A farm in the city: sustainable urban agriculture in San Diego
By Paul Benton
In an age when urban population hubs are located further and further away from farms and food sources, sustainable urban agriculture poses myriad possibilities for intrepid architects and urban planners. To move forward with such ideas, however, it is often helpful to begin by looking back. Over the past century, development trends have converted open spaces and cleared farmland for urban uses, encouraging bigger and more intense developments and pushing farms to the perimeter. As a result, our cities – where food is needed in the greatest quantities – are isolated from the farms where food is grown and raised. Add to this situation the harmful effects that transportation and packaging have upon the environment, and you have a major roadblock to sustainable living.
Urban food production and architectural design
Under these circumstances, what action can we take to improve the sustainability of our food supply? One option is urban farming – a notion that, while admirable, is unlikely to provide enough food to create real and lasting change to the current system unless implemented on a broad scale. That said, cities actually have a lot to offer when it comes to improving food supply, including well-developed transportation systems, sources of recycled water and vast networks of retail locations for the sale and consumption of food produced. Keeping these variables in mind, it is important to recognize that, as architects, the sustainability efforts we put into our projects today all contribute to our future options. But what are those options, and how can we start putting them to use?
Some architects and planners propose an environment of buildings and equipment that would bring food production back to the city, sustaining several cycles of production simultaneously in order to increase efficiency and overall success. For example, it is possible to take gray water and purify it so that it can be used to irrigate plants. If that water purification is done by the plants themselves, that would be ideal; but there are only so many plants that do this and we would end up with a limited variety. To increase plant variety, it would be necessary to increase the volume of water purification with fish and plants that have their own food cycles. This would yield more water to nourish the plants we want to use for food, and maintain diversity in the production system as a whole.
Of course, hydroponics and limited-soil methods have been around for quite some time, and seem well-suited to an urban environment. They also require a lot more attention and must be carefully tended in order to survive; but ultimately, this kind of farming can produce a larger volume of food relative to the area taken up by the operation, making it a ideal for urban food production.
Finally, when we take a look at the actual scale and size that an urban farm needs to be in order to thrive, urban high-rises offer surprising inspiration. Multiple stories within a building offer better space utilization than open plots of land, as well as greater opportunity for sun exposure to nurture crops grown in this fashion.
Put it all together, and sustainable urban agriculture presents a fascinating challenge to architects and planners. Amidst growing concern about the stale air, pollution and exhaust plaguing most American cities today, a network of farms inside these cities would literally provide a breath of fresh air. I believe that urban communities would quickly embrace such an initiative, and come to appreciate a landmark building with colorful plants and fresh fruits and vegetables as a living record of the seasons. Consumers could purchase produce from a store on the ground floor, and know that their food was freshly plucked from the vine just a few feet away, as opposed to thousands of miles outside town. With any luck, the products of smart, sustainable urban farms will be more delicious than anything we have tasted in a generation.
Did you know: In Versailles, the palace of the King of France, the garden produced fruits and vegetables year-round to suit the Court, and a considerable excess was regularly distributed to the community. Louis XIV (the Sun King) adored asparagus, and the gardener developed ways to extend the growing season so that it could be available more often. Centuries later, his techniques are still in use.
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