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Edible City: Part 1
Regine Debatty, 30 Mar 07

0ediblecittt.jpgWhile in Belgium last week (or was it the week before?), I made a quick trip to Maastricht in The Netherlands to visit the fascinating and hugely inspiring Edible City, an exhibition currently running at the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

In this first part, I'll introduce the exhibition and have a conversation with Debra Solomon, author of Culiblog and one of the curators of Edible City. Our discussion will mainly revolve around utopian projects. In the second part of the story, I'll ask her to give us more details on some of the most interesting ongoing projects that contribute to creating a new connectedness between food and the built environment.

What is Edible City about? It's about the fact that very few city dwellers or suburbanites would be able to locate the factory where the milk from the cow ends up in a carton. And who knows the whereabouts of the abattoir where the cow ends its days? Where are our vegetables auctioned, washed, sliced and packaged?

Practically everything to do with the production and processing of food takes place out of our sight. The whole chain of action preceding the supermarket or the dinner table is often thousands of kilometers in length: haricots verts from Kenya, wine from Chili and lamb from New Zealand. Dutch pigs are processed into Parma ham in Italy and then sold back the country as an Italian product. I recently read of a company's plans to ship prawns from Scotland, where they are caught, on a 12,000-mile, nine-week round trip to Thailand, where they would be hand-peeled by workers earning 25p an hour. They would then be shipped back to British supermarket and sold as premium “Scottish Island” scampi. Our daily food supply too has become a globalized affair.

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In the distant past, the city functioned more or less as a self-sustaining system. All that now remains is consumption.

But a counter movement is emerging. Its adherents aim to bring production, distribution, consumption and, often, recycling closer together, and thus contribute to a more sustainable world.

The Edible City exhibition mixes admirably pragmatic proposals as well as utopian schemes that each, in its very original way, has the potential to enable city-dwellers to meet their own food requirements. The design of the exhibition itself is as engaging and pleasant as its content: much of the show is itself edible. You find models, videos, images, descriptions of projects among young salads and other plants. The whole space makes you feel like you're in some kind of greenhouse.

One of the art projects that clearly stands out in the exhibition is Atelier van Lieshout's AVL-Ville that tries to give shape to a completely self-sufficient village located in the harbor of Rotterdam. All activities are conceived as a work of art, whether it's food production, health care or entertainment.

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AVL-Ville

The village can be seen as an urban survival kit complete with a hospital, an art academy, a canteen, a working alcohol distillery, a sausage factory, a mobile farm for personal food production, and its own money, but also containers for making weapons and bombs.

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The AVL-Academy

AVL_Ville refers to artist colonies and communes. Except that here the uplifting idealism of these foundations has given way to a dirty realism. The freedom provided by a state of self-sufficiency has to be protected from envy, at all cost! Hence the weaponry. Any AVL-Ville inhabitant wounded in a battle can receive care and medicine in the AVL-Spitaal (the hospital).

0piggggi8.jpgThe exhibition also presented a video and some documentation about the much talked-about Pig City by MVRDV architects.

In 2000, pork was the most consumed form of meat. Animal diseases such as Swine Fever and Foot and Mouth Disease were then raising questions about pork production and consumption.

If we don't want to become instant vegetarians, MVRDV suggests that we change the production methods and adopt biological farming. But do we have enough space for biological pig farming? The Netherlands is the chief exporter of pork within the European Union. As organic farming involves feeding pigs with 100% grain, 130% more field surface would be needed. This would mean that 75% of the country would be dedicated to pigs.

Pig City's proposal is to concentrate the meat production in one area. Pigs would be kept in stacked, comfortable 'apartments' which would make them happy (and thus would mean a better taste for the meat) and save space.

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76 towers would accommodate pigs on the 87x87-meter floors. Large balconies allow the animals to rummage around under trees outside. A central abattoir is housed in the plinth, and pigs for slaughter are moved in lifts. On top is a fish farm that supplies some of the food needed. Each tower also contains a central slurry-processing plant and a biogas tank, which easily meet the tower's energy needs (via).

Hi, Debra. Some of the projects presented in the exhibition are utopian, others are bound to their geographical location. Is there any experience that could be reproduced in any location with a fair chance of success?

If I can understand urban agriculture as utopian, it has proven itself successful in all manner of contexts, locations and scales. Professional farm collectives already feed numerous major cities in South East Asia, West Africa and in Cuba. Smaller, neighborhood-scale fruit tree projects and policies adopted by city councils to use only fruit bearing trees in their landscape architecture have been implemented in the Netherlands, a country whose climate can by no means be considered temperate. On a more individual level, an entire movement has sprung up in North America around the notion of converting decorative suburban landscaping, primarily 'the lawn', into a food-producing landscape. There is proof of success on every level, from the urban planning level to kitchen counter sprout jars, that can be reproduced with great chances of success.

What could we learn from utopian and artistic projects?

0lacitytyu.jpgThe art(istic) projects in the Edible City exhibition do indeed tend to be the more utopian of our selection. I think the lesson is that small, incremental, personal design interventions have the power to reconnect us with our food systems and transform this connection into a life-enhancing interaction. There is a problem with how we, the privileged urbanites from the industrial North and South relate to our food systems, which fuels bad practice in the global economy.

- 40% of all food is wasted before it even hits the plate.

- Control of food plant biodiversity and food supply is in the the hands of large companies, with no record of experience or interest in governance.

We have lost touch with where food comes from, how it is grown, how to prepare it, where to put it in our lives. The most utopian projects in the Edible City exhibition offer an example of how we can once again become deeply connected to our food systems and why this would be something enriching for us.

The exhibition closes on August 12, 2007.
Photo set.
More about AVL-Ville in this interview of Joep van Lieshout. Image of the village from Artopie.

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