Creating Agri-cultural Food Systems

The production of food has over the last years received increasing attention by designers and (landscape) architects. Riding the green wave, designers apply agricultural narratives and concepts in an almost redundant manner, producing proposals of various quality, depth and applicability. One can only start to question: Why is this important? What is the benefit from such undertakings?and; How can we successfully do this?
Frank Lloyd Wright 'Broadacre City - Plan for a Living City' (1934-35) (image source archined)
A useful introduction into thinking about how to merry urban life and agricultural production is the concept of 'Agrarian urbanism' as fore-thought in projects by people like Ludwig Hilbersheimer, Frank Lloyd Wright or Andrea Branzi. Today, conditions and assumptions for urbanism are somewhat different than in the mid 20th century and even changed since the nineties of the last century, with shrinking cities needing to be in-filled rather than expanded and cities growing so quickly that a certain density prevents urbanism to reflect on itself. Nevertheless, the thought of an urban model accommodating agricultural production may be re-visited today under more ecological premises, respecting the landscape palimpsest while providing a certain density of urban form to satisfy infrastructural efficacy and human cultural needs.
Looking forward, there is pressing need to further an urban model which is tributing the disappearance of the city-nature dichotomy and which manages to organize a globally networked society in times of resource constraint, climate change and growing need to safeguard food quality, security and access. So the stakes are high in creating the form for the totally urbanising world in the 21st century. In this sense it is great to see more and more grassroots interest in urban farming on one side and intellectual, creative minds on the design side which are engaged in creating (urban) environments integrating sustainable food systems.

'City Farming Project' by Bohn and Vijoen Architects proposing a functioning localized food system for Middleborough, England. (image via David Barrie)
'Farmadelphia', a project by Front Studio proposes agrarian urbanism as infill strategy for urban voids. (image source and credit Front Studio)
This week an event at Harvard's GSD aimed at setting the context for contemporary agrarian urbanism. The seminar titled 'Food Systems: Their Deep Impact on Us, the Environment and Urban Structures' was organized by landscape architects Herbert Dreiseitl and Bettina Wanschura and aimed at introducing the concept of food systems (= processes and infrastructure necessary to feed a population) to designers, to enable them to understand their role in re-shaping the current state of the (global) food system.

Global map of nations sized according to agricultural water use per capita (including water for livestock and crop production) (source and copyright: worldmapper).
The importance of re-designing our food systems was emphasized by Herbert Dreiseitl who set the context in his opening remarks. Our currently heavily industrialized food system impacts the environment and society in various ways. (Industrialized) agriculture is the predominant water user and polluter, responsible for major soil erosion and salination and will in the near future run into a wall as it is heavily relying on fossil energy input. The myth of industrialized agriculture being the sole way forward for successfully nourishing the global population has recently been debunked by UN's special rapporteur on the right for food, who identified, amongst others, the support of agro-ecological farming practices and a procurement of public goods instead of (commodity) farming subsidies as viable strategies to ensure food security in developing countries while at the same time successfully counteracting climate change and addressing social justice (source).
So there is tons of work for designers to think about new types of infrastructure which support localized agro-ecological food systems around the globe. Next to mitigating climate change, reducing environmental degradation, such a shift will also increase overall population health.

Bio-dynamic land-use at the Hawthorne Valley Farm. (image via Hawthorne Valley Farm's 'Farmscape Ecology Program')

Martin Ping, the director of Hawthorne Valley Farm, gave a passionate talk introducing the concept of bio-dynamic farming as practiced on Hawthorne Valley Farm since 20 years. Ping offered a real-world introduction into the work, motivation and issues for contemporary farmers in Northern America and how a farm can be sustainable in environmental, social and economic terms. He exemplified the crooked nature of today's food system with the '65000 mile taco', an everyday food item found to embody ingredients of our globalized food system.
'The Global Tacoshed' as investigated by students guided by David Fletcher and REBAR at URBANIlab. (Image source and credit: Rebar)

In his multifaceted talk, Eric T Fleischer bridged microbiology and architecture to foremost emphasize the potentials and importance of advanced and locally adapted closed-loop composting systems which help to maintain microbial biodiversity in the soil. His excellent composting system supporting microbial diversity and thus soil health has been exemplified since years in Battery Park City, NY and was recently adapted to projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park or the grounds of Harvard University. Fleischer's approach supports the potentials and advantages of working with nature in organically maintaining healthy soils in urban landscapes while closing wasteful material cycles in urban areas.
Simple and efficient closed loop system. The application of a system collecting organic waste and recycling it is by the way the reason for significantly lower amounts of waste generated in European cities which manage organic waste in that way. (image copyright and courtesy of the compost team)

Rachel Schneider, director of the 'Learning Center' at Hawthorne Valley Farm, showed in her talk the valuable work of educating children about food related issues. Her accounts of witnessing children who negate non-processed food or who have no clue what butter is made from underlined the necessity of re-connecting children and young adults to the source of their food, thus making them understand their own food system. Schneider emphasized the importance of education in creating the social demand for healthier food, thereby creating momentum for a future healthier food system. Rachel's work also demonstrates the potential of farms to become places for true agri-culture where education functions as vital part of  social life and public outreach.
Summer camps for children are part of Hawthorne Valley Farm's educational outreach. (image source and copyright Hawthorne Valley Farm Visiting Students Program)

The talks were followed by a lively panel discussion moderated by Christian Werthmann, who guided the conversation around the main question of how to make sustainable (healthy) food systems a reality by identifying specific hurdles and creating visions for overcoming these. As was emphasized during the conversation, only about 1% of US agricultural land is currently farmed bio-dynamically, implying sustainable loops of nutrients and genetic diversity. This number is more or less stagnating over the last decades but will have to be rising sharply if we want to mainstream a healthy food system to a broader population (not only urbanites who can afford to buy exquisite produce from the farmers market).

The role of (landscape) designers in the creation of sustainable food system can be to create environments in which people understand agri-culture as something modern and appreciable. Places where people can integrate a modern life with a job as (part-time) farmer. Along with a structural re-designing process of land-use, farming systems and (maybe most importantly) policy framework, it will be crucial to re-brand agri-culture as a viable life perspective to counteract the aging of the population engaged in agriculture in Western countries. The mean age of farmers in the US is now 57 years (!), and I assume from my own experience that this number is comparable in Europe.
On a societal level, it will be important to re-evaluate and re-appreciate the role of farmers, maybe even renaming 'farmer' to a new word, which more accurately reflects the crucial importance and value of agriculture as a service for land(scape) and society.  A starting point for this discussion can be to identify practices paying tribute to both halves of the word agriculture, to its fractions 'agri' (agros(gr.) = field) and 'culture'. So a practice which work with the field, the land and develops a culture for it, a culture which allows a cultivation as opposed to an exploitation. 
In such context, landscape architects, and especially landscape planners, may spatially apply agri-cultural (agro-ecological) models and typologies to support the visionary development of new agri-cultural food systems. This is true for all environments, regardless their fraction of built-up land on it (I here dont want to discuss urban vs rural or city vs countryside....).
A key success strategy may be to teach sustainable agricultural practices in incubator farms to urban populations to make them understand the importance of healthy food systems. In some cases such students maybe even decide to engage with agri-culture themselves. A suburban incubator farm (maybe even on a vacant lot left behind by a retail giant) may function as a backbone for a sustainable food system with lively flows of food, seeds, knowledge and people between urban and more rural areas and vice-versa. The land-use in such places will be dense and diverse, incorporating; farming and nursing of food crops, showcasing of agri-cultural technologies and strategies, teaching of agri-cultural practices, exchange of experience, facilities for food processing, a functioning marketplace, and, being a place where the culture around agrarian practices can take happen.Designers may give form to such a vision to secure a healthy and diverse food system in the future.

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