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Community Resilience: Feeding a Growing Population

This article originally appeared in the semi-annual journal, RI-Vista: Research for Landscape Architecture. Read the full article here.  This article is the third in a four-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4. Download the full issue of Ri-Vista here.

Habitat protection doesn’t only benefit wild animals. Conservations efforts also provide enormous benefits to humans, most notably for one of our most basic needs—the food we eat. But by the end of the century, our agricultural lands will probably be about half as productive as they are today, with the same land producing half as much food in a world that needs to feed at least 50% more people. And most of those people—an estimate 80% of us—will be living in cities. So how can we invest in food systems that will create more resilient cities in the future?

Most investment strategies are based on the principal of diversification— to reduce risk, create a portfolio that includes multiple investments. That said, our current food system does just the opposite. Its success depends on concentrated, large-scale industrial agriculture in only a few places. For example, the vast majority of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the United States are from California alone. With limited additional capacity available to produce more food for a growing global population, California also suffers from periodic, severe droughts that can impact food availability and pricing across the entire country and beyond. As it stands today, our food system is at risk of failure.

Some have also said that as our world population continues to grow, water may someday become more valuable than gold. Yet our food requires a significant amount of water to produce it. In California, agriculture consumes 80% of the state’s available water supply. Just one crop alone, alfalfa hay—consumed primarily by cattle—uses the same amount of water as 12 million households annually. This kind of water-intensive farming and long-distance transport of goods is unsustainable.

To reduce our carbon footprint, we need to grow our food closer to where we live—in cities. Yet for far too long, he have maintained a separation of the urban and rural environments. Cities were cities, and farms were farms. Yet nowhere is our dependence on the natural environment more immediate and more apparent than with our food. Farms themselves are complex, dynamic ecosystems, and farmers are the stewards and the beneficiaries of these ecosystems. Historically, farms were managed as zero-waste cycles. Between the livestock and the produce, all forms of waste were processed and utilized as inputs. In healthy ecosystems, waste is a misnomer and maximum efficiency is the modus operandi. Vegetable waste feeds the livestock, livestock waste feeds the soil, and the soil produces the vegetables. But within this neat cycle are millions of unseen and underappreciated players with critical functional roles— agrobiodiversity.

The traditional farm was a characteristically messy landscape with a mix of crops, pastures, fencerows, and woodlands that built a balanced ecology through the resilience inherent in these diverse systems. Modern industrial farms, on the contrary, have resulted in ever-more simplified landscapes with fewer and fewer living components. The heterogeneity of the messy farm gave way to massive fields of single-species crops and isolated confined animal feeding operations. The traditional small farm was also teeming with biodiversity — especially insects. Pest species were present, but so was an abundance of beneficial insects that fed on these pests, and were the pollinators necessary for fruits and vegetables to grow. Over 100,000 different species including bees, birds, bats, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, ants, beetles, and other bugs all contribute pollination services worldwide. Today, many industrial farms rely exclusively on only one species — the honeybee — which is highly susceptible to disease outbreak and hive collapse. Similarly, countless species of beneficial insects once kept pest populations in check, but depended on adjacent non-crop habitats like hedgerows, woodlots, and meadows for their life-cycles. Our reliance on chemical pesticides has eliminated most of these species from modern farms.

Farms have also increased fertilizer applications significantly in the past 40 years, especially in China. As industrialized farms shift towards monocultures, a host of new problems have arisen that impact not only the ecosystem, but our entire society. The runoff of farm nutrients is the primary contributor to eutrophication in rivers and lakes around the world. Pesticide application not only eliminates populations of beneficial insects, it contaminates groundwater, kills fish and amphibians, and wreaks havoc on the balance of any ecosystem. Bumblebees, for example, have declined by over 25% across most of the northern temperate world. The loss of genetic diversity in food crops through the ongoing extinction of heirloom and uncommon varieties threatens the very future of our food supply as climate change and emerging diseases make common varieties more and more vulnerable in an uncertain future.

Yet, in cities around the world, small-scale, environmentally and community focused farms are experiencing a renaissance. Small farms are emerging not merely as sources of food, but also serve as educational landscapes where urban children learn about food and nature. They are part of our green infrastructure as well, providing ecosystem services rather than exporting pollutants. They bring communities together around the elemental joy of the pastoral landscape. With few exceptions, this has been happening organically, through the efforts of passionate individuals. Design and planning, however, can strengthen this movement. As urban centers continue to expand, so will the challenges and opportunities for urban agriculture.

Now more than ever, as we imagine innovative functional roles of farm landscapes within and around cities, we must seek to rebuild the complex landscape structures to support a robust agro-ecological system. As designers, we must strive to integrate sound science into the creative process and explore the spatial synergy between our natural lands, recreational lands, and our productive agricultural lands all at the interface of the burgeoning modern city. How can a stormwater basin serve as a source population for beneficial insect predators? How can the landscape of a public park intentionally rebuild pollinator populations adjacent to a community vegetable garden? How can we leverage diverse yet intentional native plant palettes to contribute mutual benefits with local farms? Can we design adjacent uses for maximum integration of beneficial biodiversity back into urban and peri-urban landscapes? Can we imagine an ecosystem that is both city and farm, buzzing with all kinds of life?

In Shanghai, we are designing the Sunqiao Urban Agriculture District which is focused on closed-loop indoor farming. Here, researchers will embark on solutions to feed an ever-urbanizing planet. Located between the international airport and the city center, Sunqiao illustrates that, like the city’s soaring skyscrapers, its farms are also going vertical. After 20 years of conventional agricultural production on the site, Shanghai is expanding the role of Sunqiao in its foodshed. The plan for this unique agriculture-focused innovation district focuses on the integration of vertical farming systems in conjunction with research and public outreach.

Shanghai is the ideal context for vertical farming. Like many global cities, land prices are high, which makes building up rather than out the economically prudent choice. Even more significant is the Shanghainese diet, which consists of up to 56% leafy greens including spinach, lettuce, and kale. Leafy greens are an excellent choice for hydroponic and aquaponics growing systems. They thrive in the simplest of setups, and don’t need a lot of extra attention. They grow quickly and weigh little, both of which make them an economical and efficient option.

To fully understand the motivation to build a project like Sunqiao requires an acute awareness of the Chinese agricultural context. Although many in the Western world think of the “Made in China” economy as being driven by manufacturing, China is actually the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. In fact, the agricultural sector represents approximately 13% of China’s total Gross Domestic Product. Agriculture in China is also responsible for feeding 20% of the world’s population and employing 22% of Chinese citizens. Sunqiao not only can feed the country’s urbanizing population, but will fuel its economy. New industries that benefit from access to agriculture— biotech, textiles, etc. —are thriving. With land prices making traditional horizontal farming an endeavor with little room for profit, Sunqiao illustrates how the Chinese government’s strategy of preserving land for agricultural purposes can also provide a higher and better use. This approach actively supports a more sustainable local food network while increasing quality of life in the city through a community program of restaurants, markets, and pick-your-own experiences. As cities continue to expand, we must continue to challenge the dichotomy between what is urban and what is rural.

 To read the next article in the series, click here.

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