How does food shape the city?
Food—and the spaces in which it is produced, distributed, and consumed—has always played a profound, if sometimes unacknowledged, role in shaping the physical city. Food factories and processing facilities, distribution centers and warehouses, commercial kitchens, restaurants, markets, and even food carts—look around and you begin to realize that the very ubiquity of food often prevents us from seeing how much space it takes up and what a pervasive influence it has had on the city over time. As architect and author Carolyn Steel observes in Hungry City, “every day we inhabit spaces food has made.”
Every plate of food that we eat represents a vast network of interconnected spaces, large and small, that facilitated the flow and preparation of the ingredients of that meal. To explore that network in all of its complexity, Open House New York announces the launch of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, a yearlong series of tours, talks, and participatory programming that will help New Yorkers to better understand the architecture of the city’s uniquely multi-layered food system.
As pervasive as New York’s food system is, few of us comprehend the full scope of its complexity. A 2010 report from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability acknowledged as much, observing that “the complex, interconnected system that supplies food to New York City is…a mystery even to those who consider themselves to be food-literate,” and that “there are few reliable sources of data about the system as a whole.”
What we do know only begins to suggest the system’s colossal scale: 24,000 restaurants; 5,500 supermarkets, grocery stores, and convenience stores; 1,730 food wholesalers; 1,000 food and beverage manufacturers; 120 farmers markets. The city’s largest produce market handles 210 million packages of fruits and vegetables each year, while its fish market sells millions of pounds of seafood each day. Ten city agencies combine to provide more than 260 million meals a year, making the city second only to the United States military in the number of people it feeds annually.
The final mile is a phrase borrowed from the telecommunications industry to describe the challenges of distributing goods and services—in this case, food—from a central hub to multiple end-users. It is commonly understood as the most problematic and expensive leg of any supply chain; whether literal or metaphorical, the last “mile” is the most difficult because it is where the system makes its final transition from the large scale to the finely grained. The average journey for food sold in New York City is 1,500 miles, because it is actually easier to ship ten tons of produce around the world than it is to get a banana from the warehouse to the bodega shelf.
The paradox of the final mile, though, is that the density that makes these last steps in the supply chain so frustrating in an urban environment—not surprisingly, parking tickets are a food suppliers’ most predictable expense—is the same density that sustains the diverse and vibrant food scene that makes New York such an extraordinary city. It is in the final mile that food is transformed from commodity into culture, and it is in the final mile that New York’s food system asserts its greatest influence on the design and character of our neighborhoods and city.
Throughout 2015, The Final Mile will take visitors behind the counter and past the kitchen door to explore the myriad spaces through which our food travels before it reaches its final point of consumption. The series launches at the macro-scale this spring with a multi-part series of tours of facilities located at the Hunts Point Distribution Center. First opened in 1967, Hunts Point is today one of the largest food distribution hubs on the planet, with more than a hundred thousand trucks each year delivering hundreds of millions of pounds of fish, produce, and meat to be redistributed to a regional population of more than twenty million people. Later this year, The Final Mile will explore vestiges of past iterations of the city’s food system still operating around the five boroughs, as well as ways that the system is evolving to move us toward a more sustainable, equitable future.
The Final Mile launches in the midst of a resurgent interest in food that expresses itself in the proliferation of farmers markets and CSAs, food festivals, and celebrity chefs. At the same time, it is a moment of uncertainty about the stability and security of our food supply, a moment in which choices we make now will have far-reaching consequences. With the city expected to add another 1.5 million people by 2030, how will existing buildings and infrastructures for food production and distribution need to be adapted and expanded to accommodate this massive increase in demand? What steps can we take to mitigate food inequities, in which some neighborhoods are inundated with new restaurants and markets while others have little or no access to fresh produce? How will climate change and catastrophic weather events like Hurricane Sandy affect our food supply? What impact will escalating real estate prices have on the city’s ability to make space for smaller, local food businesses that have always given the city its special character?
Now is the time to take stock and to better understand the forces at work in feeding our city.
Over the course of the next year, The Final Mile will look at New York City’s food system through the lens of architecture and urban design to create a public conversation about the critical importance of food to shaping the city. We invite you to join us as we explore how New York’s food system works; the kinds of spaces it occupies; how food acts as an agent of urban development in neighborhoods around the five boroughs; and what choices we need to make together to design and build a better food system for the future.
The Final Mile is presented as part of Open House New York’s Urban Systems Series, an ongoing multi-year project that explores how cultural, economic, and environmental shifts in the first decades of the 21st century are transforming the complex network of infrastructures and urban systems of New York City and how those transformations are in turn reshaping the physical city. The Urban Systems Series began last year with Making it Here, a yearlong series about contemporary manufacturing and its importance to the future of New York.
Like Making it Here, The Final Mile will expand its reach and scope through a dedicated website, finalmile.nyc. Be sure to check back regularly for documentation of tours in the series, as well as additional content, including interviews with food distributors, chefs, architects and designers, and food systems experts.
The Final Mile launches this spring with a multi-part series of tours exploring the Hunts Point Distribution Center, one of the largest food distribution hubs in the world, as well as a lecture by Karp Resources president Karen Karp on how the evolution of New York City’s food system has shaped its urban environment over time.
To receive updates on these and other tours, including information about when registration for each program will open to the public, please click here to sign up for OHNY’s mailing list.
The Final Mile will continue with tours and events throughout 2015. Information about the next set of tours will be released later this spring.