Citywatch: The Road Not Taken Will Make All the Difference

By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

People working on food system issues in North America can help city planners get street smart.

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I love working on food issues at the city level because it offers scores of fresh and do-able ways of getting at creative solutions in so many seemingly unrelated areas. The best gifts often come in the smallest packages, thanks to the unusual leverage that food brings to the table.

There’s nothing stale in what food perspectives contribute to perennial debates about toll roads, traffic jams and the pollution caused by cars in the city – problems that might seem far away from food.

Right now, debates over roads, highways and traffic jams are going nowhere fast. On one side of the debate are transport policy experts who believe tolls and other charges for the use of roads and highways will convince drivers that it’s less costly for them, as well as less polluting for the environment, if they take public transit or a bicycle.

On the other side of the debate are drivers who will put up with stalled traffic to enjoy the speed, convenience, privacy, freedom of movement and comfort of a personal automobile, and cannot see themselves either bicycling or waiting aimlessly in the sweltering heat of summer or freezing cold of winter at several transfer points before being jostled in a crowded public transit vehicle.

Food invites us to get around this unproductive framing of issues by focusing on a third option of actually reducing the volume of traffic – not just shifting its mode, from private cars to public transit or private bikes.

The magic powder which food systems perspectives sprinkle over this debate doesn’t come from being cool, calm, collected, distant and neutral because food’s not at issue. To the contrary, food is as responsible as anything else for driving people crazy.

In terms of today’s problems, about a fifth of both auto and truck trips in and across cities are food-related. It’s not uncommon for people to hop in the car just to pick up milk, sugar or coffee or to order car delivery on a take-out meal.  Nor is musical chair truck travel uncommon – one truck leaving New York full of apples, while another apple truck comes into New York. So food is a big part of the traffic problem.

Equally important, food is a big part of a related non-traffic problem that causes a traffic problem.

Here’s why. Every use of a car requires a parking spot. That’s why junkfood restaurants and box store supermarkets don’t set up on main streets, where parking is scarce or expensive.

A busy car requires about ten places a day to park, which helps explain why a third of most cities is taken up by paved roads and paved parking lots. My friend Brian Cook helped me use google map to check out parking lots around shopping plazas Toronto’s inner suburbs, and we were amazed at the number of 40 acre lots—the same size as the famous “back 40” of farms and market gardens that once supplied cities with fresh food.

From the standpoint of city livability and environmental quality, the car’s space-paving compulsion is at least as damaging as its fuel emissions. But the prospect of liberating that dead space is one of the reasons why civic food movements can pose new ways around traffic challenges that also help solve food, environmental, job creation and livability problems.

Food can become part of tomorrow’s solutions because a street smart food system can reengineer the very nature of trips through what’s called “proximity planning.”

It’s a delicious irony that the mass enthusiasm for locavore and hundred mile diets has touched a chord in people that allows us to explore a whole series of layers to the ways we’ve been distanced from  food – not just the physical distance from farm to plate, but the much greater psychological distance between us and our food; not just the logistics of bringing in food from afar, but the length of the full life cycle stretching from fertilizer, pesticide, tractor to garbage truck and landfill; not just the outsourcing of farmwork to faraway rural areas, but the loss of good processing and service careers providing the rich personal and interpersonal integrity of honest work of direct use to neighbours by butchers and bakers and candle stick makers.

City governments and local boards of education are uniquely called on to deal with these multiple dimensions of a localized food system, and are uniquely capable of dealing with them through imaginative use of tools in the proximity planning toolkit – the full development of which will define the careers of the upcoming generation of city/food planners.

As one of the senior authors of Cultivating Food Connections, the proposed food strategy for Toronto — North America’s fourth largest urban area — I believe the section dealing with a “neighborhood-based food system” can start to take us down a less travelled road of proximity planning.

To make a long distance story short – and this is something that keeps cropping up with food –  proximity is easier to introduce in food than any other sector.

There are problems with localizing food, to be sure, but nothing like the problems of localizing computers, cars or clothes, for example, not to mention long-distance travel.  And when it comes to trip reduction — the golden fleece of proximity planning and relief from traffic congestion – food has what it takes, despite the fact it can’t be digitalized and shipped as electrons like many products can be.

But before we work up the localization toolkit, we need to rethink the big picture of transportation itself — not just the relatively minor details relating to public and private transit as ways of handling longish trips.

Today’s transportation system is built on the premise that people need move around to get what they need. The preoccupation with mobility and being on the go probably explains why traffic language borrows so heavily from words used to describe how blood circulates and flows through arteries in our body – circulation and arteries being indispensable to carrying nutrients in and waste out.

But the very efficiency and pleasure of city life comes from a totally different reality than a bodily need for blood flow.

Cities provide more access to more opportunities for less cost because of the circulation of contacts and connections doesn’t require much physical transportation.  Toronto urbanism expert Jeb Brugmann, author of Welcome to the Urban Revolution, calls this “the urban advantage.”

Cities become centers of dynamism, he argues, because they’re so good at  bringing people close together and “reducing the costs of collaboration.”

That factor helps explain why Toronto is often considered the North American “city that works.” Anytime I want to bump into people to talk about something, or get the fixings for a meal, or take a break and go out for a meal or a drink, all I do is walk a block from home and a whole world opens up — oddly enough at a street called Main Street, designed a hundred years ago with the fantasy of becoming North America’s Main Street and centre of commerce between Europe and America.

My area, called either The Beach or The Beaches, recently won an award as the best small town main street in Ontario, despite the fact it’s in the middle of Canada’s biggest city. Anything I might want is a short walk away – from photocopy machines to Korean, Japanese, Italian, Thai, Korean, Middle Eastern restaurants to grocery shops, butchers, bakers to doctors, chiropractors and dentists to gyms to barber or hairdresser to library to schools to banks and bookstores or to an unending choice of yoga studios, massage offices and coffee or tea shops….and even a gigantic lake, boardwalk and beach.  Alas, if I need to go to McDonalds or one of its competitors, I pretty well have to drive, but you can’t have everything.

Main streets are an old form of social technology which predates the car. They feature access, not mobility.

Those two words make all the difference, because access can be walkable, but mobility usually requires motorized transportation. We’ve been driven to distraction by an obsession with mobility.

I first got to think about the importance of this distinction through the speeches of brilliant energy expert Amory Lovins, which I heard some 20 years ago. People do not need electricity, gas or oil in homes, he argued famously. People need cold beer, comfortable rooms and hot showers. It’s much cheaper to meet these needs by switching from lager to ale, which is best served at room temperature, by insulating walls so rooms don’t lose heat in winter or gain heat in summer, and by insulated plumbing pipes and high-efficiency showerheads that slash the amount of energy needed for a good shower.

Focus on the “end-efficiency,” (cold beer, comfy rooms and hot showers), not the “intermediate good” (electricity, gas or oil), and we will find the “soft path, ” Lovins taught. Move from “supply management”  to “demand management,” he preached.  We can use the same conceptual tricks to get to the “soft path” of transit planning by focusing on access by foot or bicycle.

By adapting models from successful neighborhoods and streets, we can reduce the need for outside car trips as much as Lovins reduces the needs for outside energy to get cold beer comfy rooms and hot showers.

It’s easiest to walk the talk with food. Cities can fund local Business Improvement Associations to encourage a wide variety of food outlets from bakers to full-service grocers. Parks can be made available for weekly farmers markets, which have a documented record of improving sales at all nearby stores, including – and this is counter-intuitive, but no less true for it – food stores. Schools can offer their empty grounds and roofs in summertime for community gardeners. Non-profits, such as Toronto’s heartwarming Not Far From the Tree, can help people grow produce on lawns and boulevards. And community food centers such as The Stop in Toronto provide a gathering place for anyone with some  food issue or need, from breastfeeding classes to cooking and gardening classes to meal programs.

A logical time to develop this conversation linking local food and proximity planning is when an area is developing its Official Plan. The American Planning Association has excellent ideas, resolutions and resources to share in that process.

A logical institution to promote this kind of development can be modeled after Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, which names the place and setting that is the foundation of proximity planning.

A logical ally is the small business community, especially the food sector, and people looking to find good jobs in this sector, including youth, great numbers of whom are unemployed or just as wastefully under-employed.

The business establishment may be slow to come on side, for the simple reason that the chain business model relies on economies of mass production and high throughput, dependent on a transportation system that allows them to charge what the traffic will bear. But in terms of healthy and vibrant jobs and economies, the arguments favor weighing policy toward neighborly businesses.

One aspect of food’s extraordinary leverage is that food is labor- and therefore employment-intensive. The service and industrial employees of various food and food-related businesses usually top the employment stats of urban areas. When employees as well as customers of food establishments are coming by foot, then pedestrian ways of solving transit problems become viable.

When it comes to new trends for improving food, transportation and economy in cities of the future, change is afoot.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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