Only two years after the pioneering, arty visions of food production in cities featured in 2007 exhibition Edible cities at NAi-Maastricht, we can say that today urban agriculture is considered as an important feature in architecture design and urban planning. And that it’s a fashionable topic too. ’In the past if you were proposing to put gardens on top of your buildings, you were considered as crazy. Now you’re considered crazy if you don’t’, said architect Andre Viljoen, one of the speakers at the Foodprint symposium, hosted by Stroom, Den Haag on June 26.
Integrating food production with urban activities might sound strange, but in fact cities are always shaped after the type of food system feeding them. Author of the influential book Hungry City, Carolyn Steele explained that the first cities were born in the so-called ‘fertile crescent’ in order to manage the surplus of food production in the surrounding countryside. In pre-industrial cities the wealth of the city was linked directly to the wealth of its countryside: Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco ‘Allegoria del Buon Governo’ represents the ‘good government’ as a balance of city and countryside. In pre-industrial cities food production had to be located in proximity to urban settlements – as German economist Heinrich von Thuenen formalized in his 1826 model. But after the introduction of railroad transportation, and the introduction of industrial processes in agriculture, food production started to progressively disconnect from cities, which in turn could explode in size and population.
The consequences of this phenomenon were summarized by John Thackara, culture critic and ‘collaborative innovation’ promoter. The so-called ‘green revolution’ – i.e. the application of industrial methods in food production, massive use of chemicals in production, preservation and transportation, and a concentration in the retail model – had destructive consequences on health, energy consumption, water management, etc. Interestingly, Thackara’s point of view on what has to be done tries to divert from the mainstream discourse on sustainability. Instead of focusing on purely technological equipment (solar panels, windmills, hybrid automobiles, etc.), Thackara believes that 95% of future ‘green’ economy will be occupied by different ways of social organization. Furthermore, Thackara added that we don’t have to invent anything: these different types of organization and business models are already here. For instance, in the US there are many successful examples of community-led urban farms.
One of them is Growing Power Inc. promoted by former professional basketball player Will Allen. Started in 1993 to help African American teenagers in a poor area of Milwaukee to find jobs producing food for their community, today Growing Food Inc. is a flourishing business with 36 full-time employers, many farms across the US and 2 million dollar/year revenue. Allen uses low-tech organic farming techniques easily accessible to any community in the US, even the poorest. But his farms are nevertheless very productive. ‘Everyone can have really high yields’, explained Allen, ‘all you have to do is grow your soil’. So composting and vermicomposting are the most important activities of Growing Food Inc. Apart from the impressive techniques used by Allen’s farms, it’s important to point out the impact of such activities on poor communities in the US: every year more than 2500 people volunteer in these farms. In the US urban agriculture is somehow helped by different concurring factors. Lower urban densities, the real-estate crisis, and a lack of public control make it relatively easy to access land and self-organize (and sometimes even necessary to do so).
In Europe urban agriculture is a different story. Higher densities, hyper-organized and hyper-controlled spaces, and high land values make growing food in cities more difficult. Architects and artists engaged in food systems are nevertheless finding new spaces. Debra Solomon is an artist whose practice is focused on ‘food, food culture, and cultures that grow our food’. Her works use food as a way to produce and share knowledge on food processes and connect cultures through the collective practices of growing food, selling products and cooking. Solomon’s practice meets its spatial dimension in the work of architects Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen. The London-based architects started working on the concept of urban agriculture 15 years ago, when the idea of growing food in cities may still have looked crazy. Analyzing the experience of the Cuban ‘periodo especial’, they developed the idea of Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes (CPULs): urban green infrastructures bringing together spaces for leisure, production, oil-free transportation and wild areas. Bohn, Viljoen and Solomon are now starting a project in Schilderswijk, a multi-cultural area in The Hague. Their goal is to map opportunities the area has to offer in terms of food production and food-based social cohesion, and to intervene on urban space to facilitate social and productive flows.
Similarly, artist and professor Nils Norman and permaculture expert Menno Swaak are intervening in a park in The Hague. They apply permaculture techniques in bringing together food production, ecological intensification and education. Urban agriculture is not anymore a niche idea. Techniques and solutions are now widespread among the design community, and the city council’s planning departments started to show interest in these topics too. Will urban agriculture maintain its grassroots and self-organized character while becoming an ‘official’ practice?
(all photo’s via Stroom’s Foodprint blog)