Civility and Food Trade

The recently proposed food bill and its consequent public backlash have once more reasserted how important the basic trade and distribution of delicious goods is to society. The general concern being that small scale food growing and trade operations will be hindered. More than this, it also inadvertently hurts the community sub groups which cluster around such operations. For me, things like community gardens aren’t just about growing some food to cut down your food bill, or taking on knowledge from green-fingerd gurus (as important as these things are), but also largely about forming small collectives around something which is central to our existence.

Things like growing and trading food are examples of what Italian architect Aldo Rossi called fixed activities. They are activities that have always existed in cities and always will due to their primary importance in sustaining the dense populations who reside in cities. It is no coincidence that food trade spaces were also the seat of political and festive life (i.e civic life) in ancient cities.

Allowing simple bottom up food trade to continue is of importance for cities to have the kind of public and civic life which nurtures sub groups within the greater collective of a city. It seems when the government considers the laws which govern how we grow and trade food they give very little thought to how food features in the public life of our cities. The city, in a sense, is what it eats.

The following extract is from a masters thesis I wrote last year on the topic of food trade infrastructure with a particular focus on urban markets and supermarkets and how these as urban typologies give form to cities and its public life. This particular piece looks at the links between civility and food trade space.

Hopefully it exhibits how food growth and trade is important to the public life of the city. Furthermore, I hope it will highlight that to over regulate something as elemental to society as food growth undermines bottom up initiatives which generate important variety within our civic world.

Without further ado…..



Civility and Food Trade

A lot of our public institutions – public libraries, public transportation, public parks and recreation

centres – are only partly for the sake of looking after those who couldn’t afford those services left on their

own. They are also traditionally sites for the cultivation of a common citizenship, so that people from

different walks of life encounter one another and so acquire enough… sense of a shared life that we can

meaningfully think of one another as citizens in a common venture.”1


From the above passage we can ascertain the faceted role that public institutions have in cities. These kinds of infrastructures have always hosted the practices of public life: they are the vital organs of cities.

Common ground is vital to fostering a sense of community for collectives, yet somehow food trade structures slip out of that circle of common ground when they take the form of supermarkets.

Due to factors such as market initiatives (intentional removal of the social dimension from the first self-service food stores to cut overhead costs), morally questionable atmospheric conditions (intentionally cold interiors to

push customers through faster), consumer demand for convenience (once a week bulk shopping supported by private motorcars) and monopolisation of the food cycle (companies controlling multiple stages of food industry from production to sales) food has receded from the public forum. So strange for something so vital to the existence of cities.

Food is presented to us like we are consumers, rather than citizens in a community:

“…the time may be right for a new kind of politics – a politics of the common good. What might such a

politics look like? Unlike market-driven politics, a politics of the common good invites us to think of

ourselves less as consumers, and more as citizens… when we deliberate as citizens, when we engage in

democratic argument, the whole point of the activity is critically to reflect on our preferences, to question

them, to challenge them, to enlarge them, to improve them.”2


Citizenship engenders coming together as strangers with awareness that the collective share a common destiny in the quality of the city and its society. Yet market driven societies and their cities have disconnected private life from public. That is not to say public life has ceased to be important, but the chemistry between public and private has been altered:

Today public life has become a matter of formal obligation…The stranger himself is a threatening

figure, and few people can take great pleasure in that world of strangers, the cosmopolitan city…We have

tried to make the fact, of being in private…an end in itself…to know oneself has become an end, instead

of a means through which one knows the world…Masses of people are concerned with their single life histories and particular emotions as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation.”3


How we act impersonally to each other as strangers is just as important as how we maintain personal relationships with those closest to us. Food space has always offered a fertile forum for such interactions – markets, restaurants, bars, cafes, street vendors – these are venues in which strangers have happily coexisted:

These establishments also straddled the boundary between public and private, with chambers available

for more than culinary pleasures… Condemned by moralists as the haunts of drunken men and

disrepute women, cafes actually became a place for workers to socialize and for families to spend a quiet

evening; Balzac described them as the “parliament of the people.””4


Unfortunately supermarkets don’t offer such exchanges. The space of supermarket shopping can offer stressful conditions, the bringing together of people in these privatised commercial circumstances is reminiscent of the interactions experienced by motorists in overly congested streets.

The intentional curtailing of any activity except shopping ensures the separation of the supermarket from the civic sphere, yet common supermarket typologies assert themselves as prominent nodes in the urban fabric. The business of supermarkets gains every economical benefit of this exchange but offers little in return.

Fixed activities such as food trading and the sites they occupy are ideal places for individuals to come together as citizens in a common venture. This is not to imply that every food shop must be accompanied by political discussion, but that such an opportunity might exist: this would also provide the opportunity for bottom up community activity ranging in scale from sub groups to the greater city collective.

Creating public space for the sake of creating public space can often result in its emptiness and lack of activity. Historically and currently, citizens frequent public realms in the search for an event. Events which may be minor or major in scale, casual or formal in tone. The joy of coming upon unsolicited events is one of the defining virtues of dwelling in cities, and one that food markets historically accommodated, they engender suitable grounds for the cultivation of civility. The need for this cultivation is question of moral significance, and one that the compelling economical efficacy of supermarkets has crowded out. If we are to truly value food we need to reassert its moral significance with its presence in civic space, not as an economical commodity housed in privatised conditions.


1 Sandel, Michael. Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizeship ? Lecture 1: Markets and Morals. Transmission on 9th

of June, 2009.

2 Sandel, Michael. Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizeship ? Lecture 4: A New Politics of the Common Good.

Transmission on 30th of June, 2009.

3 Sennett, pg. 3?5. The Fall of Public Man. Published by Cambridge University Press, London, 1974.

4 Pilcher, Jeffery M., Food in World History, pg. 65.

One Reply to “Civility and Food Trade”

  1. Well Done… Great stuff. Should be compulsory reading for all students of Council Planning. Make sure it gets to Boris & Ken with the election coming up ??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.