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The Visionaries
10 Big Ideas For A Better World

- Urban Design

an interview with Carolyn Steel

The Ecologist, April 2009

'We never contemplate the things that are directly important to us. Happiness goes under the radar'

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'In many ways, Carolyn Steel was born to be an architect: as a child she used to dream of buildings.

'As her professional career advanced, however, she developed a nagging feeling that the architectural worldview was somehow incomplete.

'‘As a student I was always looking for something outside the realm of architecture,’ Steel says. ‘And later, when I was teaching, I didn’t just want architects to critique my students’ work; I wanted politicians, authors, scientists and sociologists.’

'After 10 years teaching students at Cambridge and practising architecture in London, Steel applied for and won a scholarship to spend six months studying in Rome. Once there, she chose to focus on the city’s historic Jewish ghetto, in particular what she describes as ‘the mundane order of the city’.

'‘Do you know what “mundane” actually means?’ Steel asks when we meet, bounding over to a bookcase, pulling out a tattered dictionary and leafing through it animatedly. ‘Mundane: “of or pertaining to the world”, “worldly”, “earthly”, “terrestrial”, “cosmic”, “ordinary”, and “boring”.

'She shuts the book triumphantly.

'‘We never contemplate the things that are directly important to us,’ she explains. ‘Wars and emperors are well documented, but everyday life and happiness goes under the radar. Eating, living, breathing – to me, the most interesting stuff of cities falls between the cracks of academia.’

'Delving into the ordinary past of cities led Steel to the realisation that what bound together human urban experience was one totally ordinary thing: food.

'‘Food is everywhere and everything,’ she says. ‘You can’t understand anything without food.’

'Her discovery allowed Steel to write a book, Hungry City, published last year, and to coin a name for her new practice of seeing the world entirely through the lens of food: Sitopia, constructed from the Greek words for food (sitos) and place (topos) – her alternative to the perfect, or imaginary, city – utopia.

'‘We already live in Sitopia,’ says Steel, ‘it’s just a very bad one.’

'It’s hard to push Steel on exactly what a good Sitopia would look like – she’s adamant that it is more of an approach than a physical plan: a bottom-up, deliberative process, using food as a planning tool to decide how cities should be sustainably designed and arranged – but she does have a few thoughts.

'Among her ideas are forging an indelible link between people and food at primary school age – ‘get them on day one of school with a frying pan in one hand and a carrot in the other’ – as well as looking long and hard at land ownership.

'France has much to teach us, Steel believes, both in terms of the laws that allow smaller retailers to operate alongside the likes of Tesco in order to help diversify food retail, and in the concept of terroir – growing food according to a sense of place and sustainability.

'From the air, Sitopia would be a patchwork of green and grey; at ground level, food, and the social interaction it should bring, would always be visible, whether in the market or the window box. Abbatoirs and agriculture would no longer be, in Steel’s words, ‘culturally invisible’.

'She now hopes to research Sitopia further, ideally with a multidisciplinary team of academics and practitioners. She is clear, however, that Sitopia is fundamentally different to utopia. ‘The beauty of Sitopia is that it is imperfect,’ she insists. ‘It can be anywhere. It’s not Jerusalem on a hill; it’s everywhere and everybody.'