Independent thesis Advanced level (degree of Master (Two Years)), 30 credits / 45 HE credits
Food is something that we all have in common. We need it to survive and although we don’t always notice it, it has structured our relationships, homes, communities, countryside and cities for as long as humans have been around. The invention of farming led to the first static settlements, thus, enabling the evolution of cities.
In Sweden, the way people live and eat has changed drastically over the last fifty years. A society that was previously made up of clusters of small self-sufficient family-run farms has urbanised rapidly becoming one of the least self-sufficient, supermarket-dominated countries in Europe. Current housing developments such as Tavleliden (described by the municipality as a ‘nature-oriented’ area) on the outskirts of Umeå are designed and marketed in a way that encourages its residents to do little else but drive to the shops and consume.
In order to reach optimistic population and economic growth goals, politicians in Umeå hope that the rapid rate of urbanisation will continue. Many decisions, such as building new roads, covering up valuable agricultural land, subsidising large out-of-town retail centres and cutting down on services in surrounding villages are being justified because of these expectations. The landscape is not only becoming defined by cars and places to shop, but it seems the only people being catered for are those with money to spend.
The favouritism towards large corporations has not only made life almost impossible for independent businesses in the city to survive, (the number of independent food shops in the city centre has gone from thirty-six in 1950 to just one upmarket delicatessen in 20142), but according to Bjorn Forsberg they are also making it difficult for small food shops and farms outside Umeå - and the communities that rely on them to survive. While many middle-class families with jobs in the city are choosing to move to the suburbian developments outof- town, people whose livelihoods may have depended on the land are being forced to move into the town.
Some of us may find the experience of visiting a supermarket bland. Others may find the permanent and predictable choice of products from all over the world thrilling. Whatever our differing opinions, the fact is that, as there is very little else to choose from, whether we want to or not, in Umeå we all rely on them.
If we start trying to imagine the length of roads, train lines, airports, food-distribution centres and ferries that need to work faultlessly day in and day out delivering enough food for almost 300,000 meals a day to Umeå alone, we realise how important, but also how dependent the current food network is. If this system failed in Sweden, unlike many other counties who stock reserves, there would be a food crisis in only two days.
By emphasising the benifits of organic and offering connections to the production process Swedish food businesses such as Minfarm, Älvåkern and phone applications like ‘Bonde På Köpet’ are working to increase the appeal of locally produced food, though still cater for a largely middle-class market. Other producers in Västerbotten such as Hallnås or Baggböle Gård, are either relient on the neo-liberal supermarket system to sell their products or if they do sell directly to clients currently lack the resources to make themselves known.
You may wonder why I think that this matters and why it has any relation to architecture. If there’s food on the shelves, what’s wrong with continuing with business as usual?
If ‘we are what we eat’, I would also argue that the design of our cities, homes (and of course, the hinterland that we rely on!) are also a result of ‘what we eat’. But, as the English architect Carolyn Steel points out in her book Hungry City “No government, including our own, has ever wanted to admit its dependency on others for sustenance.” Arne Lindström, the regional manager for The Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF) has similar concerns. In a recent article in Västerbotten’s Kuriren he exclaims: “The reason why we have to farm seems to have been lost during an era of abundance. That food is essential is actually no longer obvious, and it is even less obvious that agriculture’s primary task is precisely to produce our food.”
So, it seems that as a city we care very little about our food. We are happy to exchange valuable arable land for a large shop that sells cheap mass-produced furniture. We are happy to drain our hinterlands of the people and expertise that know how to produce food. We are happy to keep building more supermarkets and ordering catalogue houses that require more cars and more oil.
What if instead, there was an architecture that allowed another kind of living? One that was less dependent on cars and imported food. One that encouraged residents to be producers as well as consumers. Maybe an alternative to the secluded suburbs and souless supermarkets that are being planned all around the city. An architecture that allows communities develop that are more connected to the land and the food that it eats.
This thesis will explore these ideas.
2015. , 179 p.
Food and architecture, urban farming, immediate architectural intervention, Umeå, sustainable development