USER
DEFINED
>YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

 

>NIALL PATRICK WALSH

Dublin, Ireland

 

Every year, over two billion tonnes of food flow across international borders. Like any other commodity, food is a globally-traded resource; a complex web of shipping, importing, tariffs, wars, and infrastructure. As the mass migration of people from rural areas to urban centres continues, the demand being placed on the global food market will only increase. With it, so too do questions increase about the extent to which the food industry can support humanity, and to which the planet can support the food industry.

The relationship between food and cities is thousands of years old. In fact, it is believed that some of humanity’s earliest collective settlements, such as the 11,000-year-old Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, were founded at the point where humans transitioned from hunter gathering to settled agriculture. From then on, the rate of growth of cities was directly linked to the ability of said city to feed a growing population. It was not until the Ancient Romans, with their unprecedented mastery of overseas trade, that cities were capable of relying on external sources for food. All roads did indeed lead to Rome. 

This correlation between city growth and agricultural capacity continued until the Industrial Revolution, when developments in transport meant that cities were no longer dependent on their surrounding hinterland for food. This led to the explosion of city limits across the world, most noticeably in London where the establishment of railways across England correlated directly with London’s exponential increase in size. As cities grew larger, and could be reached quicker, the global food trading system we know today gradually developed over 200 years, resulting in today’s tangled web of interconnected global food flows.

While this system has allowed unprecedented drops in food poverty across the world, we are becoming evermore aware of the dangers this system poses. The relationship between food and cities as grown so far apart that today, the only presence of food in cities is via supermarket shelves, and fast food restaurants; clinical, ubiquitous, and sterile – deliberately hiding the underworld of antibiotic-charged cows, alarming land degradation, and unparalleled levels of cruelty, emissions, and harmful chemicals. As developing countries begin to adopt Western diets, and Westerners themselves grow evermore removed from the reality of the food they eat, this relationship between food and cities will break down further. The only question that will remain is which will snap first: the ability of the food system to sustain cities, or the ability of the planet to sustain our food system.

Examining the nutriscape means confronting a system relied upon by one billion people as a sole source of food. It means confronting a system fully reliant on fourteen highly fragile, yet strongly defended chokepoints; it means challenging the false perception of food as a local, fresh, organic, innocent produce. It means questioning how we can alter and untangle this system to enhance the quality the natural and built environment.
What follows is the proposition and evidence behind a key controversy: the extent to which humans and cities are removed and deceived about the origin and journey of the food they eat, and the failure of food in cities.

Bound by the River Lagan and Connswater, centred on the Newtownards Road to the East of the city centre, the Ballymacarrett ward is the most impoverished area of Belfast, and one of the most impoverished in Northern Ireland. This social ruin is compounded by an urban landscape scarred by violence and security, with cul-de-sacs, dead end streets, and fractured public realms. As with many urban areas, the region’s food needs is met by a single ubiquitous supermarket on the outskirts.

“You Are What You Eat” is a major public initiative that transforms the region through urban farming. Stitched into the streets, modular components attach to houses, streets, and land, apparatus of sustainable food production witnessed in real time by citizens of the area. More than bystanders, the residents of Ballymacarret are dependencies of this system, with scope for ownership, rent, and operation of the modules for production of food and offshoots of the bioeconomy.

These modular systems of urban repair are supported by “urban confetti” – existing cultural and community nodes across the area that are re-purposed to support collective, communal, and civic initiatives. From bus depots serving as biofuel stations, to churches serving as market areas, this “urban confetti” ensures that while the entire economic purpose of the area changes utterly, its identity remains.

The Newtownards Road forms the artery of the initiative, cutting through the middle of the system. The road is reactivated as a representative of the area, with commerce, community, and economy from the offshooting streets manifesting on the Newtownards Road.

On the East bank of the Lagan,where the Newtownards Road meets the city centre, a new educational institute will be built on an existing site that currently divides East Belfast with the urban centre. The Sirocco Works area will become a global centre of excellence in the bio-economy, where new ideas on the future of food production and consumption are tested on a local setting on the Ballymacarrett site.

“You Are What You Eat” is therefore an exercise in using urban farming for social, urban, and nutritional reform. One of the country’s most impoverished areas will be on the front line of global innovation, generating diversified streams of income for the area, and greater Belfast, and making the city one of the most food-secure places in a world of increasing insecurity.

This blend of architecture, biology, and agriculture, working in harmony to create awe-inspiring urban experiences, can transform not only how our cities look, but how we eat, how we think, and how we live.