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Micro/Macro: Rethinking Agriculture on the Sustainable Scale

This is the first installment of “Micro/Macro: Rethinking Agriculture on a Sustainable Scale,” a series examining shifting perceptions of agricultural practices. As interruptions to traditional food supply chains increase due to risks associated with factors such as climate change and changing global demographics, many are exploring innovative approaches to agriculture that will ensure greater food security. This series explores routes by which architects, urban planners, and ecologists can contribute to this dialogue of utmost importance.

The following is written by James Miner, AICP, a Managing Principal and Urban Planner at Sasaki who is passionate about exploring sustainable strategies for our food supply system. In addition to exploring implementable strategies for projects, he is also active on the presentation circuit—he’ll be delivering a TEDx presentation on the topic next month.

From SUSTAINable to sustENABLE:

Food, Design, and Our Daily Lives

Across the nation, there has been an explosion in the number of farm-to-table restaurants, CSAs, farmers markets, and community gardens. In many cases, people are paying a premium for locally grown produce and proteins not only because they care about the environment, but because they believe locally sourced food tastes fresher and better. In other cases, urban agriculture is seen as a great temporary use for vacant and underutilized land, like this interesting project in the Hough neighborhood in Cleveland. While these types of projects are inspirational, what anyone has yet to figure out is how to leverage the increasing demand for locally grown food into a truly scalable solution that can transform the agriculture industry.

It’s not that people aren’t trying—in fact, there are some really interesting concepts that have emerged in recent years. At Backyard Farms in Maine, tomatoes are produced year-round in giant greenhouses, and sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes from Maine can now be found at your local Whole Foods market throughout our cold New England winters. Sasaki recently worked with the founder of Backyard Farms, Paul Sellew, on his new venture which he is calling “Salad Bowl Farms” which will bring the latest in greenhouse technology from Europe to Devens, MA, to supply daily harvests of fresh salad greens to the Boston area year-round. Like tomatoes, the vast majority of the lettuce we eat in Boston today comes from California. And, given that lettuce is over 95% water, consider for a moment that all that salad you’re eating is essentially the same as transporting water out of a state that is in the middle of an epic drought… over a distance of more than 3,000 miles… in a refrigerated truck.

There are many others starting to emerge who are also searching for solutions at scale. FreightFarms is a Boston-based startup that is up-cycling shipping containers to create programmable micro-farms with LED lighting and heat and humidity controls to create optimal growing conditions for salad greens—no matter what the weather is like outside. And in Newark, NJ, a group called AeroFarms is trying to build the world’s largest indoor vertical farm in a 70,000 SF abandoned steel mill.

Nevertheless, industrial-scale agriculture continues to dominate the world’s food systems today, and many would argue that it will be hard to ever really compete with the fertile soils and weather conditions that make places like California optimal for crop production. But one could also argue that a food system with a broader portfolio of options is certainly more resilient against real threats like drought, climate change, population growth, and increasing energy costs—all of which can significantly impact today’s model of mass-produced monocultures that are transported over long distances.

This is where design firms like Sasaki can have an impact, and we are already beginning to see trends in our work that suggest people will think about agriculture differently in the future. In this project in China, we’ve proposed new urban districts that embrace agriculture, rather than displace it to the edges. In a project in the Phillipines, we’ve included pollinator parks in our designs to assure that adjacent farmlands remain viable. This summer, we’ve added vegetable gardens to our own office to educate ourselves about how much can be harvested from relatively small spaces.

The most sustainable cities are those that minimize inputs (energy, water, food) and outputs (waste, heat, pollution) with strategies in place that provide maximum resilience to external forces (physical, social, economic). I believe that cities of the future could evolve to be sources of energy rather than consumers of energy, providing real sustenance for those who live there. There shift from sustainable design to “sustenable” design is beginning, and food systems are the center of attention.

OK, so maybe “sustenable” is not a real word (yet), but sustenance design is something people are talking more and more about (google it!) Several new concepts are emerging in the design world that provide us with new ways to think about local food production at scale. Going forward, if we spend a fraction of the time we currently spend on planning our roads on thinking about our food system, we’ll see significant change. When you really think about it, it’s amazing that we’ve taken our food for granted as long as we have.

Join us as we embark on a series of explorations on our blog at Sasaki about the future of food and the design of our cities over the coming months.

Click here to read the second installment of Micro/Macro: Urban Water Recharge.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Boisclair

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