Urban Agriculture, Agri-burbia, and the Inevitable Need to go Vertical.

By on February 22, 2012.

The realization of imminent changes to the way we obtain resources is a topic that many within the design realm continue to ignore as a whole. Focused attempts at recycling energy, water, and other resources are fantastic and should continue, however, these attempts do not curb the reality that the city, including the suburbs, still works like a parasite, not an ecosystem. A city will never work as such until the number one rule of an ecosystem is addressed: The food source must be a cycle from within.

The concept of agriculture fused within urban territory is nothing new but thankfully it is a topic that is now greatly debated and analyzed. Many of the proposals out there involve agriculture at an individual and community based scale, while some are starting to look at new holistic approaches to agriculture within the city. I offer my findings and opinions on agriculture + urbanism as my research and interest in the subject grows.  The snippets below offer a glimpse of some contemporary trends but I highly suggest that any interested citizen, designer, or reader goes further to find more resources.  Case studies, books, articles, and projects can now be found everywhere on this subject and it is necessary to synthesize all the information one finds to understand where urban agriculture is heading.
As a starter I highly recommend the sources listed at the end of this article.

Urban Agriculture Today: Today’s response to individual and community needs.

Like stated early, urban agriculture has been part of the city for a long time. However, over the last decade it has flourished in to a multi-faceted option for urbanism. The general move towards sustainability, natural systems, and maybe an overall suspicion of what is in our food has led to a slight demand for fresh, natural, and non-supermarket supply of food. Urban agriculture can be found in all scales and types through out cities, suburbs, and anything in between in the form of  a small front-yard garden for herbs or a fairly large production roof-top greenhouse. However, urban agriculture has really taken off within the realm of community building. As this type of agriculture is reduced back to small scale hand labor it creates an excellent opportunity for education on growing, preserving and preparing. This can be tied with many sorts of social functions such as community building, schooling, therapy, recreation and not to mention natural infrastructure for storm water management, open space, composting, and biodiversity.

The most recent push for urban agriculture has come about through the downfall of many cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans and many others that have been encompassed in the sphere of “shrinking cities”. In cities where decline of  industry or processes over time has left  a mass of vacant land,  what was considered a hindrance is now seen as a great opportunity for urban agriculture as a way to stitch those areas back together.
Excellent examples of this are happening in Flint, Michigan,  Cleveland, Ohio and more recently in New Orleans as described in our recent article.
The opportunities for individually/community based urban agriculture are expanding and many cities are creating zoning and land use changes to allow for this. A criticism of this practice is that it will never amount to a self-sustaining way of food production. Many of the current precedents do not produce a high enough yield of calories for individuals let alone a community or city. In terms of economics, until the price to ship is no longer considered acceptable and fresh becomes a social requirement, urban agriculture will not have the backing to take off like it should.

Agri-burbia: A great alternative to sprawl, except it is still sprawl.

In February 2011, LAM released an article called “Eat Your Subdivision” which focuses on the proposal of ag-based communities as an alternative for those who seek the agricultural lifestyle in conjunction varying density or those who have concerns about the sustainability of an industrialized agricultural market.  Before the 2008 housing bust, many of these communities were in the works and a couple have been around (in a somewhat different manner) since the 70’s. These communities try to mend the schism between agriculture and development by focusing on the production of necessary agriculture to feed an entire community. The most common models consist of greenfield projects injected with a TND development while leaving most of the acreage for conservation and agriculture.  These developments try to separate themselves from standard subdivisions and TND’s by evoking the message, “live, work, play, AND eat”, while also offering an incentive for the community and involved stakeholders not found in the stand community: revenue from the land (as well as the possibility of subsidies and tax exemptions).

The most recent published attempts at an agricultural community focus a lot more on production of food. One is based on a greater fusion of development and agriculture and the other on exact metrics of production to feed a community.

The first is called Agrarian Urbanism and comes from DuanyPlater-Zyberk. Naturally, the proposal takes the New Urbanist transect and overlays it with agricultural production as a constant element. The aim in this scheme is for an entire community to be part of production whether or not it is high or low yield. Duany insists that that focus is now the front garden not the front porch, and the market square not the retail square. (Which begs the question where is the balance between a retail and civic square create community in a non-agricultural neighborhood?)

The second is termed Agri-burbia focusing mainly on production comes from Quint Redmond’s firm out of Colorado, TSR group.  The proposal is detailed about caloric yield, emphasizes employment and the creation of income. The majority of the land would be dedicated to commercial agriculture while individual lots can be “steward farms”.  His proposal takes a current agricultural area of 522 acres, which produces lower caloric yields and $300,000 annual gross, and inserts 994 dwelling nits, 135 acres of parks and preservation, and 294 acres of agriculture to produce foods of higher caloric yields and an estimated annual gross of $2 million. The efficiency comes from the focus on how and when crops are grown.

In short, the concept of these communities offers a great alternative to the current subdivision and could be very effective today. However, like most subdivisions and CNU projects, they only come about through greenfield sites which bring about all the other issues of resources, economy, and sociology that come with that.

Vertical Agriculture: Possibility of feeding cities in a dense manner with less resources? 

The concept of vertical agriculture almost seems far fetched and many do not believe it will take off. However, you can find the same pattern of information relating to energy efficient, sustainable buildings 20 years ago.  Vertical agriculture is the hydroponic production of food within structures  theoretically allowing for food to be grown in any city on any continent. When you look at the state of natural resources in the world today and the trend of growth, the argument is there. With the current rate of urbanism, how will cities obtain their food when transportation costs are at ridiculous rates? When they can no longer maintain the infrastructure to support agriculture on their peripheries? When water is finally recognized as an extremely precious resource? And, to think big picture, how will societies grow crops if environmental processes create a dramatic shift in temperature and land?

Standard agricultural practice is embedded within the human race as a foundation of its civilizations. However, the practice of it is no longer in line with our roots and future needs. In short, the amount of land, oil (machines, fertilizer, transportation, preservation),  and water needed for standard production is no longer sustainable and also climate based. Established forms of vertical agriculture such as something called a “hydrostacker” allows a farmer to produce 30 acres worth of strawberries on 1 acre of land with 1/10 of the water. The proposal of large scale urban agriculture establishes that a 30 story building on around 5 acres of property can feed roughly 50,000 people a year. This is all done using 1/20th of the water of standard production, no pesticides, no fertilizers, with no agricultural run-off, no soil degradation, and the ability to produce year round. As a visionary idea, it is beautiful to think that someone living in New York city can go to a grocer and buy produce that is less than a day, maybe even a couple hours old.  The technology and structural design for this is available but  no one seems to be rushing to expand upon vertical agriculture as the cost to make such a building doesn’t come close to out weighing the cost of standard agricultural practice. Vertical agriculture will never abolish soil based agriculture, as soil is the seasoning for distinct produce, however, when it comes to a future outlook and the needs to feed masses fresh, healthy, sustainable food, this is a very exciting idea.  There are many questions to be answered and my hopes are that future research for this is encouraging as it offers a great solution for urban agriculture’s full integration in to the city.

LAM, Eat Your Subdivision: http://archives.asla.org/lamag/lam11/february/feature1.html
Agricultural Urbanism: http://www.lindroth.cc/pdf/QuickReadAgf.pdf
Public Produce (Nordahl)
Agricultural Urbanism: A handbook for Building Sustainable Food & Agriculture Systems in 21st Century Cities ( Salle & Holland)
The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century (Despommier)

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