Architects and urbanists are used to viewing the city through plans. Periodically, new means of viewing the city become available which help us to understand the spatial consequences of social phenomena. In the early part of the twentieth century aerial photography became available and made clear the effects of rapid industrialisation on the urban fabric.
Today we have a new way of reading the city with plans. No longer figure and ground plans, but plans generated using geographical information systems (GIS). GIS allows data to be mapped spatially, presenting layers of information, which by correlation can map, for example, access to resources. In terms of sustainability, this begins to let us judge the equality, or otherwise, of resource availability.
An example of the use of GIS mapping to record access to healthy food is provided by a study entitled, ‘Measuring Access to Healthy Food in Sandwell’, undertaken in the year 2000 (The University of Warwick and Sandwell Health Action Zone, 2001). Sandwell is located in the Midlands region of England.
Figure 6.1 presents results from the Sandwell study; these maps graphically illustrate the lack of access to affordable healthy food in an area suffering from poverty. Mappings like these provide new readings of the city. They deal with a reality of occupation that goes beyond the physicality of traditional maps. They present the designer and citizen with an objective view of contemporary inequalities.
The Sandwell study makes startling reading. The project had three aims, to produce indices of access to food in the deprived area of Sandwell, to examine how such maps could help in the development of strategies to promote healthy eating among low income households and to work with local retailers to improve access to healthy food.
The area in which the study took place had previously been identified as one of high socioeconomic deprivation and poor health outcomes, and had been targeted for Department of Health promotional initiatives. The Sandwell study found that large networks of streets and estates had no shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables. In areas where fresh fruit and vegetables were available it was often of poor quality and expensive. As the maps in Figure 6.1 show, inexpensive good quality fresh fruit and vegetables are sold in small concentrated areas, but these areas require the use of public or private transport for the majority of the population to reach them. Competition from supermarkets has reduced the supply of local fresh fruit and vegetables.
The implications of this study, as recorded by its authors, are quoted in full, as they provide a powerful argument in favour of a shift in policy towards the introduction of productive urban landscapes supporting local food production.
Implications from the study, ‘Measuring
Access to Healthy Food in Sandwell’:
1. Poor health, deprivation and unhealthy eating patterns in Sandwell are strongly interlinked.
2. Eating patterns in Sandwell may be determined by socio-economic and geographical factors rather than real choice or knowledge.
3. Tackling food access through the use of volunteer labour is not the solution.
4. Good public transport can reduce but not remove the problem of food access.
5. There are economic, social and environmental reasons to develop a highly localised food economy that is more sensitive to the needs of Sandwell’s people.
Figure 6.1 requires further examination. The maps show roads that are within 500 m of a postcode
containing shops selling food. 500 m is considered the distance a fit person can walk in ten to fifteen minutes, someone with children and shopping bags would take longer. This distance has been used in a similar study located in London (Donkin etal., 1999) and is considered a reasonable maximum distance for people to walk to shops. Postcodes are used to locate shops accurately using a GIS mapping system. In England a post code usually contains about
SANDWELL MAPS measuring access to healthy food
12-14 dwellings or addresses, which correspond to a small area.
The part of Sandwell studied has many households on low incomes, with limited shopping and transport networks. The local shops which do exist in the area, cannot sell fresh healthy food as cheaply as large retailers or markets, as they have low levels of sales because their customers are poor. Large retailers do not locate in these areas because of the poor
transport facilities and a poor population. The Sandwell study found that food, which is readily available in the area, tends to be less healthy; ‘high fat, high salt, cheap easily storable foods.’ (ibid, p. 11). Thus a vicious circle is created, which results in limited access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables.
When comparing the maps in Figure 6.1, the extent of pedestrian exclusion to areas selling affordable fresh fruit and vegetables is obvious. It could be argued that this exclusion is only relevant within areas of poverty, as in wealthier locations the population has access to better transport facilities, in particular private vehicles. This argument loses its validity if one accepts that a goal of sustainable development is to reduce reliance on unnecessary transport. Thus the lessons from the Sandwell study are generally applicable if one wishes to progress towards environments which support equitable, sustainable development.
The introduction of productive landscapes to an area like Sandwell would answer many of the problems observed. Food would be produced locally, seasonally, it would be fresh and the creation of market gardens within Sandwell would provide employment. By creating corridors of continuous landscape, within which the urban agriculture fields are located, transport by foot and bike could be improved, as well as providing residents with access to urban nature. These are radical proposals that go to the very heart of governance. The authors of the Sandwell report recognise this when they state that ‘food access has to be part of the mainstream national and regional level policy agenda for area regeneration, and for tackling poverty and social exclusion and reducing inequalities in health’ (ibid, p. 8).
If this inclusive approach is to work it will be necessary to reconsider the role of local government as an agent actively planning for productive urban landscapes. Such notions go against the current hands-off policy of local government, which appears to view any specific planning objectives, if associated with an approach that limits the operation of the ‘free market’ as fundamentally flawed. As the Sandwell report indicates, the market has not been able to deal with poverty. This is a good example of where top-down management is required to facilitate a locally driven process of regeneration, which responds to local conditions and has an agenda of improvement rather than aiming to manage the status quo. The role and importance of local government in promoting sustainable development must be strengthened. If fundamental issues such as sustainable food production are to be explored and achieved, then it is clear that the ‘market’ left to its own devices cannot address inequality.
The spatial design and social implications of introducing local food production within productive landscapes are enormous. Designers must realise that the necessity and justification for new visions lie beyond our own disciplines, and within the new territories being identified by a critical observation of failings within the status quo.
The University of Warwick and Sandwell Health Action Zone (2001). Measuring Access to Healthy Food in Sandwell. Sandwell Health Action Zone.
Donkin, A. J. M., Dowler, E., Stevenson, S. and Turner, S. (1999). Mapping access to food at a local level. British Food Journal, 101(7), 554-564.