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Changing the Urban Relationship to Food


With an Italian background, from a culture of food, as biologist and one time theatre producer, to me it makes sense to work with a research group that has the courage to break many taboos and re-discuss academic assumptions in an open and innovative way.

Food has been studied in the Urban Design Lab since 2004, when a collaborative studio, enabled by the UDL with the participation of the Mailman School of Public Health Professor Dickson DesPommier and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, studied the Gowanus Canal and explored concepts of vertical farming. Subsequently the studio evolved, joined by the School of Engineering and Applied Science through collaborations with Professor Patricia Culligan. In 2008, the fifth studio in this series was joined by the Columbia Office of Environmental Stewardship and its assistant vice president Nilda Mesa and collaborated with the Go Green Initiative fostered by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. In this instance, graduate students designed various interesting proposals related to food, from urban agricultural units, to mechanical structures functioning as “artificial” trees, to green supermarkets – theirs is the idea of a “green card” that the Borough President is now implementing.

Parallel to this instructional work has been the Curbing Childhood Obesity project. This research, led by UDL’s Michael Conard and Kubi Ackerman in conjunction with Collaborative Initiatives at MIT, has strongly implicated the food system as the primary issue related to the obesity epidemic. In November 2008, the EI team participated in the organization of the “Food and Policy” conference, a joint effort between various actors and co-sponsored by the CU Office of Environmental Stewardship, the UDL and SIPA.

The activity of the Urban Design Lab regarding food continues working toward the quantification of an urban “foodshed” as a conceptual and operational tool in fostering diversification of our food sources; in analyzing the energy equation of urban agriculture; in considering the economic parameters of local food business; in proposing, implementing and monitoring various urban agricultural models and different ways of experiencing starting from where we live and work – namely the Columbia campus.

Encouraging this new awareness, in which food and the process that brings it to our table can be more evident and in which the disparities are addressed in an integrated way, is part of a continuing effort to keep scientific, political and public attention focused on this crucial issue.

Maria Paola Sutto is the UDL Urban Securities Coordinator. A Biologist and Journalist by training, her interest lays in a shared area where different disciplines intersect: from ecological science to social science, from economy, to art and architecture. Together with Richard Plunz, she recently edited the book Urban Climate Change Crossroads, Ashgate Publisher, forthcoming.

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Ellen Rymshaw
Ellen Rymshaw
14 years ago

It’s encouraging to see that some advances are being made in this very complex issue of food quality and availability in urban settings. As someone who has responded to acute malnutrition crises in African settings, I recognize that we often overlook chronic malnutrition that is silently unfolding in urban environments everywhere – including the US. The tremendous challenge to be overcome is complacency – political, academic and social.

Daria Dorosh
14 years ago

Our current food practices are indeed problematic and evidenced in the health of our population. Since food is now ‘designed’ for qualities other than nutrition, such as extended shelf life and laced with addictive ingredients to increase sales, it is a complex social product that can only be ‘un-designed’ by the research of groups such as the Urban Design Lab. I don’t see how we can move toward a National Health Care Program without studying and understanding the many complex issues embedded in our food.

14 years ago

It does not take land to grow at least part of one’s food, but it does take electricity. There are advances lately with the use lf LED ultra bright lights that use little power, produce little heat, and give intense levels of wavelength specific lighting. It is now possible to grow in a spare room, anwhere there is a plug.

My family and I are using this method to start seedlings (lights can be left on 24 hours) to accelerate their transplantation to the garden.

In addition, we are utilizing dual-use and miniaturized appliances, an electric car from 1982, and plans for an ultra insulated greenhouse… with no windows.

ninel conde
13 years ago

My country is the number of childhood obesity. I wonder, why this kind of programs do not develop in this kind of countries.

Recently, the government made a law, banning junk food in schools. But let’s be honest … It is the cheapest.

At least here, eating healthy is more expensive.

There are many studies on cryogenic food, and now even eat vegetables is scary, …

Anyway … Hopefully, you who have the resources, look a little to the south, just have to cross the border.