New Book Explains Why Big Cities Back Hometown Food

As a local food enthusiast, I often wonder: why is it that places most removed in their landscape from farms, most outward-turning in their economy, most cosmopolitan in their culture, most multicultural in their backgrounds, most futuristic in their outlook — North American cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago, Toronto, New York and Boston — are the very places where something as seemingly rural, parochial, homespun and old-fashioned as local food is so very hot.

The question taunts me because way back in the early 1990s, when I looked to green economics as a way to lift the business cycle out of a deep recession, I coined a phrase that “when the going gets tough, the tough stay put.” People in traditional industrial towns would lead the way to local economies, I hoped, that would substitute for heavy industries that had moved to Mexico and beyond. That local and green substitution plan didn’t pan out. Most of the people in those places are still down on their luck, but they haven’t stayed put in the things they make or buy.

Even though it barely touches on local food, I like the new book by Mario Polese, called The Wealth and Poverty of Regions: Why Cities Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2009), because it helps me understand this seeming contradiction: that it’s city slickers who are most keen for authentic local food, while people in small abandoned cities are more likely to be interested in imported tea for their tea parties.

To get at this oddness of our era, Polese probes the larger contradiction of the global village: when technologies such as e-mail, skype and tele-conferencing make it possible to communicate instantly from anywhere, without meeting face-to-face, and when almost anything can be shipped almost anywhere for a very low cost, the trend is for more people than ever to spend more money than ever to live in ever more crowded cities so they can see and talk with one another directly.

Physical geography may not matter as much now as it did in the past, Polese says, but place — put that in bold and italics — matters more. “The more the world shrinks, the more place matters,” he concludes. “In a completely flat world with no barriers to trade or interaction, what matters is access to the right places with the right people.”

And increasingly, these people are most easily found in the heart of dynamic cities — and I would add — where local food from independent rather than chain or franchise producers is the norm, and a critical part of the new economy.

A clear and methodical thinker trained in urban studies and skilled in economic analysis, Polese identifies seven forces driving the increased centralization of people and jobs in ever-larger urban areas.

Though his book barely mentions food, thereby expressing the bias of a generation of urban planners and specialists who assumed city people survived by living on their wits and eating their words, Polese’s grand economic explanation of successful cities
also explains why a creative food sector thrives in and depends on a food scene with local flair.

To follow the way Polese explains city economies, it helps to know that he starts with real flesh and blood people in real people-defined places — with place treated like it should be bolded and italicized — not with city locations that attract certain kinds of businesses with certain kinds of locational needs.

This is crucial to understand because local food does not start with local, as in a location that is a short distance away, but local as part of a special place and identity in an otherwise unidentifiable world of nothing-special pavement, highrises and boxstores. Local food comes from the people and place of a city with heart and personality, not just infrastructure.

Polese lists seven reasons why certain kinds of people and placeness help cities succeed. These seven benefits of agglomeration, as he calls them in a rare use of overly academic wording, start with the standard two benefits.

The large population of cities attracts businesses that have a low cost per unit when they have a long production run — the famous economies of scale in production. Certain cities — ones with railways, ports and superhighways, for example — also offer efficiencies of distribution. Ironically, it is the very collapse of transportation and distribution costs — the result of cheap fuel, unregulated transport pollution and the like — that has made European and North American so vulnerable to the exodus of heavy industry jobs to areas featuring cheap and disciplined labor. Until reading this book, I never really understood how distribution factors have really driven the rise of poverty and inequality within the Global North since the Walmart decades after 1990.

What it boils down to, in Polese’s view, is that cities offer two irreplaceable — note how our very vocabulary recognizes the indispensibility of place — benefits that trump all the high costs and long line-ups of successful cities.

First, businesses with small production runs locate in cities when they need to have face-to-face contact with customers and their own suppliers so they can quickly customize their time-sensitive product, and so they can always rely on relationships built around the handshake and personal trust. That’s why there are so many small and specialized agencies and firms in successful cities.

To make a small leap to my obsession, that’s why specialized, ethnic and artisanal food companies that sell time-sensitive ( ie perishable) goods (not impersonal commodities) to relationship-based (not label- or brand-based) customers. The foodies are there for the same reason the lawyers, doctors, accountants, consultants, academics, foundations and non-profits (a crucial but unappreciated economic force in most cities, also overlooked by Polese) are there — they need personal contact to do their work.

There’s another people and place agglomeration reason for big city success — diversity. Companies that need a very wide but highly specialized talent pool — think of hospitals, universities, the film, music and media industries, governments — need to be in multi-talented cities. Most of the talent in these jobs have more money than time, are fairly health conscious, like to relax with colleagues in places that are personable, memorable and different, are interested in the off-the-beaten-path story behind what they buy….I am leading you on here….which is why restaurants featuring place-based (aka local) food dominate entire main street ecosystems in most thriving cities, and why farmers markets are the talk of the town a little closer to home. Combining social and physical pleasure with a personal necessity and a chance to do the right thing by the local economy and environment is just another opportunity for multi-tasking.

Put these two factors identified by Polese together, and you know why one person in ten in a successful city makes a living in the food sector — an element of urban economic success that is frequently ignored by urban planners and analysts, which explains why so few cities celebrate, nurture, support, champion and wring all the potential benefits of this sleeping giant of a sector.

Polese is as guilty of food-neglect as any urban specialist, but he has helped me understand the people-economics of why cities continue to thrive by attracting and giving opportunities to so many talented people — and, as a corollary — by providing a home base for authentic, local, storied and sustainable food. Food enthusiasts will lick their chops when they see the economic rationales it offers.


  1. Lenore Newman says:

    Jane Jacobs noted the same effects in her work when she asked the question “why does almost all innovation happen in cities?” She came up with the rather obvious answer that innovative people like to hang out with each other, and like spending time in the “thirdspaces” (neither home nor work) found in cities. Thus civilization owes a lot to coffee houses, public squares, beer halls, and the like. And notice than the best thirdspaces often involve food…coincidence? I think not!

  2. thanks, Lenore< i never knew the term 'third place" came from jane Jacobs


  1. [...] seemingly rural, parochial, homespun and old-fashioned as local food is so very hot. Wayne Roberts review of The Wealth and Poverty of Regions: Why Cities [...]

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