Birmingham Sustainability Forum: The birth of a sitopia?

As part of my thinking about what to say at the Birmingham Sustainability Forum: Feeding the City on 10th September, I out together a blogpost for The Chamberlain Forum called The death of a national trust. The birth of an urban sitopia?

The first half of the blogpost is about how Birmingham is perceived outside the city. This is an extract from the latter half:

“What do we need to do to make Birmingham an urbanite exemplar of living well? A melting pot of ideas, energy, influences. Lively streets. Playful, curious children. Heartfelt friendliness. A delight in immediate surroundings.

Cities run on power. No, not the political kind, that national trust has gone, if it ever existed outside London.

I mean the joule kind of power. Calories, too, life-giving power to our bodies and minds. Without either, citizens must leave or die.

How are we going to generate and manage the power we need to live well here?

A radical idea is to think of city as “sitopia”, a term made up by Carolyn Steel. From the Greek, ‘sitos’ meaning food, ‘topos’ meaning place. Sitopia. Food place.  (see her book Hungry City; her TED talk How Food Shapes Our Cities.)

Her assertion is that, even now, long past the days when geese and cattle had to be driven into towns, it is still illuminating to view a city through the perspective of food and food supplies.

And so it has proved. The New Optimists Forum has brought together over 50 people so far, many of them scientists, all living and working in the region, engaged in a year-long scenario planning project. Food futures for Birmingham 2050.

We’re bending our minds around logistics and transport systems, education, health, energy, waste, business and retailing, allotments and parks, streets and markets. Relationships, family, friendship. Eating as social glue.

We’ve learned there’s great success in today’s food supply systems  –  and that success includes supermarkets. A billion calories plus vital nutrients are consumed every single day of every year off Birmingham plates.

There’s concerns attached to this success too. What if there were a major breakdown in supply? Never has so much (cereal) been controlled by so few.

Are these systems too efficient, fragile rather than robust? Equitable? Sustainable? Will the preparedness of other consumers in other countries to buy less than perfect-looking produce scupper parts of our supply? Should we be eating kiwi fruits rather than Evesham plums?

And, when calories are cheap, how can we all ensure all our citizens have a nutritious diet?

We’ve learned that a mere 10 people can live off a hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land. That the West Midlands conurbation is roughly 60,000 hectares. So without the million or so of us, without any of our built environment, also without Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and the Black Country, Coventry, motorways, 3.5 million people….the land itself could, if highly fertile (which it isn’t) and if it were intensively farmed (thumbs down to the Soil Association), it could only feed 600,000 people on a very restricted if sufficient diet.

We’ve learned that the global food supply, give and take, matters greatly to us. That the UK imports less of our food (40%) than it has for generations.

We’ve learned there’s difficult-to-get-your-head-round, counter-intuitive stuff. That its not in UK interests to be self-sufficient in food. Not for us, not for others across the world. That organic farming, locally sourced food and going vegetarianism are all irrelevant to feeding the 9 billion.

That however romantic the World War II Dig for Victory campaign seems now, getting food on the table then was a precarious matter. A close run thing, the population could easily have starved; indeed many on the Continent did. We had rationing. A highly restricted, meagre diet.  Malnutrition. Government food supplements for the vulnerable, vitamins, cod liver oil, virol, orange juice. Over dependence on local harvests which sometimes failed.

And 13 million fewer mouths to feed than now.

We’ve learned too that urban agriculture, though providing diddley-squat (a tiny fraction of 1%) of any city’s food requirement, has profound social, civic and health benefits for whole communities. And it makes an area suddenly, wonderfully attractive to look at and be in.

That Birmingham, late on this scene, has 7.5k allotments (and counting), community orchards, veg patches in schools, farms (yes farms), Winterbourne’s urban farming centre opening in September, Birmingham Botanical Gardens with imaginative projects, a city Parks Department already playing a significant part and keen to do more.

Plus a brand-new opportunity. Carbon-negative energy generation within our boundaries. Bio-energy reactors, some community owned, dotted across the metropolis. Aston University’s EBRI technologies.

What will Birmingham be to the likes of [the outsiders mentioned at the beginning of the blogpost] in the middle of this most troubled of centuries?

We’re on our own. It’s up to us.”

One response to “Birmingham Sustainability Forum: The birth of a sitopia?”

  1. Barbara Staples says:

    Extremely interesting. Would you be able to provide a speaker for a meeting of Birmingham Vegetarians & Vegans in 2013? We meet 4th Tuesday each month.

    I’ll make every effort to attend on 10 September.

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