Friday, 31 July 2009

Edible Regeneration

Today marks the first of what we hope will be a series of posts from a range of guest bloggers whose research we find exciting. We're delighted to welcome our first guest blog from David Bell (University of Leeds) who has written numerous books on subjects ranging from food, cultural policy and lifestyle to cybercultures, queer geographies and technology.

On Sunday July 19th this year, a reported two million people participated in The Big Lunch, a nationwide street party scheme organized by the Eden Project. You may have seen the associated Mastercard commercial – Mastercard was one of the key corporate sponsors – with its byline, 'Turning our streets into neighbourhoods'. Across the UK, it seems, the shy and isolated occupants of normally desolate streetscapes enacted a very particular form of hospitality, and reclaimed their streets as sociable spaces.

The Big Lunch belongs to a growing tradition of using cooking, eating and drinking as agents of regeneration. As the project of regeneration has become 'softer' and more concerned with people than buildings, so new tools are being co-opted by regeneration agencies. These tools aim to fix the 'problems' of communities and to encourage people to meet, mix and mend their broken social spaces and social lives.

We have already seen the many ways in which 'culture' has been used as an agent of community rebuilding; the DCMS report Culture at the Heart of Regeneration makes bold claims for art’s power to bring people together, raise self-esteem and civic pride, and address socio-economic problems. Of course, culture is also comparatively cheap (the bill for 2012 notwithstanding). Arts projects have therefore long been seen as quick and cost-effective ways to address certain 'problems'.

Now joining the arts is food and drink. I have been exploring the logic behind some of the numerous community regeneration projects that have centrally used cooking, eating and drinking together as agents of change. There have of course been some high profile campaigns, such as Jamie Oliver’s Pass It On, seen as offering the possibility of fixing 'Broken Britain', and indeed The Big Lunch. Less caught up in the media spotlight, other projects are also doing interesting things with food. Here’s just a couple of examples.

Middlesbrough’s Town Meal, for example, grew out of a scheme across the northeast which supported community projects. The Middlesbrough scheme, initiated by David Barrie, also a key broker in the Castleford regeneration project featured on Channel 4’s Kevin’s Big Town Plan, began as an urban farming initiative, encouraging various local groups to grow their own food on any patches of underused land that could be found in the town. At the end of the year, a Town Meal provided food that the urban farmers had grown, accompanied by various other projects.

In the USA, the group Spurse establishes what it calls provisional restaurants, using abandoned buildings and locally sourced (often foraged) foods to produce free meals in an 'artsy' setting. Spurse’s broader aim is to ask questions about waste and excess, and its Public Table provisional restaurants draw attention to the 'waste' that can be creatively reused – wasted buildings, wasted food, wasted skills, wasted people. Spurse is unequivocal in seeing Public Table as a public art project, cementing the food-art-regeneration equation.

Part of what interests me about this work is this food-art-regeneration equation itself; the ways in which both food and art are seen as magic solutions to seemingly intractable socio-economic problems. In a policy context, this gets boiled down to measures of 'success', benchmarks and key indicators, but no-one in that realm pays too much attention to deeper issues. Food, like art, 'works', and nothing more needs to be known. Just as swimming reduces crime, according to the DCMS, so eating together can rebuild community feeling and a sense of belonging.

But I am interested in this regenerative role of food (and art), and thinking about it through the lens of hospitality. While work on hospitality and regeneration has tended to focus on commercial hospitality (bars, restaurants, hotels), these food projects are based around a different notion of the hospitable city, as a site of generosity and reciprocity, and of the role of cooking, eating and drinking in binding people together – turning our streets into neighbourhoods. Exploring in more detail the 'social work' of hospitality gives us a new way of thinking about the uses and meanings of the seemingly mundane acts of cooking, eating, drinking and sharing.

(Photo credit: The Ginger Gourmand. Permissions)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Joanne,
    Thank you for being interested in our work (the public table). It would be great to be able to discuss these issues in more details. we are developing a new round of work that focuses more on the ocean --
    best of regards from all of us