The Challenge of Food Production in a Planetary City

In an age of unprecedented globalization, our food supply chains — the institutions and mechanisms involved in food production and distribution — have become longer. So much so that they are hardly perceived as chains or systems. They have been integrated into our lives, and into our cities, and transformed our relationships with food. And yet, those very long food supply chains are implicated in some of our most pressing global problems, from food security and waste to biodiversity and climate change. These food supply chains have come to their current state, their current length, over decades, or centuries perhaps, through all sorts of political, social, cultural, and economic processes, and carry with them a range of burdens: vague producer-consumer relationships, and a host of negative environmental externalities, among many others.

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Carbon labelling. Image Courtesy of Spin Unit

Shortening the supply chain

So-called short food supply chains, their inverse, are characterized by geographically closer producer-consumer relationships, and fewer intermediaries. They are connected to notions of circularity and sustainability because they, among other things, are seen as grounding production and consumption in the local economy, minimizing the environmental burden associated with long ranges of transportation, and reducing the risk of long-tail disruptions tied to long, globalized food supply chains. They are also connected to a vision of a more circular economy because they make it easier to establish systems that re-circulate resources within a limited space. In this way, they are implicated in a broader set of ideas and aspirations, for a food system that is environmentally sustainable, resilient, economically robust, and accessible to all.

For some cities, ideas like food circularity and short food supply chains have become longings, the fancy of policy, and the stage directions for projective action. This has, in part, been a response to demand, to the needs and values democratically articulated, sometimes uncomfortably, at the level of urban and rural communities. 

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© Artjom Kutuzov

From farm to fork

Perhaps more pressingly, they have also responded to our planetary need to reimagine our systems, including our food systems, more sustainably and inclusively. We have seen, for example, the FORCE project, a collaboration between the cities of Lisbon, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Genoa, which seeks to minimize “the leakage of materials [food and bio-waste included] from the linear economy”. Closer to our home, we have seen the OECD and the City of Tallinn working closely, drafting a proposal for a development plan that seeks to make Tallinn’s economy more circular, as part of Tallinn’s 2035 ambitions.

At the heart of the European, Green Deal is the Farm to Fork strategy, a move towards fairer, more sustainable, and healthier food systems. And at the heart of that strategy is a regulatory framework for sustainable food systems (FSFS), to be released in 2023 by the European Commission. In anticipation of the framework, we ask the question: what is the role of cities and governance in this story? And how might urban food systems be transformed in the image of this lofty goal? How do we design city strategies around robustness to shocks, carbon footprint, and broad, equitable access to nutritious and affordable sustainable food? How can cities embark on new transformative projects that are socially meaningful and not mere tokens for political outreach?

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© Artjom Kutuzov
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© Artjom Kutuzov

Tallinn 1.5

The City of Tallinn is home to these questions and our speculations. In a land-use analysis from 2018, we saw that Tallinn’s urban space is mainly designed to support vehicular movement and car parking, resulting in the city suffering from spatial inequality, mobility inequity, and uneven urban development. At the same time, Tallinn’s food supply is highly dependent on regional and international imports.

Today the city has only 1% of the land needed to produce the food it requires - that is 285.450 sqm against the 30.500.000 sqm needed to produce its own food with current dietary standards. *Land is dedicated to producing food inside the functional urban area.

Local producers are struggling to find urban space for food production, and the smart city concept has produced more infrastructure than permeable land. And all of this is happening while we are living planetary urgency to work towards a circular economy is heightening. 

On a more positive note, there is a renewed awareness among citizens of Tallinn towards the benefits of urban food production and many community garden initiatives have been sprucing up from the 2010s onwards. Tallinn city has now strategically started to curate and support urban gardening, initiating 21 community gardens in only the past few years. Currently, each city district has at least one garden with a total of 1035 gardeners.

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People working in the gardens in Tallinn. Image Courtesy of Spin Unit
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People working in the gardens in Tallinn. Image Courtesy of Spin Unit

Our pressing questions

Our project for the Tallinn Architecture Biennale is titled Tallinn 1.5: A Vision for a Planetary City, a plan for a self-sufficient Tallinn displaying what Tallinn would look like if it produced all the food it needed to sustain itself and if its citizens adopted a “Planetary Diet” to help improve their health as well the one of our planet. To do so, Tallinn would need to produce 800 million calories of food per day, a task that would require almost 20% of all urban space to be transformed into land dedicated to food production.

How much land do we need to reclaim from the smart city to produce enough food to be self-sufficient? And can we? 

The project will consist of two cartographies, one mapping food production in Tallinn today and the other detailing a speculative land-use plan necessary for Tallinn’s self-sufficiency, should its whole population partake in a more sustainable diet. The two cartographies — a long, linear today and a short, circular tomorrow — are put together to beget questions about the space in between, the steps necessary for transformation from one to the other, and what it would take to get from where we are to where we want and need to go.

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For the first map, the current situation, our team conducted land use data analysis to produce a map displaying land use patterns related to Tallinn’s food production, which today are relatively minimal. This map will be realized using the national land registry of land uses and the national building registry of building uses. Because Tallinners are known for growing food in their backyards and in ubiquitous cottages, our partners at TalTech set up a participatory mapping process using Maptionnaire that will allow citizens and activists to map informal sites of food production in Tallinn - adding to the map’s richness and the quality of its representation.

The second map, the spatial scenario, is based on a research project where we evaluated the land uses needed to satisfy the local demand for food production in Tallinn. However, producing food locally is not the solution if the diet itself is not sustainable. To achieve the goals of the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Agreement, what people consume needs to change too. We imagined that everyone transitioned to the “Planetary Diet,” a plant-forward program designed to slow global warming while keeping a nutritionally-balanced lifestyle. Our team calculated the amount of land needed to supply enough food to all of the people living in Tallinn if all its citizens were on it. Our speculative scenario, in turn, presents a climate-conscious land use plan for a sustainable Tallinn.

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© Artjom Kutuzov

Transitions without conflicts

Transitions without conflicts require both time and public support. In this context, we proposed a carbon labeling system for food products to raise awareness of the ecological footprint of the food we eat. Besides including their carbon footprint, we also measured the spatial impact of food production on the city. This is a crucial factor when planning a self-sustainable Tallinn, and it's a reality check for policymakers involved in this process.

If Tallinn were to produce — within the city borders — all of the food it needed, would there be enough space? What would be the most efficient product to harvest?

To design a food labeling system that displays both the spatial and the carbon impact, we calculated the amount of space needed and the carbon emitted to produce one calorie of each food type. Leveraging a minimalistic design that uses two different scales, we want to change the medium to inform citizens and raise their awareness of their daily habits. In a social media campaign, we posted several rankings of food emissions and spatial efficiencies. The campaign occasioned remarks such as "the future is fungi" – a nod to mushroom's low spatial and carbon footprint. Our take is that a food labeling system would help improve our awareness of the environmental impact of our food, which is a crucial first step to transition towards a carbon-free future. 

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Carbon labelling. Image Courtesy of Spin Unit

The space between Tallinn’s long, linear today and its short, circular, more sustainable 1.5-degree-away tomorrow is significant, and there is ample work ahead if cities want to embark on circularity and commit to sustainable urban sustainability. Food production is only one, and for this alone, Tallinn would need 99% more land than it has today. Then we have biodiversity, waste management, public space, and more to be added to the list of land uses reclaimed from the smart city.

It suggests that it is time for cities to take back space from obsolete urban infrastructure, oversized roads and parking, underused malls, and former industrial areas to embark on an enterprise valuing the compound benefits of our interest and the requirements of a circular economy.

This starts by supporting interdependent sub-communities and sustaining the individuals that give them life. Most of all, it suggests that the time is now to take action, that there is no time — or food, for that matter — to waste.

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Cite: SPIN Unit. "The Challenge of Food Production in a Planetary City" 20 Dec 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

© Artjom Kutuzov


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