Monday, July 27, 2009

What do fruits and vegetables have to do with urban planning?

Today I tried to imagine the perfect city. There were plenty of bikes and pedestrians everywhere and a marked absence of private vehicles. There were shorter blocks and more mixed uses of land. And there were farms: block-sized farms full of apple trees, kale, beans and carrots.

Then it got me a-thinkin': just how much space does it take to feed a person/family/city?

The answer is that it depends on what those people/families/cities are eating. Turns out that the production of meat is wildly more inefficient than the production of vegetables. Not only that, but animal excrement (i.e.: shit) pollutes that other stuff that is necessary for life: water.

So what does this all mean? Well, I guess it depends on the purpose of the city. If cities are to be places for efficient living, then perhaps what the citizens eat is as important as what transportation decisions they make. And as no city exists in a vacuum, it is also important how the choices of the city affect the surrounding suburbs and farmland.

Cities should promote life. They are centers of life, where people concentrate to work, play, sleep, eat, reproduce and live. Should they not then, also be places where life-affirming activity is concentrated? Where space is maximized for farmland and physical activity? Or are they just amusement parks for those with enough wealth to afford the high rents and tourists looking for the perfect picture (and the perfect steak)?

In order to build and maintain the perfect cities of the future, we need to make the right decisions: for ourselves, for those around us, and for those to come. In this broader sense, cutting back on meat intake is as important as riding a bike or taking public transportation. In another more specific and tangible sense, growing and eating food from the land that we live on gives us a greater connection to the land and reminds us that we inhabit a real space that is capable of generating and sustaining life.

UPDATE: turns out some hotshot from the Washington Post is one of the 5 people that read this page. Check out his article on meat consumption and its effect on global warming. Not the same point I was trying to make above, but its all related.


  1. Let's not forget that animal shit is also a powerful fertilizer that will cut down on the need for fertilizers (both natural and oil-intensive) if managed correctly. But your point about eating less meat is well taken.

  2. All things in moderation, Kendall. There may be so much CAFO poop floating around the US these days that no amount of "correct management" could harness its power. Especially considering the fact that it is tainted with all sorts of chemicals and antibiotics.

  3. By the way, you should read this profile of Freeman Dyson from The New York Times Magazine: