city governments, any more than foreign policy or forestry policy. End of discussion.  


Indeed, if food could ever be described, defined, captured, conflated with or identified by agriculture, fisheries and nutrition, and if cities could ever be described, defined, captured, conflated with or identified by jurisdiction, that might be the end of the discussion.  

When I’ve spoken in Europe about the need for food policy councils, I’ve sometimes been told by city planners that food policy councils were irrelevant in Europe because “we have no problem with food shortages, hunger or food deserts.”

But that’s just a comment on the beginning of the North American food agenda, not the end of the story about food and cities

To be honest, I must admit that force of habit and my own default thinking often lead me to slip into presentations about food and cities that dwell on city topics such as urban agriculture, community gardens, green roofs, farmers markets, urban hunger, malnutrition and obesity.

Seeing food as a lens on the city doesn’t come easily to anyone.

Two recent events drove that force of habit and default thinking out of me. One was a May trip to northern Italy to talk about food and cities. The other was preparation for a June trip to Kansas City to talk about food and cities.

For some reason, the combination of the two cleared up my thinking about food and cities.

Here’s the thinking behind my view that the big mistake is a case of mistaken identity.

Whoever says agriculture, fisheries and nutrition has not said the half of what food is about, and whoever thinks cities are defined by their jurisdictions has not said the half of what cities are about.

The logical fallacy responsible for the cases of mistaken identity is known as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

It’s obviously true that people need to eat food for nutrients, but it’s not true that the matter ends there. Our relationship with food goes far beyond biology. Food engages our body, mind, soul and relationships far beyond the biological act of eating.

It’s also obviously true that cities lack the jurisdiction and budget to deal head-on with most food issues. However, cities regularly go beyond their jurisdiction to accomplish essential city functions. They partner with cities outside the country even though they have no jurisdiction in foreign policy. They provide programs for immigrants, even though they have no jurisdiction over immigration. City licensing departments routinely license food businesses, city inspectors routinely inspect restaurants, and so on.


But the limited identity granted to food and cities profoundly shapes a narrow vision of how food and cities match up.

Many people think community gardens are really worthwhile, for example, because they provide a place where people who don’t have backyards, and people who don’t have enough money to buy all their food, can grow their own nutritious food.

Likewise, many people think farmers markets are really worthwhile, for example, because they provide a place where people can buy fresh and nutritious foods, which might not otherwise be available in their neighborhoods.

That’s one very good reason to favor community gardens, and one very good reason to favor farmers markets.

I don’t have space to talk about the nine other benefits of community gardens, or the nine other benefits of farmers markets, but I do want to say we’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities.

If we had a wider understanding of food and health, for starters, we might talk about the role of community gardens and farmers markets in promoting health and well-being — two things that belong together as much as peanut butter and jam.

And that might open up the discussion about mental health being as important as physical ill health.

And that might lead to an appreciation that community gardens and farmers markets promote mental health and wellbeing by countering isolation and loneliness – said to have the same impact on health and longevity as smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day.

And before long, someone might say that community gardens and farmers markets are good for creating a sense of neighborhood, and creating public spaces that give an area identity and meeting places – a nice break from the impersonal and anonymous edge of city hustle and bustle.

And before long, someone might notice that one of the people at the community garden opened up a landscaping business, and one of the people selling prepared foods at the farmers market opened up a business selling preserves, and both businesses were hiring local teens.

In these examples, we’ve gone from physical health to mental health to neighborhood well-being to employment opportunities, and maybe taken note of the fact that neighborhood well-being and employment creation are both issues that cities are expected to promote.


But we still wouldn’t be half-way to the understanding we need to have to really get why food and cities always need to be thought of like an old married couple we always think of as being together

The other half of the picture is not directly about food in the direct way that community gardens, farmers markets, and other projects flowing directly from food – such as restaurant safety inspections, and street food vendors, and food trucks, and closing hours for restaurants and bars, and handling of food-related garbage,  all of which are seen as matters that particular city departments should deal with directly.

The other half of the city food picture comes from understanding that food is a lever that moves all manner of seemingly non-food issues that a successful city has to come to grips with. Moreover, it addresses many of these seemingly non-food issues more effectively that non-food ways of addressing these very same problems.

Let me list some Big Ticket seemingly non-food items that a city is expected to deal with. I am literally making up this list off the top of my head; I can do my magical trick with any seemingly non-food city issue you want to name:

  • traffic jams
  • sewage mains and flood control
  • moving toward a creative economy
  • multiculturalism
  • sustainability
  • global warming, heat waves

I am only going to do traffic jams in this issue of the newsletter because it’s a major headache of my hometown, Toronto, where it’s said that traffic jams cost the city from 5 to 11 billion dollars a year in wasted time and fuel.

I think it’s fair to say that saving 5 or 11 billion dollars would be a nice windfall, and that we could address pretty well any city food problem anyone could name by adding a small portion of the money that food policy saved.


Well, let’s start with the standard estimate that one car trip in five is to buy food, and one highway truck in five is carting food. If your city traffic department hasn’t done a survey to confirm that, it should. Likewise, the city traffic department should have a handle on what percentage of trips have to be eliminated before the worst traffic jams are eliminated.

If we thought the purpose of a city transportation department was to reduce unnecessary trips, rather than build roads and highways for unnecessary trips — or do unnecessary road repairs of damage done by unnecessary trips (Toronto spends 100 million a year on this) – such departments would surely look at food trips as the ones to reduce.

This would be the time to call in the food traffic planner, if any city interested in saving 5 to 11 billion dollars a year had such a person on staff, or if any planning school interested in saving any city from 5 to 11 billion dollars a year offered a course on such a topic.

Since individuals in a city can’t really be expected to plan their lives and storage procedures so that they never unexpectedly run out of spices or milk or onions, food traffic planners can help people negotiate such problems by making such trips walkable, which is also good for reducing heart disease.

A food traffic planner might say that we eat meals one bite at a time, and we can reduce traffic jams one trip at a time, which is much cheaper than one freeway at a time.

Promoting backyard, balcony and community gardens could eliminate a few car trips for onions or parsley called for in a particular recipe, not to mention other benefits of such gardens.

Making sure that everyone is within walking distance of at least a mom and pop grocery would be another planning measure designed to reduce spur-of-the-moment car trips, not to mention the heart health benefits of a walk to the nearby main street. Sponsoring a Uber for bike deliveries could cover off any other trips resulting from shortcomings of advance planning or food storage, not to mention the added benefits of part-time jobs for youth.

Then, the food traffic planner would work with various partners to make sure a farmers market is accessible by walking or bicycling in every neighborhood, not to mention the added benefits of community cohesion. Then the food traffic planner could work with main street business associations to see if there could be regional depots, so one truck could deliver to all stores in an area instead of 100 trucks delivering packages to 100 stores.

Then the food traffic planner would dip into the Trip Reduction Investment Fund  financed from congestion savings to support diverse urban and peri-urban farms to produce for school and hospital meals, thereby displacing some of the longhaul trucks that fill highways near cities.

Food requires – but also enables — package deals such as this that cannot be delivered by departments that each function as a separate silo, with blinkers on their vision to match.

That, it must be said, is the real reason why cities haven’t been able to grasp the potential of food. The  potential of package deals for packages of benefits doesn’t fit in one compartment, and departmentalized thinking can’t configure the opportunity.

In future newsletters, I’ll try to show more details on traffic remediation, and also show how food can serve as a way to reimagine and reconfigure all sorts of city functions. These functions might seem to have nothing to do with food until someone realizes that people who work in creative industries eat, and some of them work or eat in restaurants, so stimulating a creative sector has a food dimension. Likewise, someone will figure out sooner or later that sewage, parks and recreation, sustainability, global warming and heat waves – the whole gamut of city issues – each has a hidden food dimension.


I think Italian city thinkers have wrapped their head around this strategic insight in ways that few others have. Check out the collection of essays (if I may say so, given that I contributed one of them) called Toward The Turin Food Policy. Mayor Piero Fassino says that city leaders need to recognize that food is a fundamental right of all citizens in a city, and that food “is also the central strategic planning element of the metropolitan area.”

Elena de Bella, on staff with the metropolitan region of Turin, argues that thinking must begin with citizen rights, not food chains or government departments, and thinking about relationships must therefore “pass from a ‘government approach’ to a ‘governance approach.’” 

Likewise, Ana Pratt, head of the citizen planning group, Tourino Strategica, argues that the regional food system is “ripe for innovation in governance and as a lever for local development.”

Maria Bottiglieri, an expert on the right to food and one of the editors of the book, argues cities should go beyond food sovereignty to food autonomy and citizen rights in their thinking.

“Food represents an essential aspect for almost all local policies of the City,”  she writes, and individuals citizens need to be regarded not only as beneficiaries and end users of city services, but also the centre around which services are designed, and active players in defining strategies and projects.

In a similar vein, Andrea Calori, the great sustainable cities thinker who helped lead the effort culminating in the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, argues that the multi-functionality of food goes far beyond the many intangible benefits agriculture can bring to the countryside. Food also plays a multifunctional role in cities, he and Andrea Magarini write in Food and the Cities: Food Policies for Sustainable Cities.

Food deserves to be classified as essential infrastructure, on par with main streets, police, water mains and parks, they argue. Food “is a fundamental component of a city that is inseparable from citizens’ basic rights and needs, individual lifestyles and cultures, the socio-economic structure, and the city’s relationship with the surrounding environment,”  they write.  “These trends go well beyond the need to feed cities, calling into question our perspectives on how to think about cities as a whole.”  

Using food as a lens on the city doesn’t come easy to anyone.

But I think we can take heart from the difficulty of the project, for a reason made clear by the great physicist Niels Bohr: “Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.”