The Hungry City – how food shapes our cities, our houses and our lives

One of the most interesting things about Foods and Cities is the great number of aspects it touches: fair trade, dietary habits, cooking skills, urban planning, regional development, community involvement, North-South relations, economy and agriculture, but also sustainability at a local and global scale.

As my thesis was dealing a lot with the topic of global impacts of local actions, I was very interested in how food can be used to address the (un)sustainability of people’s lifestyles in cities. When interviewing some experts, two of them suggested to me the book “The Hungry City”, by Carolyn Steel. I had never heard about it, so I was quite surprised when two of my three interviewees recommended it to me.

It was a great tip! After I finished the thesis, the first thing I did was to borrow the book from the library, and to spend some hours reading it in the park.

Post-thesis relaxation, last summer.
Post-thesis relaxation, last summer.

The author of the book is a British architect, who looks for the first time at cities from the perspective of Food. (Watch her Ted Talk.) She tells the story of how food shapes our lives. Not only in terms of health, but of the city itself.

Did you know that in London, the streets through which food entered the city centuries ago, are still nowadays some of the main traffic streets? Before industrialization, food was brought in from the surrounding region by foot, or from faraway places by boat. Can you imagine all the chicken, cattle, goats, crossing the streets every week, in direction to the markets where they were sold?

“If you look at the map of any city built before the industrial age, you can trace food coming in to it. You can actually see how it was physically shaped by food, both by reading the names of the streets, which give you a lot of clues. Friday Street, in a previous life, is where you went to buy your fish on a Friday. But also you have to imagine it full of food. Because the streets and the public spaces were the only places where food was bought and sold. “

Carolyn Steel, TedTalk

Steel gives glimpses of how food was prepared, sold, transported and enjoyed throughout the centuries – which is also the story of how our relation to food changed with times.



A good interview with the Worst Tours of Porto

Gui Castro Felga
by Gui Castro Felga

“Portugal, 2012. Austerity Killed the economy. Three out of work architects facing sudden economic destruction refuse leaving town and decide to open an unlikelly walking-tours-agency – Porto, big picture, good and bad: Architecture, History, Politics, Urbanism, Slow food, and Hearsay.”

Refusing to leave the boat, these architects started “The Worst Tours” of Porto. They define it as “a low rated tours agency for anyone who really doesn’t want to be a tourist while getting to know Porto, the coolest city in Portugal – tourism buses don’t fit in the best places, anyhow…”

Translated from Portuguese

Why are you “The Worst Tours”?
Some would prefer branding themselves as “the best cake in the world”. As we cannot compete in that type of championship, we decided to be the worst at showing a city that despite being a ruin is a beautiful ruin.

How did you get the idea of starting it?
The worst tours started as a reaction of three Portuenses [Porto citizens] to the lack of alternatives, the lack of work, the “touristification” of Porto, but also as a refusal to emigration.

Did you ever imagine, while studying Architecture, that you would end up using that knowledge in this way?
Maybe we never imagined it, but we have colleagues that have been working for many years as tour guides in Serralves [contemporary art museum and park] and in Casa da Música.  Some of them organize architectural tours for architects and architecture lovers.

What makes your tours so special? Is it passing through areas less explored by tourists and even Portuenses ?
No, not at all. The tours are not special. We refuse that idea. It is the city which is beautiful!.. The tours are very poor. Very possibly, the worst tours in the world.

Which tour is most popular?
The tours are all quite different. In the beginning, we tried to understand what the interests of the “worst tourists” are and we adapted to it. Perhaps the most surprising tour is the one of the ilhas [islands]- in Porto’s vocabulary this refers to a type of housing [see box below]. Porto has ilhas throughout its territory, and about 8% of the population lives in these places. The ilhas appeared with the Industrial Revolution as a way of accommodating the cheap labour arriving to the city. It was also a way of hiding the poor inside the blocks, away from sight.
In many cases, these spaces created, throughout the times, interesting communitarian spaces. It is not a black and white reality, and it prompts interesting discussions between the visitors and us. We have even found some Portuenses who did not know what ilhas were.

An ilha in the eve of the São João holiday, the festival of the city.
Ilhas in Porto
“An ilha is a type of collective housing typical of Porto. It is a private space composed by many tiny houses located inside the neighbourhoods quarters, in the backyards of the bourgeois houses of the 19th century.
The ilhas have commonly 10-12 houses in each side of a narrow (1,20m) and long corridor that leads to the street. Each house with only one storey has in average 16m2. The ilha is served by separate collective bathrooms. The ilhas emerged as an immediate response to the lack of housing for accommodating the large numbers of rural population arriving to Porto in the mid 19th century, to work in the new factories of the recent industrialization.
It is a speculative response from the land owners who profit from multiple rents from a single backyard. Moreover, it is a highly discriminatory response because it makes invisible thousands of people, who live as hidden in crowded tiny spaces, leaving the urban street free for the upper middle-class.”
An “island” seen from the street.
An ilha seen from the street.

Do you experience the city in a different way when guiding tours?
We are a kind of internationalist-local patriots. We have a bit of a dumb pride when showing Porto. We always went for long walks, showing the city to friends. It is, indeed, a new way of seeing the city, because it makes us try to relate fields that we were taught as being different disciplines: History, Architecture, Politics, Urbanism… We discuss sometimes the urban rehabilitation that we want to see, as opposed to the type of interventions that have been made in the city.
Our way of showing Porto goes through the spaces and episodes that conditioned the appearance of avenues (Almada,  who created long streets in Porto; the times of Estado Novo), the ways of dealing with the successive accommodation problems that emerged since the Industrial Revolution (the “islands”, the neighbourhoods built with participatory principles after the April 25th Revolution (SAAL), the interventions in the 90’s), the struggles for the maintenance of popular markets (Bolhão, Bom Sucesso), the crime of Cardosas (a polemic renovation in an UNESCO world heritage site ). We present our points of view – always partial, or they would not be points of view at all.

by Gui Castro Felga
by Gui Castro Felga

In your website, you use the expression: a tour “within our possibilities”. This is an often-heard expression in the last years, as Portuguese politicians keep telling the Portuguese people to live within their possibilities. Do you tell your tourist groups about the crisis in Portugal? How do you use the city to tell stories about the crisis? In a way, the fact that you created this project is a crisis story in itself…would you agree? 
De-constructing the dominant speech requires a certain dose of surrealism. Sometimes taking a slogan out of its context is enough to empty it. On the other hand, you do not have to pay taxes or fines for walking through the streets (oh, we should not give any ideas..).  The crisis is easy to see: the city is eroded due to austerity, it is abandoned, empty, it has poverty… and it has very interesting buildings and places too. It has contrasts; it is not a postcard, not even an illustrated one. We think that tourism is a damaged and commodified word. To travel is to let yourself involve in the places you visit. To go beyond the contradictions-free, clean and shiny touristy circuits.

Contact them at:

Sustainability – stories and facets

As I mentioned here, I did my thesis on “how sustainable is sustainable planning?”.

While researching, for months I dived deep into academic literature . In order to make sense out of what I was reading, I came up with the image of the Dodecahedron of Sustainability and of Sustainable Planning.

We all learn in high school about Platonic solids: the cube, the pyramid, and those with complicated names and many sides. These sides are also called facets.

When dealing with the concept of sustainability, one is confronted with its many facets.
This is how I envisioned  it in my thesis the concept of Sustainable Planning:
sustainable planning_dodecahedron_small
Then, I described in detail, each one of those aspects.

The image of the dodecahedron, the 12-faced solid, serves to convey the multitude of  aspects, understandings and points of view that lie behind the sustainability concept.

In this blog I intend to portray the same idea, but by telling stories.

The criteria used is:

– people/projects/ideas that I find extremely interesting and inspiring,
– to be somehow connected to sustainability.

This is how I think the dodecahedron of sustainability stories might look like:
sustainability stories
Let’s start it!