Edible City – Part 1

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, we’ll discuss mainly the 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 project that contribute to create a new connectedness with food in the built environment.

What is Edible City about? The fact that very few city and suburb dwellers 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 moment 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 Islandâ€? scampi. Our daily food supply too has become a globalized affair.


Yet, 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 (but i’m a fan of AVL so my point of view is not exaclty neutral) in the exhibition is Atelier van Lieshout‘s AVL-Ville that tries to give shape to a completely self-sufficient village located in the harbour of Rotterdam. All activities are conceived as a work of art, whether it’s food production, health care or entertainment.


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

0academy4.jpgThe AVL-Academy

AVL_Ville refers to artists colonoes and comunes. 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 abattle can receive care and medicines in the AVL-Spitaal (the hospital).

0piggggi8.jpgThe exhibition presented also 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 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.


76 towers would accomodate pigs on the 87×87-metre 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 caters for the tower’s energy needs (via).

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

If I can understand 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, neighbourhood-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 priviledged urbanites from the industrial North and South relate to our food systems that fuels the 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 22nd of June.
Photo set.
More about AVL-Ville in this interview of Joep van Lieshout. Image of the village from Artopie.