Wednesday, November 16, 2011

the urban ag paradigm [shift?]

Some recent work has catalyzed thoughts about what urban agriculture means in relation to the community scale, city scale and individual family scale. Perhaps the most interesting scale here is at the level of the family, since this indicates one of the biggest changes in perception of agriculture and food production. While the levels of community and city are, of course, crucial to a wholesale revision of agricultural processes and the integration of locally grown food, the centering of agriculture as the framework for the family garden is truly a change in individual attitude and livelihood. When we interact with community gardens or a network of urban agricultural infrastructure, we're connected to the production, however we can choose to not be immersed in it.

If we think about the garden scale, we are immersed in an agricultural system, one that only survives if we put the effort forth to do so. This relies upon a family or, potentially, a group of families, but not an entire community base with a group of organizers or a board to ensure the garden does not fail. From a landscape architecture perspective, the interesting component of this concept is that the notion of the 'garden' is transformed. We've certainly seen productive gardens and organic gardens, but not yet as a widely accepted design route in the residential market. Introducing agricultural systems into the garden can create a completely different and unique experience for its users, as well as a shift in the trajectory of garden design as we progress into the 21st century.

Perhaps one may criticize this concept is not part of an urban agriculture movement or should be classified in, say, suburban agriculture. Ultimately, though, I believe that all scales of 'urban agriculture' are in a symbiotic relationship, where each will function more efficiently and be more powerful if the others do well. Whether this exists in a suburban context or a more highly urban context, an increasing growth of family immersed agricultural endeavors can dramatically change the way neighbors and a community see food production. Of course, not everyone will buy into the idea of a family farm or a greenhouse or an edible, productive garden, but the more that do, the more change we will see in the framework 10, 20, 50 years down the road.

Imagine a suburban image. Imagine that suburban image where 10 or 20 percent of the homes have converted 50 or 75 percent of their green lawn to an orchard, a food forest, a series of row crops or where McMansions have retrofitted greenhouses as an extension of the home, as part of the livable footprint.

I think this shift is exciting and I think as designers it's certainly in our future to push the thinking forward and use agriculture as a mechanism for affecting change in more than just a food production paradigm.


  1. I agree but to add to that, I think about the incredible social connections and relationships that can be made from all of this. Not to mention the fact that kids are super impressionable and I think the next generation could benefit from some green washing and learn the virtues and values involved with farming (patience, hard work, etc.) since we live in an 'instant gratification' sort of society.

    I'm talking specifically about suburbs now..I imagine a suburban community with productive gardens and people taking pride in their produce. People will most likely be growing different things; I can see people sharing if they have excess or trading for variety. The benefits of the human interaction with neighbors, having seasonal cooking parties, or whatever it may be, will bring the segregated suburbs to another level and foster a different sense of belonging to a community.

  2. The obvious benefit to farming in suburbs, as opposed to urban environments, is the availability of ample land. Many suburban developments are built on former farms. Let's just hope that the top-soil hasn't been scraped and sold!

    Our current system of food production is incredibly wasteful, and extremely energy intensive. By some accounts, I've heard that we expend about 7 calories to produce a single calorie of vegetable or grain. In looking at meat, it ends up being closer to 80 calories expended per single calorie gained. As energy becomes more expensive (peak-oil, anyone?), food prices will continue to rise.

    If we, as a species, are to survive in a post-oil future, we need to make major changes to our way of life, starting with the way that we grown, process, and distribute food.

    Food needs to be grown across all scales. The individual garden is important. But, I would be inclined to agree with ABG that strong social and community ties need to be in place for our survival.

    The future's going to be tough. We are going to need to rely upon one another more and more.

    One thing to consider:
    In dealing with urban and peri-urban agriculture, you hear quite a bit about growing food, but not a whole lot about what happens to it after. Production needs to be centered around places for the preservation, processing, and distribution of food. People also forget that farming is very labor intensive. I think that we will see a resurgence of human labor in small-scale farming as the true cost of food becomes more apparent, and prices rise, as will wages. Farming the suburbs will present opportunity for a changing future.

    A really great read on the subject is "Agricultural Urbanism: Handbook for Building Sustainable Food Systems in 21st Century Cities" by Holland and de la Salle.