Hungry City – How Food Shapes Our Lives / by Carolyn Steel

On Urbanism


Hungry City raises questions like what do we eat? How do we prepare what ends up on our plates? Where do the ingredients come from, how do they get produced or modified to improve the quality of crops? What has food to do with our social relationships? And why is the ready-made food industry interested in the weather forecast? If these questions are as interesting to you as they have been and are worth to be investigated to me, let me introduce and recommend you one of my favourite books: Hungry City by Carolyn Steel.

You might ask yourself what this topic has to do with my architectural profession? Probably this book would not have passed my radar, but I was lucky it was brought to my attention by my previous Professor from Städel Architecture School. The publishing house describes the book as “original, inspiring and written with infectious enthusiasm and belief. Hungry City illuminates an issue that is fundamental to us all.” Let’s dive into it, here is my book review:

Cities cover just 2% of the world’s surface, but consume 75% of the world’s resources’. Every year in the UK 18 million tonnes of food end up in landfill.

Carolyn Steel / Hungry City

Why is this the case and what can we do against this waste? Living in the city means mostly being disconnected from food production. The countryside is feeding townsfolk. Already 3rd century Rome has imported grain from Africa. The way in which modern food production has an impact on everyones life – from obesity and the rise of the giant grocery stores to the destruction of the natural world – reveals the importance of the relationship between food and city dwellers respectively between food and arch. This relationship is essential: Food shapes cities!

In her book Hungry City Steel takes you on a journey from the locality of food production to markets and grocery stores to the kitchen, an urban table through how we handle waste till the sewer. Cities like people are what they eat…

… and drink. Steel’s research also deals with the traction of dining out in urban life. In pre-industrial cities like London, public eateries were located where the upper class and the poor shared the space. But during the 1650s their supremacy was threatened by the arrival of an “outlandish” new drink – coffee. As coffee lover I find it interesting Steel’s investigation of how coffee houses quickly gained popularity all over London. With their shared intimacy, free speech and political leaning, these coffee places created a completely new sort of urban social space according to her research. Coffee houses represented the arrival of what the sociologist Jürgen Habermas called the “bourgeois public sphere”: a domain in which people from all walks of life could meet and converse as equals; where, for the first time, “public opinion” could form.

During the eighteenth century, the sphere would expand into the salons and academies of Paris and “table societies” of Germany; during the nineteenth century, it would include London clubs and Parisian cafes. Hungry City takes you on excursions in history like that. May it be about different forgotten sorts of apples, the evolution of the kitchen space or discovery of germs as an important step of microbiology.

Long Story Short

This book has made me more conscious about the process and inspired me to think in much more depth about how food arrives on my plate. Buying local, thinking about living conditions, checking out markets and small food stores with regional products instead of huge food and supermarket chains. Even if one cared about food before this book, Hungry City would enliven this interest even more.

Architect? Why to read Hungry City

How are we feeding cities with a rapid growth like nowadays? “Food will be there, magically coming from somewhere.” An example by Carlon Steel: In London 30 billon meals must be provided, each day. Do you know, where all the food you are eating is coming from? If something happens to the suppliers all city dwellers are depending on, each city, how advanced it will be, will collapse.

Food is a shared necessity — but also a shared way of thinking.

Carolyn Steel / Hungry City

If you are interested in food, where it comes from, how cities have an impact on food design or what the weather has to do with ready-made-food, Hungy City from Carolyn Steel is an absolute must. Worth to be read not only if you work in architecture or as urban planner. This issue effects all of us and Steel examines important information for everyone, because everyone needs to eat.

About the Author: Carolyn Steel

Carolyn Steel is a London based architect, lecturer, writer and TED talk speaker.

Other Book Reviews

Hilary Spurling
Our recipe for disaster
The Guardian
June 8, 2008

Publishing House

Publisher: Vintage Publishing (2013)
ISBN: 9780099584476
Length: 400 Pages