A [Sub]urban farming economy

Posted on November 30, 2010


For all the imagery and proposals in the popular architectural meda at the moment urban farming is yet to really get off the ground. As an emerging typology the vertical farm has been well represented in architectural design competitions and hypotheticals but I’m yet to see a high-density example realised. The lack of built examples is lauded by sceptics as demonstrative of failure of the concept. This great article on Tree Hugger by Lloyd Alter [found here] refers to the popularity of the vertical farm amongst architects as a misguided “fetish” and fleshes out the territory in more detail. A more critical perspective by Stan Cox and David Van Tassel [found here] doesn’t hesitate to say ‘Vertical’ farming would not solve the most pressing agricultural problems — just make things worse.

Critics and sceptics of this farming typology attribute the lack of realised projects to the prohibitive costs associated with labour, a multilevel superstructure, and water and nutrient reticulation. The extraneous access and movement restrictions of vertical farming also rule out tradition farming machinery and techniques, adding greater complexity and cost to the exercise. Then of course there is the need for unobstructed access to the sun or massive costs to provide the equivalent energy. Once these challenged are coupled with the massive cost of land in urban areas experts say the economics just don’t stack up.

Here in Sydney, at the Central Park developmentFrasers are proceeding to construction with a completely planted high-rise facade. Ateliers Jean Nouvel are the architects for the residential tower I refer to and whilst it is by no means a vertical farm, the buildings aesthetic detail seems to be entirely derived from a mass planted facade concept. Multiple renderings and a large scaled model show what seems to be a 1.0m wide band of planting wrapping all four sides of the tower on all levels. Could this planting scheme provide tillable garden beds for the production of food within each and every apartment? Will openable windows allow the gardens to be accessed and maintained by residents in a safe manner? So far there is insufficient detail given to shed light on these questions. Time will tell.

Photo: One Central Park

Improbabilities aside the benefits of mass urban planting and agriculture are many. Positive benefits include reduced transport miles, urban cooling effects, a closer connection with what we eat and diversified ecologies and habitat in urban centres. Whilst examples of full-blown urban farming are yet to materialise, smaller scaled collective food production can be found in the denser inner suburbs quite readily.

A few weeks ago I was riding my bicycle home from Newtown and stumbled across the Angel Street Permaculture Garden. The garden has been established and run by a collective for over eighteen years. My 3 year old son and I spent 45 minutes there, wandering between garden beds, beneath fruit trees and chatting with busy members who were taking advantage of a sunny spell between showers. The garden is on a vacant lot adjacent to a small play reserve. It was very easy to lose oneself in the dense foliage. We found ourselves wandering overgrown pathways, eating delicious berries we’d never heard of before, straight from the tree … chasing dragonflies and poking stink bugs. It was a surprisingly rustic experience given we were in the heart of Newtown.

Photo: Angel Street Permaculture Garden.

A more recently established edible garden can be found at Darlington Public School. The impetus behind this garden is based on research that shows kitchen gardens are the strongest way schools can intervene with childrens eating habits. Parents and the school itself established the garden with a vision of the long term benefits to kids in understanding the origins of their foods, beyond the supermarket shelves. Children at the school are involved in all facets of the garden from the growing of seedlings, mulching, maintaining and harvesting. Related lessons continue in the classroom covering the science of photosynthesis and the water cycle. Once produce is harvested kids learn how to cook what they have grown.

Photo: Darlington Public edible garden

The project received funding assistance from the City of Sydney Council and formally opened by the Mayor herself, Clover Moore. The gardens have proven to be a great communication facilitator for the school bringing teachers, students and parents together during the week and for the occasional weekend working bee. There is no softscape at the school so the gardens were planted in waist high troughs. The beds were established as no-dig beds for low maintenance and higher yields.

The lower density suburbs already have a culture of cultivation. Up until now this culture has typically revolved around lawns, ornamental shrubs and flower beds. Huge amounts of time and effort go into maintaining these private curtilages of suburbia, not to mention the quantities of water this land area demands.

This all seems set to change with a growing wave of suburbanites taking bottom-up action and transforming their lawns into productive garden beds. Fritz Haeg is one of the more vocal proponents of the movement. His verdant Edible Estates. website describes “domestic front lawns replaced with edible landscapes which [he] then documented in photos, videos, stories, printed materials, and exhibitions.”

Photo: Edible Estates, Regional prototype garden #6: Baltimore, Maryland

The Mowing to Growing Competition design competition asked a series of questions along the same line; “How can we break the American love affair with the suburban lawn? Can green houses be incorporated in skyscrapers? What are the urban design strategies for food production in cities? Can food grow on rooftops, parking lots, building facades? What is required to remove foreclosure signs on lawns and convert them to gardens? Some interesting strategies are found on their website.

The outspoken, anti-suburban James Howard Kunstler has expressed a more radical transformation of the suburbs. Suburban expansion usually radiated out from denser centres consuming vast areas of land as it grew. In most cases this land carried the pastures which originally sustained the city. Suburbia swallowed up local food producing enterprise simultaneously adding “transport miles” to the cities food supply and travel time to its residents commute.

Kunstler sees something positive in the sprawl of the suburbs. For him the suburban lot is a form of farm-land banking, still fertile land locked up in low density torrens title ownership that can be relatively easily converted back to productive land. His suburban conversion vision relies on densification of the suburb along transit corridors, commercial centres and train lines. A constellation of hypervillages [my term]. Houses beyond a reasonable walk of transport or on particularly fertile land are demolished and the land reinstated as micro farms within walking distance of a new densified centre.

I’ve recently put an order in for the new critical journal Bracket – first issue titled “[On Farming]”. The inaugural issue promises a broader perspective on the concept of urban farming. The issue is prefaced by the statement: “Simultaneously, farming represents the local gesture, the productive landscape, and the alternative economy… Farming, beyond its most common agricultural understanding is the modification of infrastructure, urbanisms, architectures, and landscapes toward a privileging of production.”