The entrance to an urban supermarket and its adjoining parking lot wouldn’t captivate the attention of many architects. But for Eulàlia Gómez-Escoda, the design of commercial spaces in urban American centers is just the thing that gets her excited. “In American cities the supermarket and its entrance, even if it is next to a sidewalk, set the doors opening onto the parking lot”—giving preference to people with cars over pedestrians. “In Barcelona, for example, half of the population only has to walk five minutes to get to a public market that sells very fresh food. In Cambridge, many people must walk at least fifteen minutes to get to a supermarket where the food is not always fresh.” Markets and their maneuverings were just one tiny node in “Feeding Boston,” Gómez’s comprehensive course at the GSD last semester that explored urban food chains in a typical metropolitan area, using Boston as a case study.
Gómez was born and bred in Barcelona and has done much of her work as an architect and urban designer there. Her work has focused on retail, commerce, and how commercial spaces—even digital ones—have the ability to shape the cities in which they are located. Food production and consumption, from an architect’s perspective, have captivated her for years. She says, “I’ve been using the term ‘food print’ to refer to all of the establishments that sell or serve food in a city because the way in which they are distributed on a map looks similar to a fingerprint. Each city is different.”
“Feeding Boston” analyzed the temporal, spatial, and relational patterns of food production, transportation, storage, and sale for the greater Boston area. The course was structured with a two-tiered approach. First, there was pure learning and absorption: the students analyzed the complex web of food supply systems to understand how food gets into the city and to Bostonians. Second, each student focused on a specific area of the food system and then presented ideas on how design and architecture can shape, influence, and perhaps solve some of the intricate problems of food access and inequality. Gómez explains that the students were “retrofitting” the various neighborhoods’ relationships to food.
As the students tussled with urban space by way of food exchange, the individual projects took shape. For example, Boston is known for its deep ties to fishing culture and the consumption of seafood. “But there is no fish market!” says Gómez. “All of the fish we eat in Boston comes from New England, all of the main ports are in the north or the south, and they truck into the city.” She explains, “If you want to eat a lobster in downtown Boston, you will probably be eating a lobster fished from Portsmouth [New Hampshire], which is trucked inland to Massachusetts and then driven into Boston. The sea that we see next to us is not the one that has provided us with the lobster.” This discovery prompted a student to propose plans for a new, centrally located fish market that would allow a more direct food chain from sea to plate.
Other students started with the impediments created by broken links in food distribution. After learning that over 40 percent of food produced in the United States goes to waste—from farm to factory to store to home or restaurant—a student chose to focus on urban gleaning. Boston has an array of organizations dedicated to recovering food waste in the city. They accept and collect donations of unsellable but perfectly edible food from stores, supermarkets, and restaurants. “These organizations depend on volunteers working during their free time to drive around in vans and collect the donations,” says Gómez. “They desperately need a backing from public systems to help them fulfill these jobs.” So the project connected gleaning organizations with public transportation systems of the city; the student proposed that a small number of buses be dedicated to carrying donated food. “Why not use the public transportation system which involves already existing public infrastructure?” asks Gomez.
Because the food print of Boston, like other American cities, is so large and complex with many moving parts, unraveling the interlocking nature of the processes, food pathways, and production lines was key for the study. Gómez prefers to start with a wide focus. She explains, “I see this as the only way to approach food in the city, to explore all avenues and problems, because we will have time to narrow it. And sometimes the obvious or maybe just really small changes or shifts in design can be really important and have a big impact.” This in-depth comprehension allowed the course to discover weak links in the supply system and then to look for innovative solutions.
Gómez argues that we should reevaluate the food supply chains, designs of supermarkets and outdoor farmers markets, and shipping and train infrastructure that make food import possible, because they give new consideration to design dilemmas. She says, “When we design, urban logic shows that to plan well and to think about what the neighborhood needs is important. We must be careful with the city.” The food system, like the city itself, must respond to a dense mixture of needs and uses by overlapping communities. Global challenges such as climate change and structural socioeconomic inequality are directly related to food production—it is impossible to consider one without the other. As Gómez says, “When we look at the city using food as a lens, we discover new things.”