How Our Neighborhoods Lost Local Food (And How They Can Get It Back)

Healthy-foodThis post is adapted from an article I wrote in Progressive Planning.

Does food matter in neighborhood design? Should it? The answers to these questions are complicated and obscured by decades of perplexing policy and practice. There are many benefits of good food – that is, food which is healthy, affordable, fair, and sustainable. Proper nourishment has been linked in several studies to better classroom performance. Walkable access to healthy food can reduce America’s growing obesity and diabetes epidemics. Locally-sourced food can reinforce better dietary habits as consumers connect with the value chain and see eating as a more natural process.

The benefits are straightforward, but do most American neighborhoods actually support healthy food access?

Zoned Out

The answer unfortunately is no. Too often, 20th century urban planning produced monolithic, monoculture communities in which civilization’s functions are dramatically segregated. Square miles of suburbs are zoned strictly residential, often with explicit restrictions against front yard agriculture and no allowances for food shops or hubs. Downtowns are widely paved over or planted with merely ornamental landscapes. Humans – an urban species – eat several times a day yet seem fixated on zoning food out of the urban experience.

This is partly a result of the food system’s complexity. As a matter of perceived necessity, America urbanized over the last century according to the principles of modernism laid out by Le Corbusier and Robert Moses: a place for everything and everything in its place. Food production exclusively became the domain of our rural, agricultural, “fly-over” places, while urban policy and governance developed under the assumption that this food supply from the hinterlands was, forever, a given.

Divorcing ourselves from millennia of collective experience, food today seems to appear in our supermarkets merely and inevitably for our consumption. As coarse-grained zoning and planning eradicated our food’s origins from our daily lives, we began to value food as a set of abstract commodities that emphasized cheapness and distribution over nutrition. These values, however, are fragile things and the networks connecting urbanites and suburbanites to their food are tenuous and prone to failure.

The loss of crop species diversity for the sake of mass-production renders producers susceptible to exotic pests and locked into an arms race of powerful pesticides. Rising fuel costs make long distance food shipment ever more expensive. Food delivery is reliant on complex systems of futures prices, overnight microloans, currency valuations, and faith in credit: systems that nearly collapsed during the early hours of the 2008 financial crisis. Terrorism, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires can also easily disrupt the roads and rails that link our cities to their precious food supplies. When the Big One finally strikes California, would your family rather live 300 miles away from its nearest food supply, or just down the street from a community farm with days or even weeks of produce at hand?

Freedom of Choice

This is a problem that affects everyone in terms of massive risk, mortality rates, and health care costs – but should it be the concern of neighborhood designers? The past decade has given clear voice to the many people who fear government intervention into their communities as a loss of freedom of choice. In this case, however, food policy and neighborhood design require intervention to even begin to create choice in the first place.

Few Americans can choose to live in neighborhoods with some local food supply, because such communities largely do not exist. Further, housing affordability means that many lower- and middle-income families lack the choice to own multiple cars or to live in expensive, high-amenity neighborhoods with a farmer’s market on every corner. You are quite simply out of luck if your neighborhood is designed without access to real, healthy food or if you do not have a car to drive several miles to the nearest supermarket. A free market is one with diverse choices. What we have here is a market failure.

Fortunately, modern urban planning theory offers some reasonable solutions to this problem. One that is gaining traction is the idea of developing complete neighborhoods with a range of housing options, green spaces, amenities, schedules, and services. It means options for a community, rather than a monoculture rooted in the bad designs of the day. Completeness at the neighborhood level means that schools, restaurants, recreation, and errands are within walking distance of everyone in the neighborhood. It means people have a choice to shop for good food at a local market, participate in an urban farm, and eat nutritious meals regardless of where they live.

The notion of complete neighborhoods is a useful and flexible framework for good urban planning: promoting and providing diverse, holistic, and atomic neighborhoods to support the health and diversity of the community’s population. But reality trumps wishful thinking and farmer’s markets, urban agriculture, and good food shops will not matter if they are not supported by institutions and the community. Cities should coordinate their planning departments with food policy councils (like this one in LA) and local community development corporations to develop holistic programs.

High efficiency food production enabled our species’ rapid urbanization, and we presently cannot wholly replace industrial agriculture and still feed our massive urban populations. Instead, good, local food is complementary. It reconnects us with food systems as tangible processes. It creates a diversity of sourcing choices and supports resilient communities. Further, urban density need not be reduced to accommodate it. Good food can be sold in neighborhoods and produced in our underutilized or interstitial spaces, such as yards, medians, parks, vacant lots, rooftops, and ornamental landscapes. Good food is a crucial component of the complete neighborhoods philosophy and is desperately needed in America.

One thought on “How Our Neighborhoods Lost Local Food (And How They Can Get It Back)”

  1. The issue of food deserts is a problem here in Edmonton Alberta. This week our City Council amended our zoning bylaw and added several more zones to the list of zones where Urban Agriculture is a permitted or discretionary activity. Now it is completely legal to use most zoned residential and commercial land for the personal or for profit production of vegetables and fruit. Later this week our Council will also debate the legalization of urban hens.

    This all got started as a response to the consolidation of many grocery stores in the hands of a few corporations that have left clusters of neighbourhoods without access to any fresh produce. Safeway finally is out of our city, but they were the worst, registering restrictive covenants on their closed stores forever preventing the site from being used to sell food.

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