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Thoughts on the future of housing.

Flavours of the city

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I recently watched a short series on Netflix called, Salt Fat Acid Heat, a gorgeous exploration of what the presenter and chef, Samin Nosrat, calls “the basic elements which can make or break a dish”. Part cooking show, part chemistry and part global journey through food it’s a beautiful show with the aim of showing that “good cooking is in reach of everyone”. The final scene involves Samin hosting a group of friends at a dinner where they all cook together. It soon becomes clear from their behaviour that when you are invited to Samin’s house for dinner you are going to be involved in the cooking rather than just the eating. During this final scene Samin delivers a wonderful monologue on what cooking means to her and how important for her to bring others in to the process and why she thinks some people don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen.

Why not involve your guests? I think a big part of what keeps people out of the kitchen is they feel like they have no agency, no power, no knowledge. So if there is a way they can be involved in just a tiny part of that process they take away that knowledge and they feel empowered. - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

It was this statement which made my mind jump from cooking to city planning. Because all too often we hear from councils that people don’t engage with consultations or that too few people share their views on new developments. While the process of consultation can itself create more stress, anxiety and feelings of exclusion from the most important decisions facing communities.

There are so many parallels and analogies you can make between city planning and cooking, but the notion that their may be four key elements which make or break a development got me to thinking about what versions of Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat are for neighbourhood developments.

This is where I got to and would be interested to hear your views on it.

Salt - Architecture

In it’s broadest forms architecture is incredibly important to building great cities. Without good architecture our cities and communities are bland, just visit your average new build housing estate and you will most likely see a development significantly lacking seasoning. However, like most things, too much of a certain type will make things unpalatable. The first tall glass buildings were interesting but not anymore. Like salt there isn’t just one form of architecture and as will be true of the other elements you need the right form for the right context.

Fat - The Local Authority

Some people try to avoid it and others have too much of it. Local authority or planning involvement is definitely the fat. It’s good a bad reputation but it’s largely misunderstood. It’s incredibly important for all great places but getting the best from it means using the right one at the right time, balancing it well with acid and importantly, knowing which source of heat is right.

Acid - Citizens

I think citizens have to represent the acid, they come in a myriad of forms, have varying strengths and range from one cuisine to the next, but be careful because they can be bitter if misused. Cooking with acid sounds scary on the face of it, much like designing with citizens but it’s important to use it otherwise you’ll end up with flabby developments lacking in bite. Citizens can cut through certain things that others can’t and elevate a development to a higher standard.

Heat - Developers/Investors

This is the dangerous one, obviously if it’s not handled with care you get burnt but not enough can leave you waiting a long time for things to get going. You can cook and make a meal without heat much like you can develop and build without developers or investors but it isn’t always going to be the right approach. Choosing your source of finance is as important as choosing your source of heat, sometimes we just need to slow things down and work at a lower temperature to get the best outcome.

Anyone can learn to cook and do it well, be thoughtful, be curious. And use salt, fat, acid and heat to guide you to delicious food. And if for some reason a dish doesn’t turn out well, it’s okay. You can always try again tomorrow. - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

Now obviously there is some poetic license used here and cooking a meal is in no way as complicated as bringing together all of the ingredients needed for a successful build, development or regeneration programme. Samin’s approach when it’s stretched out still applies here, anyone and everyone should be included. Prototyping is still underused in many cities and definitely in Birmingham. We need to try new things out, things that are quick, low risk and relatively low cost and things which directly include more people in the design and build. Because when people are involved in these processes they understand the value and want to make them better not burn them down.

Credit: Chris Sadler

Credit: Chris Sadler


I love including people I want to get them to get that sensory experience that really is what cooking is all about for me. I want them to get the chance to taste a sauce and adjusting it with salt or maybe a little bit more vinegar. You know if your just part of mixing the thing with a little olive oil and vinegar and salt and it’s delicious at the table, you go away with more than just a delicious dinner, you go away thinking “Oh, I can do that.” - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

It’s that thought which is needed most in our cities at the moment, once someone is in that frame of mind they get the agency they need to be further involved. But this won’t just happened overnight and it won’t happen by itself. Significantly it won’t happen if people are just asked to give their opinion on a dish that has already been prepared or from a few set options.

The best cities in the world are different. They have an energy, a vibe or layout which makes them unlike any other city on the planet. It’s one of the things that attracts people to live in some of the fasting growing cities or go on city breaks. As a city we should be aiming to have an incredible a la carte offering not a limited, inaccessible set menu.

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I would love to see a Birmingham which is able to use the ingredients it has available and the oft celebrated diversity to create a diverse, multi layered and long lasting flavour that is uniquely ours. This weekend I along with others from the Birmingham Community Homes group, will be attending the first weekend training session for Community Led Housing Advisors with other housing activists from across the country to learn more about how we can have an impact. I think we stand at an important moment for our city and hope we can introduce some new styles of housing and reimagine some of the ones we already have. I believe that Birmingham Community Homes can play an important role in ensuring that all elements of neighbourhood development are recognised and considered and that we get the right amount of acid in our conversations. I’m hoping this weekend will help to start me on a personal journey to learn more and to then teach others, spread the knowledge and empowering more people in the city.

For me, cooking has never been about the food. It’s about what happens at the table. Making good food accessible is really important to me. - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

For me, this has never been just about the houses. It’s about what happens when you invite many more people to the table, grow their agency, give them knowledge and empower them to think “Oh, I can do that”. Making amazing neighbourhoods accessible to everyone is what is really important to me, it just so happens that I think this can start with housing.