Everyday, in the city of London, 30 million meals are served. That’s millions of trucks arriving to millions of stores and restaurants in a complex, tightly scheduled orchestration of production, transportation, and distribution.
We take it for granted that this system will never fail. But what would happen if these trucks were stopped? As unrealistic as it sounds, it’s happened – and not so long ago.
In 1989, over 57% of Cuba’s caloric intake was imported from the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, Cuba became, virtually overnight, solely responsible for feeding its population – including the 2.2 million in the city of Havana.  What happened next is an incredible story of resilience and innovation.
As our world becomes increasingly urbanized, our farms increasingly endangered, and our reliance upon fossil fuels increasingly undesirable, the question of how we will feed billions of future city dwellers is no mere thought experiment – it’s an urgent reality.
The story of Cuba offers us an interesting question: What would our cities look like if we began to place food production/distribution as the primary focus of urban design? And what will it take to make this vision a reality?
More on how Food can shape our cities, after the break…
Food and the City
In her TED Talk, “How Food Shapes Our Cities,” Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City, explains how, since the beginning of urbanization, cities have been intertwined with agriculture – which is, of course, logical. How else could a city flourish without a dependable source of food to sustain it?
As Ms. Steel points out, by looking at maps and street names (for example Friday street in London, where on Fridays fish were sold), you can see the routes where food physically carved its way into ancient cities, towards the great plazas where this food was bought and sold, and how the cities themselves were built around facilitating this food flow.
Of course, industrialization changed all that. As Ms. Steel puts it, as soon as we began to use railroads to import meat, already slaughtered, and vegetables, already gathered, into our cities, we “effectively emancipated from geography.”
All of a sudden, our cities could grow in any which way at an incredible rate of growth – and they continue to do so today. But, as is often the case, this progress has a dark side.
The typical Urban Dweller today has no understanding of where or how food is produced/distributed. We have become dependent on huge, powerful, profit-minded corporations to bring huge quantities of food from industrial farms into our supermarkets – but the entire process is hidden, massively complex, and, ultimately, unsustainable.
Foodies and Farmers’ Markets
From the cultural cache of Farmers’ Markets and organic produce, to the proliferation of rooftop gardens and local CSAs, there is a sizable portion of the population trying to close the gap, both physical and conceptual, between the food consumer and producer.
But despite the increased presence of these grassroots organizations, it’s difficult to understand how they could offer a viable alternative to the massive food system that currently has a stranglehold on our economy and government. As “Stocking the City” writer Chris Dehenzel has pointed out, for any kind of alternative food system to succeed it would require “fundamental structural shifts at policy and planning levels.”
Which begs the question: what would a fundamental shift in policy/planning look like? We can turn to Cuba for an answer.
The Case for Cuba
In the 1990s, in the face of a massive food shortage, the citizens of Havana did the only thing they could – take their lives into their own hands.
On balconies, terraces, backyards, and empty lots, neighbors began planting beans, tomatoes, bananas – anything they could, anywhere they could. In the span of two years, there were gardens and farms in every neighborhood in Havana. 
The government took notice, and instead of squelching these efforts, facilitated them. In 1994, the newly formed Urban Agriculture Department undertook a few key actions: (1) it adapted city law to the planning concept of Usufruct, making it not just legal, but free to adapt unused, public land into food production plots; (2) it trained a network of extension agents, community members who monitor, educate, and encourage gardeners in their neighborhoods; (3) created “Seed Houses” (agricultural stores) to provide resources/information; and (4) established an infrastructure of direct-sale Farmers’ Markets to make these gardens financially viable. 
By 1998 there were over 8,000 officially recognized gardens in Havana – from individually run plots to large State-run estates – all organic (by necessity, no pesticides were being imported) and producing about 50% of the country’s vegetables. 
On Viability and Visibility
Of course, Cuba is far from perfect, and whether these policies remain successful, or even successfully in place, is doubtful (Cuba is again dependent on foreign imports. When Raúl Castro took over from his brother in 2008, one of his major promises was to revitalize an agriculture sector riddled with bureaucracy and un-productivity).
But what’s fascinating about Cuba, is how, due to necessity, food once again became the guiding factor in the shaping of its capital city. What it required, however, was the complete and forced removal of its previously entrenched food system.
While the circumstances in the United States are no where near as dire, nor extreme, there are some parallels to be drawn. First of all, our current Economic crisis has made the need to change our outdated, inefficient, and unsustainable food systems far more pressing. Secondly, the cultural shift in our relationship with food, especially due to rising health problems and an obesity epidemic, has similarly resulted in citizens taking food production into their own hands.
In Cuba, that’s how it all began – involved citizens taking action in response to a crisis. Before Urban Agriculture became a viable alternative to feeding the city, it became a visible course of action. If we let food once again be our guide to urban design, then the first step will be to use design to shorten – not just the physical distance – but the conceptual distance between us and our food.
How can we use Design to change our urban relationship with food? Stay tuned for the follow up-post: Urban Agriculture Part II: Designing Out the Distance
 Warwick, Hugh. “Cuba’s Organic Revolution.” <http://forum.ra.utk.edu/Archives/Summer2001/cuba.pdf>
 Pinderhughes, Raquel, Catherine Murphy, and Mario Gonzalez. “Urban Agriculture in Havana, Cuba.” August 2000. <http://online.sfsu.edu/~raquelrp/pub/2000_aug_pub.html>.