Food and Urban (Socio-Natural) Metabolism

By Laura Shillington, Affiliated Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University, Quebec, Canada

Dr. Shillington focuses her work on sustainable urban spaces, and the human-environment-policy relationships at multiple scales. Following on Wednesday’s post introducing how food is often neglected within urban planning, today the author goes into the extensive underlying connections between food and cities – the channels of production, distribution, consumption, etc. It is interesting to consider how two systems, so often approached in a segregated manner, are unavoidably inseparable. Could this understanding and mindset described below help achieve some of the structural shifts called for on Wednesday?

Food and cities have an intimate and interconnected history. The city could not exist without agriculture (food and non-food production), nor could agriculture survive without the city. Humans’ contemporary relationship with both food and the city tends to draw on the binary of city-country, whereby the city is separate and independent from rural areas. We create abstract boundaries around these spaces, disregarding the inseparable ways in which one produces the other and vice versa. These boundaries have always been blurry and porous, but perhaps they are more obscured at present with the increasing numbers of people moving into cities, along with the increasing number of people that need to be fed.

Urban theorists Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid argue that the form of urbanisation has radically changed in the past thirty years. Urbanisation is no longer simply an expansion of the city into non-city spaces. Rather, he suggests that the process of urbanisation “increasingly unfolds through the uneven stretching of an ‘urban fabric’,” which resembles matrices and networks more than the historically dense settlement patterns of cities. He terms this planetary urbanisation.

What does planetary urbanism do, then, to the relationship between urbanised spaces and food? The way in which food is produced, distributed, and consumed has to some extent shaped how ‘the urban’ manifests itself spatially and the scale of urban areas. Global food networks help to produce and support the growing urban matrices. We cannot think about urban ‘food security’ (or food sovereignty, food justice), without rethinking how we understand the concept of urban. In this sense, any radical changes in how we produce, consume, and relate to food require acknowledging the inseparable (material, social, cultural, economic, and political) linkages between urban and rural spaces.

Our relationship with food is simultaneously social, cultural, economic, political and natural. Food is implicated in the socionatural production of multiple spaces: body, home, city, and beyond. Food is also central to cultural identities and social practices in the city. Moreover, food has been at the heart of social and ecological transformations at the scale of the city and nation. The production of food itself relies upon transforming ‘nature’. Agriculture involves the ecological transformation of so-called first nature (untouched, ‘wild’) to second nature (transformed, productive). Food is a large part of the urbanisation of nature. Urban inhabitants are dependent on the rural areas to provide food; cities depend on a constant supply of food.

We can think about the relationship between food and cities at different scales through the concept of urban (socio-natural) metabolism. Food is not only a critical part of bodily metabolism – transforming food into useful energy – but it is also an important part of a city’s metabolism. Urban metabolism can be understood as the “circulatory processes that underpin the transformation of nature into essential commodities such as food, energy and potable water.” As part of the urban circulatory processes, food enters the city as either a raw resource to be transformed or as already processed, ready to consume and later discard. Food is transformed through the economic and social process as well as the physical infrastructures (e.g. sewers) of cities. How and where raw food resources are transformed depends on the process.

Cattle, for example, may be grazed in open grassland, such as in Texas or Alberta, but then they are moved into finishing pens in peri-urban areas (small towns right at the edge of urban centres). Meat-packing plants may be located nearby these pens. Most, however, are in close proximity to urban areas, which facilitate the distribution. Each stage in this transformation of beef (as commodity) is material and economic; there is a change in the material form of the commodity and in the cost. In the urban centres, the transformation of cattle into beef involves economic, social and cultural processes. Such processes entail governments, religious institutions, a wide range of corporate industries, and consumers. From regulation (agricultural, health, industrial, religious), marketing (advertising), distribution (supermarkets), and consumption (cooking), beef is transformed in a variety of ways within the city. It is also transformed metabolically within our bodies, and then later in sewers and finally out of the city.

This very abbreviated example of cattle shows how the transformation from animal to commodity (beef and then into waste) is always spatial. It crosses urban and rural boundaries and multiple scales, involving small farmers, rural communities, cities and nation. Thinking about food through the concept of urban (socio-natural) metabolisms provides a more nuanced understanding of how food is unevenly produced, distributed and consumed. In turn, it helps to create – hopefully – more socially and ecologically just relations between food, the city, and other socio-spatial scales.

Read More:
Shillington, L. 2013. Right to food, right to the city: Household urban agriculture, and socionatural metabolism in Managua, NicaraguaGeoforum 44: 103–111

Photo Credit: Martin Gommel
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