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Micro/Macro: Urban Water Recharge

This is the second 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 Benjamin Boisclair, ASLA, a landscape architect in Sasaki’s Urban Studio, who is passionate about the study of the nation’s food supply system and the role the landscape architect has in shaping it’s future. He believes designing food systems into the urban landscape can transform not only the way we eat, but the ecological function of a traditionally impervious environment.

Urban Water Recharge

Today’s food system is disjointed. In some areas, only a handful of companies control the entire food process (production-to-store shelf). In many cases, a product is produced to be consistent in quality, but that level of overall quality sometimes suffers as food is unfortunately modified to be mass produced as fast as possible. This production model is common across most commercial food production.

Matthew Potteiger, a professor of landscape architecture at the State University of New York, Syracuse, focuses on the relationships between landscape and food systems. Here, he explains a few issues with the current model:

“Such vertical integration across the whole food chain whether it’s chicken or lettuce, along with consolidation, expansion of markets, and transport technologies all ensure the continuity of the “cold chain,” while globalization contributes to displacing food from the soils, seasons, ecologies, and cultures of local landscapes. We are always eating the ecology (natural and cultural) of landscapes whether we realize it or not.

Something to think about is that shipping vegetables from California also means you are paying for and burning fossil fuels to essentially ship water stored in all those vegetables. So water from the Central Valley leaves that system and ends up in grocery stores on the East Coast.”

As Potteiger suggests, what is ironic about this system is that California is producing most of the country’s water-rich produce. That is, a state that some argue is in a near-term irreversible drought is producing most of the United States water-intensive fresh produce! James Miner, a managing principal and urban planner here at Sasaki has been compiling a few startling statistics to help paint a clearer picture of this situation. Take a look at a few plants that we commonly know to be high in water content: lettuce (~96% water), tomatoes (~94% water) and strawberries (~92% water). In 2013 alone, California produced 5,975,400,000 lbs of lettuce. Of this, 5,258,352,000 lbs were exported.1 Now let’s put these numbers in the context of water. California’s 2013 exported lettuce production was equivalent to 591,564,600 gallons of water (90% water content), or the equivalent of the annual water usage of 4,042 homes (400/gal/day), or over 118,313 (5,000 gallon) water trucks.2

With these negative implications and startling statistics in mind, implementable interventions need to be explored. The food system needs to shift from the heavy dependence on large-scale production, much of which is centralized in California’s Central Valley, to more regional and urban production, such as in your backyard or on the roof above your workplace cubicle. We must explore and design the new paradigm shift in agriculture—from the vast fields down to the modular micro-scale intervention. I believe that by starting to look at the system scale we can hone in on smaller interventions that are modular (easy production, distribution, and affordability) yet work as a cohesive system/unit.

Most recently I have been looking at innovative ways to leverage this methodology to alleviate the drought in California and the western United States. The proposed intervention breaks the designed system down into three parts. The POD, a household-sized urban agriculture system, the NODE, an intermediate community branch, and the HUB, an aggregation and major distribution center.

The POD: Engaging the Individual

We must begin the design at the smallest individual unit of this system, the home; the place where we spend most our lives and take personal pride in. In order to change and maintain the system for future generations, we need to look into utilizing a resource we already have (greywater) and the capture and reuse of this water in a productive environment. I have designed a modular unit called “the pod” which sits near your house. It acts as a water storage and filtration entity, and through phytoremediation (the use of plants to clean up the environment) begins to introduce urban agriculture on a new, site-specific scale.

Today, the average single-family household in Los Angeles uses roughly 509.4 gallons of water a day. Over the course of a year, that adds up to over 185,931 gallons of water. That’s only one single family home and the equivalent of ~37 (5,000 gal.) tractor trailers full of water each year. The hope is that the pod can account for roughly 92,965 of these gallons—just about 50% of annual household usage.

The NODE: Bringing the Community into the Picture

The NODE takes the design to a larger scale; the idea of system-based production/interaction. The node is designed as a neighborhood agricultural center. As pods produce agricultural goods, excess produce can be sent to the node for agricultural sharing and further distribution. The node unites communities through a sustainable and spatially limited agricultural system. It is highly adaptable: what you choose to grow is your own personal preference, from flowers to full-production vegetable gardens, all yielded produce has use in the NODE.

The HUB: Merging the City into a Unified System

The HUB is the third step in this system, and connects the node with the broader region. While the node acts as a system of around 200-300 households, the hub connects with the entire region (2,000+ households), bridging the gap between house, community, and city. The HUB will be sited at natural food congregation points, such as the local grocery store or the local farmers market. If a farmer’s market does not exist, the HUB might serve as the impetus for a community to open one and to engage with the larger system.

It should be said that no single solution is going to solve issues associated with the drought. However, designers have the ability to access aspects of the current agricultural and social system and reinvent how we view food production. For these systems to be successful, we must see a shift in people’s way of life, a shift that I don’t believe has to be a radical one. We must harness these abilities, existing assets, and the community to redefine what agriculture means to demanding population. It is no simple task, but I believe that if we can innovate in a way that ensures significant improvements of life quality and food security without imposing significant changes on the individual person, then dramatic results are definitely possible. Look up the definition of habit… “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up”. People stick to these daily habits; together, we must simply redefine what that habit is, and aim them at the evolving agricultural system.

Click here to read the first installment of Micro/Macro: From SUSTAINable to sustENABLE: Food, Design, and Our Daily Lives

1 USDA California Agricultural Statistics 2013 Annual Bulletin
2 Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 15(5):1577-1600.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Boisclair

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