Chris is a planner and designer working on revitalization efforts within existing urban contexts and helping to envision new places throughout the country. Chris is inspired by people and places that are confronting challenges and experimenting with new ideas to improve the health and stability of communities.
“Local food” is a nebulous yet prolific term in modern gastronomy.
It is most often used to assign virtue or status rather than denote a specific
geography—implying that local is better, though there is often little agreement
on what can and should be considered local. Regardless of one’s definition of
local—a geographic boundary, or their own broadly-defined community—there is no
doubt that the trend towards more localized food markets is growing in popularity
and reshaping our collective understanding of healthy and responsible eating
and living. In our view, this is a change for the better on many fronts.
Take a walk through a public event or posh restaurant in any American city today, and you’ll see just how much local food has come to define our urban experience. Menus overflow with creative mélange of locally sourced meats and produce; food trucks expose passersby to curated cuisines and a grab-and-go dining format that has become synonymous with urban space. Proliferating farmers’ markets and micro-breweries round out what amounts to a full-fledged movement. At the core of the movement? People’s increasing preference for what is grown and produced (sometimes quite literally) in their own backyards.
Palmer, Alaska, pictured here and above, blossomed in the 1930s as an agrarian-centered community. Decades later, much of that initial intent is still a critical part of the city's sense of place.
According to the USDA, the popularity of farmers’ markets and food hubs has grown more than fourfold since 2000, while the number of farm-to-school programs has increased more than tenfold in the same period. Its popularity yields plenty of economic and environmental benefits. Growing, processing, distributing, and consuming foods within the same market keeps jobs and dollars circulating within the region much more than the present system systems of complex regional imports and exports. From an environmental perspective, foods grown and consumed local to a particular region have significantly smaller carbon footprints than food in the typical supply chain, which currently averages a 1,500 mile journey from farm to table.
Local Foods, Local Places
The positive effects of local food on the economy and environment are increasingly well documented, but what do we know about the potential of local food to bolster the identity, and vibrancy of place? We are starting to find out. While we might not have as much hard data, we do know that local food is a major driver for community-building and placemaking. And since “place” can be another ambiguous term, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider “place” as the summation of physical space, culture, experience, and activity which give a specific geographic location its character and identity.
First, local food plays a big role in helping diners decide where to eat and where to spend their money. According to the 2014 Culinary Forecast survey by the American Restaurant Association, the top three restaurant trends for 2015 were: locally-sourced meats and seafood, locally-grown produce, and environmental sustainability. Additionally, investments in the local food economy are growing across the United States. With examples as varied as year-round public markets in Boston and Flint, which bring broad swaths of residents, shoppers, growers, and vendors together, or community gardens in Detroit that bring purpose, life, and foot traffic to underutilized urban spaces, local food is integral to our 21st century experience of the urban environment.
Last year, we worked with a team of consultants in urban management, placemaking, agricultural science, and food policy to provide technical assistance to twelve communities throughout the United States as part of the U.S. EPA Office of Sustainable Communities’ Local Foods, Local Places program. In 2016, the highly competitive program received over 300 applications from cities across the country for 27 available grants, making it one of the most popular technical assistance programs offered by the federal government. Local Foods, Local Places offers communities resources to integrate local food systems into their economic and urban development. As urban planners, we facilitated discussions and design charrettes to help communities conceptualize creative and innovative strategies for leveraging local food to create better places.
Ten miles from Manhattan, Passaic, NJ considers its rich variety of restaurants its best kept secret. It applied to the Local Foods, Local Places program to develop strategies to share that secret—with the goal of driving up commerce and recognition for their diverse cuisine.
Each community approached the program with a different set of goals, challenges, ambitions, and ideas—as well as different agricultural and economic profiles. Some were looking to build a local food economy from the ground up, while others were looking to strategize next steps to further sustain and propel their recent successes and momentum towards a robust local food ecosystem. The following five stories show the multifaceted nature of food systems planning and provide a small sample of the ways in which a focus on food can transform the quality and possibilities of place.
Offering Alternatives: Baltimore, Maryland
While the health and economic benefits of local food are among the most observable, it is important to understand the effect a focus on better choices can have on the overall quality of place and the morale of those it aims to serve. In Baltimore’s Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood—one marked an area which has struggled with protests, violence, and a lack of economic opportunity—our planning group found a committed convenience store owner who is using locally grown food to create a safe space for her community.
A convenience store owner in Baltimore has converted a back alley into a vegetable garden, bringing healthy food and a bright environment to the area.
She replaced highly processed items like chips and candy with locally-grown produce, which are far more popular items with the young patrons who make up the neighborhood. Behind the store, she built a vegetable garden with raised plant beds, ornaments, and seating—a true space for the community in Baltimore.
An ex-convict turned master gardener tours his greenhouse. He runs a gardening program for local youth, giving them on-the-job training, a pay check, and a reference for future jobs.
Catalyzing Revitalization: Fresno, California
Fresno and cities across America are looking for creative ways to capitalize on a renewed interest in living, working, shopping, and seeking entertainment downtown. The city is re-opening a previously abandoned pedestrian mall, Fulton Street, as a primary, multi-modal downtown thoroughfare. The Fresno community is also seeking strategic opportunities for programs and activities that will reinvigorate the city, attract investment, and create an exciting destination that is uniquely Fresnan—with local food at its core.
In Fresno, reworking a now-defunct pedestrian mall could offer opportunities for celebrating the region’s culture of agriculture and cuisine through food festivals and farmers’ markets.
It didn’t take long for the community to realize local food was among their strongest opportunities. The city benefits from a growing population of young people moving ever closer to downtown, and they are bringing their dietary preferences with them. Additionally, the city is bordered by some of the most agriculturally-productive areas anywhere in the world. Food is quite literally their business—and a revitalized downtown is seen as a prime opportunity to showcase their contribution to the world’s food supply and to celebrate the many cultural cuisines represented within the community through food festivals, farmers’ markets, food trucks, and learning laboratories.
Starting Fresh: Gary, Indiana
Gary, like many Rust Belt cities, experienced decades of decline as the underpinnings of the region’s industrial economy were relocated or rendered obsolete in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the effects of such a dramatic economic decline are keenly felt in the city’s downtown, with vacant storefronts, houses, and office complexes dotting the main streets and neighborhoods. But while much of the industry has left, Gary maintains a passionate and committed population eager to explore new opportunities for a homegrown urban renaissance that uses local food as a building block to construct a new economy.
Residents of Gary, Indiana mock up a vibrant public space that incorporates all their goals for Gary's new local food economy. Key considerations were development, open space, and programming.
Long reliant on industry and large corporations, Gary is looking for ways to grow small businesses and nurture local development. Local restaurants are offering arts-based programming, new co-working facilities are hosting food-based businesses, and educational programs are training locals in gardening and farming. Gary has also created its own food district complete with shared kitchens, business incubation spaces, a food co-op, grocery anchors, food trucks, cafes, and local restaurants. Slowly but surely, the city is growing a new, and delicious economy.
One team’s output from the charrette, showing many ways that agriculture can factor into other community-based programs to enhance the urban environment.
While arguably an under-considered element of urban fabric at the design level, There is little doubt that food systems are playing a much more prominent role in our plans for future success and our designs for vibrant places. Food is at once a driver of economic vitality, a cultural experience, a path to sustainability, an opportunity for education and entrepreneurship, and a key component of personal and civic health.
While our team of planners, designers, and food policy experts brought a wide range of expertise to the various communities participating in the Local Foods, Local Places program, we continue to learn from the great work and experience of those using food to revitalize and strengthen their own communities and we carry their knowledge and lessons forward as we strive to build and support more robust, diverse, and healthy communities.
In addition to the stories profiled here, we also worked with Palmer, Alaska; Denver and Greeley, Colorado; Honolulu, Hawaii; Passaic, New Jersey; Henderson, Nevada; Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee; and Dallas, Texas.
All photos were taken on site visits to selected Local Foods, Local Places.