Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities / Island Press

Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities / Island Press

We are increasingly concerned about the provenance of our food. Movements supporting local food production, urban agriculture, and more socially-equitable food systems have gained increasing traction over the last decade. Meanwhile, our industrial food systems are increasingly vulnerable due to over-centralized facilities and ownership, reliance on fossil fuels for production and transportation, and crop monocultures, which are made only more vulnerable by climate change.

Urban agriculture is frequently cited as a response to these challenges. Cities, though, still face question of where to grow food, how to maintain farms, create access, and educate citizens about agricultural production. In Public Produce: Cultivating Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities, urban designer and author Darrin Nordahl proposes local governments bolster local ecosystems of public food production.

Alice Waters praised the original 2009 edition as showing “how growing food on public land can transform our civic landscape.” Marion Nestle said the book gave “all the reasons why growing food in cities would be good for alleviating poverty, for building communities, and for public policy.”

A newly revised and expanded edition does these things and fills in key details by offering numerous examples of people, organizations, communities, and governments implementing all sorts of models of food production on public lands as well as partnerships between local governments and community organizations.

The first few chapters will be highly useful for those looking for a succinct and easily-readable introduction to the arguments behind local and urban food production: food (in)security, over-reliance on fossil fuels, social equity, and resilience to climate change, to name a few. But those already well versed in the works of Michael Pollan and other sustainable agriculture advocates can skim through.

Nordahl hits his stride in the third chapter as he goes beyond the general tenets of urban agriculture and makes his case for a triad between public space, public officials, and public policy. Growing vegetables in public spaces sends a powerful message. Nordahl defines public spaces as places freely accessible to the public, “whether they are truly public or merely perceived to be . . . In essence, any space where the public can enter throughout the day without being charged and admission fee . . . and is suitable for growing food, is worthy of inclusion in a network of public produce.”

Social justice advocates will appreciate the chapter on gleaning as a public produce model, and Nordahl gives many examples of places that have developed strong access networks. Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, for example, develops freely accessible maps showing where fruit can be publicly gleaned. He also offers an interesting take on gleaning as economic opportunity – foraging for fruit rather than, say, recyclables, and trading in one’s daily harvest for money or other essentials.

Publically accessible fruit trees in Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Los Angeles / Fallen Fruit

Publically accessible fruit trees in Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Los Angeles / Fallen Fruit

Nordahl’s strongest arguments come in chapter five, in which he addresses the perennial maintenance question: “who is going to take care of it?” Indeed, this was one of my first questions – and many others may well wonder how well-received the idea will be of rotting fruit all over public spaces, which are expensive to clean up and unappealing to the aesthetic eye. But Nordahl reminds the reader that “the fantastic aesthetics of our most prized landscape plants makes it easy for us to forget that they produce an abundance of leaf litter, drip with sticky nectar, and drop unpalatable fruit by the bunches.” Planting edibles prioritizes the value of food production, while often offering an aesthetic value as well.

“There is no doubt that food-producing plants can be messy and need some upkeep,” Nordahl admits. “But the pervasive assumption that edibles require considerably more management than ornamental plants, or are not as pretty, is bogus. . . [that said], sound design principles are not thrown out the window simply because the plant palette uses fruit-bearing trees instead of sterile cultivars. As in any landscape design, the architect needs to take into account how many people will use or pass by the space; what types of activities will take place in the space; the microclimate, solar access, and water availability of the space; and a host of other variables.”

Again, Nordahl gives several examples where communities developed multi-beneficial models for maintenance, harvesting, and clean-up of edible plants. Communities who balance an appropriate “carrying capacity,” where the availability of edibles does not exceed the demand for them, help ensure that fruit is harvested and eaten, rather than left to drop and rot on the ground.

Landscape architects and designers will appreciate the examples where aesthetic and place-making qualities were woven into designs for food production. The Curtis “50-Cent” Jackson Community Garden in Queens, NY, designed by Walter Hood, ASLA, for example, integrates huge, eye-catching rainwater-collection sculptures amid the edibles planted in French-style parterres. And designers for Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland” area planted edible fruit trees, herbs, and leafy greens in lieu of solely ornamental plantings, perhaps to suggest what urban design of the future will look like.

Sculptural rainwater collection towers amidst planting beds at the Curtis "50-Cent" Jackson Community Gardens in Queens, NY / New York Restoration Project

Sculptural rainwater collection towers amidst planting beds at the Curtis “50-Cent” Jackson Community Gardens in Queens, NY / New York Restoration Project

Citrus trees in "Tomorrowland," Disneyland / FlashBulb

Citrus trees in “Tomorrowland,” Disneyland / FlashBulb

But this book is not a design manual or a how-to guide for would-be urban farmers. A good number of photos intersperse with the text, but readers will not find design schematics, planting calendars, or detailed plant lists for every climate. Examples are woven into the narrative, not broken out as researched case studies. Nordahl lays out an alluring vision, however, and his arguments are persuasive. Peas at City Hall, persimmons along public avenues, and pawpaws in city parks? Maybe not such a crazy idea after all.

Read the book.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Making a Wild Place in Milwaukee’s Urban Menomonee Valley, Milwaukee by Landscapes of Place / Nancy Aten

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international organization committed to strengthening the role of science in public decision-making on biodiversity and ecosystem services, seeks expert landscape architects, ecologists, and others with policy experience to assess its latest research. The call for more engagement was made at a recent presentation at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Washington, D.C.

IPBES explains the reason for its existence on its web site: “Biodiversity from terrestrial, marine, coastal, and inland water ecosystems provides the basis for ecosystems and the services they provide that underpin human well-being. However, biodiversity and ecosystem services are declining at an unprecedented rate, and in order to address this challenge, adequate local, national and international policies need to be adopted and implemented. To achieve this, decision makers need scientifically credible and independent information that takes into account the complex relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. They also need effective methods to interpret this scientific information in order to make informed decisions. The scientific community also needs to understand the needs of decision makers better in order to provide them with the relevant information. In essence, the dialogue between the scientific community, governments, and other stakeholders on biodiversity and ecosystem services needs to be strengthened.”

To reiterate, Douglas Beard Jr., National Climate Change and Wildlife Center, U.S. Geological Survey, and a co-lead for the science component of IPBES for the U.S. Delegation, said: “It’s always better to hear from a diverse group of people.”

Established in 2012, IPBES has convened multi-disciplinary groups of experts to conduct public assessments around the globe. With 114 member countries, IPBES is dedicated to becoming the leading international organization on ecosystem services.

Assessors will help make progress on the status of pollinators, pollination, and food production; scoping for a set of global and regional assessments of the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services; and scoping for a thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration.

If you are interested in nominating someone or being nominated for an upcoming call, please contact Clifford Duke at ESA, which coordinates the U.S. stakeholders.

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Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City / Trust for Public Space

Urban agriculture grows both food and communities – its direct and indirect benefits range from improved public health and strengthened ecosystems, to social cohesion and economic growth. The Design Trust for Public Space wants to fully scale up these benefits across New York City. And in doing so, they hope to integrate agriculture into the broader urban fabric.

In September 2012, we reviewed Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture (FBF 1) from the Design Trust and partner organization Added Value. Three years in the making, this first report sought to create a comprehensive roadmap for New York City to help stakeholders “understand and weigh the benefits” of urban agriculture in an effort to significantly increase local government support. FBF 1 thoroughly examined the policy aspects of urban farming, with the goal of connecting government policy with “the bottom-up grassroots movement led by farmers, gardeners, and landscape architects.” The report realized a need for better metrics and data. Now, the Design Trust has released its follow-up, Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City (FBF II) in partnership with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The first section of FBF II shows us their new methodology for measuring benefits and details how they developed this with farmers and gardeners. Motivated by the high number of studies that only suggest there are benefits to urban agriculture but don’t actually back them up with data, the toolkit uses twelve measurements, ranging from food production and composting to skills developed on the farm and healthy eating impacts. This toolkit was field-tested throughout the 2013 growing season. Simultaneously, Design Trust collaborated with Farming Concrete to further develop their existing online data platform for interpreting and sharing farm data. (Free for download, the toolkit is available at Farming Concrete’s website, where users can also register for access to their online data platform).


Design professionals, planners, and government officials will especially want to read sections two and three of the report, which illustrate best practices for “maximizing the benefits” of urban agriculture, and “scaling the benefits” through innovative models of integration with public land.

The report calls for integrating urban agriculture with the physical infrastructure of the city — by introducing compost facilities to ease pressure on waste-management, or creating rainwater-catching food production systems for stormwater management.

All of that integration will require design work. There are examples of creative use of landscape features (bioswales, raingardens) and structural elements (rainwater holding tanks also designed as seating), as well as special considerations for senior citizens (wider paths, more seating and shade, elevated planters to accommodate wheelchairs).



Farm to Table Assembly: Comfortable, easy-to-reach components for intergenerational community gardening / Alison Duncan, ASLA, with Metro Planters for the Central Harlem Senior Citizen’s Center

One innovative design proposal: Ecologically-healthy borders can be used to define the border between agricultural and non-agricultural public spaces. Using native plants in these spaces can increase forage opportunities for wildlife and attract beneficial pollinators. And permacultural models — such as those which use “guilds” of cooperative perennial plants at multiple levels (groundcover, canopy, understory, etc) to mimic natural ecosystems — could then increase diversity of both habitat and food and strengthen community through stewardship.

City greenways could also become the base infrastructure to achieve these strategies. Greenways already serve as important networks, so why not use them for agriculture as well? Most interestingly, the report suggests a model for greenways as “linear food hubs” that integrate cyclical food systems (growing, processing, distribution, compost . . . back to growing). In this model, farmers markets become hyper-local, served by growers within the greenway and serving consumers from the same. These networks can also build infrastructure for shared tools and equipment, resources, and knowledge.

FBF II also raises some questions without easy answers. For example, as agricultural public spaces throughout the city start accepting food waste, what are the best (low-cost) models for composting that also deter vermin? Rats and public space are not the best combination.

And how best to integrate community gardens into public green spaces? The report suggests putting community gardens in public parks. They identify the challenge of balancing a semi-private space within a fully public space and the associated pitfalls of potential theft and vandalism of garden plots. Recommendations include grouping public-use facilities associated with community gardens (toolsheds, compost) separately from private plots, designing adjacent spaces for complementary activities (nearby playgrounds for children, as parents or grandparents tend gardens), and “programming the fence” by growing vines or building bird-feeders into structures to increase their functional and aesthetic appeal.


Illustrative diagram of community garden in a park integrating native plant infrastructure and permacultures / Martin Barry & Barbara Wilks

These are a good start but don’t fully solve the issue of how to integrate urban agriculture into a dense city. Perhaps this is where landscape architects and other designers can more fully flesh out best practice designs to solve these issues.

With some 900 urban agriculture spaces, NYC is ripe for deeper city-community collaboration to further scale up urban agriculture. But designers, farmers and city officials elsewhere will also find some inspiration from this report.

Keep an eye out for the expansion of farmingconcrete.org and the release of instructional videos and technical support networks as Five Borough Farm phase III gets under way in the coming months.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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Edible Estates Regional Prototype #6 / Fritz Haeg

“Urban agriculture is a phenomenon today,” said Farham Karim, an architectural historian at the University of Kansas, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Upwards of 70 million people are now involved around the globe — on Farmville, at least, the popular game app, he laughed. But, in reality, there are many tens of millions farming on the ground, too. With all the growing interest, Karim played devil’s advocate, wondering: is urban agriculture scalable? And who is going to be doing all this urban farming? And if we know it’s not a cost-effective solution for solving the world’s food problems, why the persistent interest?

Food and urban life have been deeply intertwined ever since humans moved into settlements. In the modern era, there have been new conceptions of the relationship. Frank Lloyd Wright came up with his Broad Acre concept, with a “vast suburban landscape” that would be farmed. During World War II, urban agriculture actually took off, as “food production contributed to the wartime food supply.”

In different eras, there have also been “communal self-sufficiency movements.” Karim traced those all the way to contemporary artist and activist Fritz Haeg and his Edible Estate project, which aims to “attack the front lawn,” turning it from a useless, decorative object into a productive, agricultural space. Karim said new activists like Haeg “want us all to come together to toil the land.” They seeing gardening in urban areas as a way to “empower social groups and create a strong sense of community” in an age when nature and culture seem in opposition. But Karim also argued Haeg and others promoting urban gardens for social benefits are really just like the 20th century avante-garde, creating “idealized prototypes.”

The central plank of Karim’s critique of Haeg’s version of urban agriculture is that, in its promotion, it “mystifies human labor.” Urban agriculture in reality is “sweaty, painful labor.” Engaging people in cities to farm over the long-term is not easy, practical, or cost-effective. “Who is going to maintain these farms — a marginalized population? The working poor doesn’t have time.” Karim concluded that urban agriculture, at least in the West, is for the middle class who volunteer because they have time. It’s a luxury many can’t afford.

Many of Karim’s arguments are contradicted in a new book, Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up by Carey Clouse. She argues that Cuba’s unique model of urban agriculture may provide lessons for the rest of us. “Alternative models for self-sufficiency demand our attention,” given that the end of “the era of cheap oil threatens global food security” and current industrial food practices.


Farming Cuba / Princeton Architectural Press

After the U.S. began its embargo against Cuba and the Soviet bloc fell apart in the late 1980s, leaving Cuba without any trading partners, the country initiated a massive campaign to turn cities into places for not only living and working but also producing food. “In the face of resource scarcity, Cubans responded by rethinking land use, implementing organic farming practices, and developing low-input agricultural systems, and honing techniques for independence on an island without oil.” By 2002, some 86,450 acres of urban land was farmed, creating 3.2 million tons of food. In Havana alone, some 12 percent of the city was being cultivated, with 22,000 urban and suburban producers at work.

All that local food production has not only created calories but also boosted resilience, largely because the system is so decentralized. “This is a ground-up movement in which growers have the power to choose the food they produce, the seeds they save, and the land they cultivate, and consumers gain increased control over the quantity and quality of food access.” And all that local control has also increased “social and civic engagement.”

The system of socialist self-sufficiency extends into all aspects of Cuban urban food production. Farmers are using animal traction, organic soil amendments, and “biofertilizers” or “biopesticides,” which are microbial formulations nontoxic to humans.

Clouse does a great job of explaining to the reader all the different farming types, bringing the diversity of the system to life through clever diagrams. For each type of farm, we learn the spanish and english names, the average size of these places, their prevalence, the products they create, the materials they are made of, and the kinds of people who farm them.

And then photographer Andrew Cook shows us scenes from this agricultural infrastructure.

Clouse explains that “Cubans hail urban agriculture as a boon for community, occasionally in all too-idealistic terms.” And in some pages of her book, she seems to apply an equally rosy lens. The reality on the ground, all that “sweaty, painful labor” Karim spoke about, doesn’t come through in this book at all.

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Meditation labyrinth by Beth Henson. Louisville Lots of Possibility competition. / The Architect’s Newspaper

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Imagines a Pedestrian-friendly SeattleThe Architect’s Newspaper, 4/16/14
“The streets of downtown Seattle are set for a major overhaul, thanks to a new master plan by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol. As AN reported in our recent West Coast edition, the Seattle-based firm has made recommendations to improve the pedestrian realm ‘centers on uniting the fragmented parts of the Pike-Pine corridor, two major thoroughfares at the heart of the retail core running east-west from Interstate 5 to the waterfront.’”

Green Roofs Keep Pollutants out of Urban WaterwaysAmerican University News, 4/17/14
“Rooftop gardens, or green roofs, are known to reduce energy use in buildings and catch stormwater runoff, but new research from American University shows that green roofs also absorb pollutants. The research, which takes on an area that previously has not been explored widely by scientists, has implications for how cities can improve the health of their rivers, streams and estuaries.”

Designing Cities and Factories with Urban Agriculture in MindThe Guardian, 4/23/14
“Urban farms are transforming inner city spaces – rooftops, infrastructure, streetscapes, building skin – into generative ecologies that support the lives of people, and pollinators too. They are bringing into cities, and into plain view, the natural systems that sustain urban life.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, Poet of the Urban LandscapeThe Boston Globe, 4/25/14
“If leaving the world in better condition than you found it is a measure of greatness, Olmsted deserves to rank high on our list of great Americans. Working in the second half of the 19th century, a time of disorientingly rapid industrialization and urbanization, he did more than anyone else to make our cities livable, humane, and inspiring.”

Louisville Names Winners in Competition to Creatively Reuse Abandoned Lots Across the CityThe Architect’s Newspaper, 4/28/14
“In January, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer implored local designers and developers to propose ideas for 250 of the city’s several thousand vacant lots. Last week they announced four winners, which included gardens of dye plants for local textile production; a Habitat for Humanity–style homeownership program; environmental remediation via lavender fields; and meditation gardens made of recycled materials.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper-Halpin, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator.

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Landscape architect April Philips, FASLA, prefaces her new book, Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance, and Management of Edible Landscapes, by writing, “because the food system in America is broken, the health of our cities and communities are at risk.” Indeed, access to healthy food is severely limited in many urban neighborhoods, while industrial agriculture is itself a massively-polluting enterprise. By situating food systems as “part of a city’s urban systems network,” Philips frames food as a design issue instead of simply a horticultural concern. With Designing Urban Agriculture, Philips sets out to explain not only how to design urban-scale agricultural landscapes, but also how designers can collaborate with communities to change urban food systems.

Designing Urban Agriculture is an exhaustive textbook on food and urban design. Topics such as food justice, systems thinking, public health, ecological agriculture, public policy, and construction methods are supported by numerous illustrated case studies. For instance, the Lafayette Greens project in Detroit, Michigan, which recently won an ASLA professional award, shows how edible landscapes can be agents of transformation. Designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, this three-quarter-acre landscape replaces a recently demolished building, beautifying what would otherwise be a vacant lot. Over 200 species of edible plants are grown on the site, which functions not only as a farm, but also as a recreational space for office workers and downtown residents. In this way, Lafayette Greens serves as a catalyst for the continuing transformation of downtown Detroit. The site’s design makes extensive use of repurposed and salvaged materials, continuing this theme of regeneration.

While urban agriculture has been successful at a local scale, it has yet to economically challenge existing industrial food systems. However, efforts to increase the scale and economic viability of urban farming are underway. Big City Farms in Baltimore is a for-profit agricultural operation that aims to establish a network of farms on vacant land across the city. Big City Farms’ pilot project entails six 3,000 square-foot plastic hoop greenhouses built on top of a contaminated brownfield site. Because of this contamination, all plants are grown on top of the preexisting site using imported soil. In addition to profitability, Big City Farms’ goals include the generation of green jobs and the distribution of organic food to local consumers.

Philips stresses that the success of urban farming depends on integrating ecological, economic, and cultural systems. She writes, “with urban agricultural landscapes, the ultimate sustainability goal is to design systems that allow for accommodating a dynamic of interdependence.” For example, Our School at Blair Grocery, an urban farm and educational facility in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, responds to the neighborhood’s nutritional, economic, and social needs stemming from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The operation educates neighborhood youth in both agricultural and business practices – students not only grow food on the site, but also sell it to markets across the city, gaining valuable skills in the process.

The above examples barely scratch the surface of Designing Urban Agriculture. This is a textbook filled with tons of details. It could be the foundational text of a semester-long course in a landscape architecture school. Certainly, it should be required reading for any landscape architecture student interested in urban farming.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Wiley, (2) ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award Winner. Lafayette Greens. Keith Weikal Landscape Architecture / image credit: Beth Hagenbuch, (3) Big City Farm / The Baltimore Sun, (4) School at Blair Grocery / School at Blair Grocery blog

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team photo
Late this summer, I embarked on a journey with several classmates from Washington University in St. Louis along with landscape architecture professor Jesse Vogler. Our field-based seminar took me across the Midwest, investigating our industrial food production system. As a group of landscape architects, we wanted to see and understand this productive landscape as it is, and learn to read and identify the visible and less-visible elements that relate to food. We met with organizations and companies in the field, hoping to understand their points of view.

Confronting the Machine

The design of the Midwestern landscape is a marvel, the accumulation of historical and technological infrastructure that has transformed a vast expanse of earth into a machine of production. What was so powerful about my experience was seeing this so broadly.

Among the people and institutions we met along our journey I observed a relentless ambition to solve problems with this machine related to land and water use, pollution, and a loss of biodiversity. There was a humane impulse to temper the momentum towards further development.

Innovation has been central to the expansion of agriculture in the United States. But moving forward, innovation can’t just be about increasing crop yield, it also has to be about promoting the goals of social and ecological sustainability. In confronting the Midwestern agricultural machine, we must ask: is there a way to create an engine of innovation productive on a large scale but also informed by a deep sense of ethics?

The Innovation Spectrum

The field of “social innovation,” which has been explored by Stanford Social Innovation Review, offers thinking that may help, explaining how productive landscapes can be sources of positive change if “social entrepreneurs” are able to act. The language of social entrepreneurs is also increasingly useful in speaking to leaders across non-profit, business, and government sectors about environmental, social, and economic justice issues.

Many social entrepreneurs believe that true sustainability comes from investment in both financial returns and positive social and environmental impact. As such, we must explore both for-profit and philanthropic efforts in industrial agriculture:

Innovation for social good often comes about because the market has failed to provide a solution. Many non-profit institutions we visited focused on what the local agricultural markets won’t deal with because they can’t make any money doing it. For example, The Nature Conservancy is an organization that manages prairie restoration on the Great River grasslands and buys easements on surrounding properties in order to conserve them. The Land Institute is research center developing a perennial agriculture system that will take decades to market its first profitable crops. Harvest Public Media is a radio production that fills a critical information void, covering issues of food, fuel, and field from the Midwest. Each of these institutions commit to a mission that the market doesn’t support.

nature conservancy
On the other side of the spectrum, we also visited companies and organizations like Monsanto, John Deere, and the Chicago Board of Trade, which have been major players in shaping the productive landscape. These firms create market innovations that offer new opportunities in emerging markets. These institutions have the power of scale. They are effective at riding the market wave over the long term. Even within the profit-centered framework of a traditional corporation, companies like Monsanto and John Deere have the opportunity to do good through sustainability initiatives. They can drive profits by identifying new business opportunities that also happen to address shared value or responsible corporate citizenship.

Social entrepreneurship is really about creating institutions that bridge the gap between purely social or environmental and the market-oriented. Of the institutions we visited, there were several that blur the lines by combining a positive mission with a creative business model that reduces dependence on inconsistent funding sources like donations and grants. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is a public institution housed within Iowa State University, but it’s funded entirely by appropriated fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Another example is the Seed Savers Exchange, which is partially funded by the production and sale of seeds through widely available catalogs. Institutions like these offer the possibility that what is now excluded from the market system may one day become included, making the system as a whole more sustainable.

seed savers
Achieving a Sustainable Agricultural System

Industrial agriculture, as a for-profit system food production system, is the force stocking our grocery stores, satisfying the increasingly high-protein diet of the developing world, meeting the demands of population growth. But it’s also spurring rural-to-urban migration, using much of our fresh water, and creating pollution.

A more sustainable agriculture system must understand anew the relationship between cities and the productive landscapes in their region. The spread of urban gardens in landscape architecture design work has inspired the public to imagine how small scale, bottom-up interventions can advance sustainability, but without integration into a larger system, these gardens will not be effective in challenging the industrial food system. Furthermore, the urban farming model has largely fallen short because it doesn’t acknowledge our diet is based primarily on grains rather than vegetables.

We must acknowledge the successes of the industrial system, but then also make room for social entrepreneurs that seek more environmentally and socially-sensitive solutions. These actors can set new standards and truly change the way that companies, organizations, and even governments operate. Market, social, and environmental innovation must be viewed as symbiotic.

This guest post is by Ylan Vo, Master’s of Landscape Architecture and Architecture candidate, Washington University in St. Louis.

Image credits: (1) Jesse Vogler, (2-3) Ylan Vo

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During the past month, debate over the legality of planting vegetables in public, residential parkways was raging once again in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reported on the battle between two urban farmers and the city government, which demanded the gardeners uproot their edible landscapes, even threatening the gardeners with expensive citations. The urban farmers, backed by City Council President Herb Wesson and the local media, fought back. The end result: they finally got the city council to abandon its outdated approach and stop fining them. Patch.com reports that the city council has just agreed to let the parkways become edible.

Abbie Zands of the Los Feliz neighborhood and Angel Teger of South Los Angeles “planted lush vegetable gardens in front of their homes.” Zands recently planted three raised vegetable beds in his yard. The boxes are just 18 inches high, within a reasonable distance from the curb and serve the community. He said he is “teaching his children how to grow food [and] sharing the harvest with neighbors.”

Then, according to the LA Times, “Zands got a notice in the mail last month from the Bureau of Street Services ordering him to remove [his] vegetable beds.” Sounded pretty criminal.

Clare Fox of the L.A. Food Policy Council admits that the city’s restrictions were not entirely without merit. “She can understand the need to restrict growth” in situations that “hinder the view of drivers or blocks the light of street lamps,” for example. However, in this case, city officials explained that the citation reflects a matter of liability, stating that “if you slip and trip on the eggplant, you can sue the city.” The article suggests that there was a bigger liability issue left unattended in these “parkway” strips—technically owned by the city, such as ruptured sidewalks and other hazards caused by poor maintenance.

The debate has been going on for a while now. A few years ago, a similar situation happened to Ron Finley, an urban farmer who faced a warrant to remove edible plants set within a 150-foot-long parkways in his neighborhood. Then, Councilman Herb Wesson took the gardener’s side, introducing a motion to allow parkway vegetable gardens.

According to Patch.com, it took Wesson two years but he finally won.  With the 15-0 vote in support of immediately suspend enforcement, urban farmers across the city can now move forward, at least until a “new ‘comprehensive report’ on a new ordinance and a permitting process is prepared.” Westside Councilman Mike Bonin said “he supports the vegetable gardens because Los Angeles has a ‘wellness crisis’ and not enough access to healthy food.”

L.A. seems to be finally catching up to the agricultural revolution currently sweeping America’s cities. In March, Detroit adopted their first urban agriculture zoning ordinance to promote urban farming within their communities. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities are also far along.

In a time where one-fourth of all agricultural land is seriously degraded and some 49 million Americans experience food insecurity, cities all across the country need to put stronger support toward turning untapped land into urban gardens instead of blurring the line between true liability concerns and outdated bureaucratic rule-making.

Learn more about how urban agriculture can work in The Edible City, a recent ASLA animation.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator

Image credit: Los Angeles Times

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In 1975, there was a Vietnamese exodus after the fall of Saigon. Many of the Christian Vietnamese who supported the U.S.-allied government in the south fled. Some of them ended up in camps in the Midwest, at least until the Archdiocese of New Orleans invited some to come to the Gulf of Mexico, where the climate was more like what they were used to in Vietnam. Many of the Vietnamese were also fisherman, so the Roman Catholic church thought they’d have a better chance if they could pick up their old trade in Louisiana.

Now, almost 40 years later, there are 8,000 Vietnamese concentrated in a one-mile radius in New Orleans East. The community of fisherman was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and then the Deepwater Horizon debacle but found ways to come together and come back with sustainable urban farming. At the E.P.A’s Brownfields conference, Tap Bui, Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, discussed how this unique community recovered with sustainable aquaponics.

New Orleans East, where the Vietnamese community of New Orleans lives, has 60 percent of the land mass of New Orleans but only 20 percent of the population. Before the storm there was lots of poverty, high unemployment. Post-storm, the community was left without a hospital and other basic services. As the community fled in the wake of the storm, many wondered what they would come back to, said Bui. Still, by the end of October after the storm, more than 2,000 people had returned, and then the majority came back.

Meanwhile, implementing an “emergency master plan,” then-Mayor Ray Nagin had turned a green space near their community into a landfill. The debris from the damaged homes and commercial buildings across New Orleans had to be dumped somewhere. But soon pesticides and other chemicals were being dumped there, too, right near a wetland and nature preserve. Bui said this spurred one of the first “cross-racial” collaborations ever in New Orleans East, a mass protest to shut down the landfill.

“We rallied outside City Hall,” said Bui. The group also bused in protestors to Baton Rouge, the state capitol. She said this was the first time “we Vietnamese actually felt like real Americans. Before, we had just paid our taxes. Our community had become more engaged.”

Their efforts paid off: The landfill was closed, and more than 200,000 cubic yards of debris was removed. But still more needs to go. Bui said “the landfill is slowly sinking into the ground. The dump site is affecting the wetlands.” Environmental remediation work is ongoing.

Then, Deepwater Horizon, the BP offshore oilspill, struck, which was a fishing disaster. Bui said 40,000 Vietnamese work in the Gulf of Mexico, and a third of those are in the seafood industry. “With the loss of livelihood, mental and physical health issues increased.” Bui said particularly for the older Vietnamese, it’s really a case of “I fish, therefore I am.” More Vietnamese were suffering from depression and drinking too much.

In a sign of the truly resilient nature of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, the community once again rallied. “We did power mapping to determine how we going to make BP pay for what they did to the Gulf.” The Vietnamese joined together once again with a broader coalition of seafood industry groups to pressure the oil company. But while the Gulf was being restored, the fisherman had to find new jobs, immediately.

The development corporation found a trainer who could teach aquaculture, the practice of raising fish on land. A two-day session brought up new ways to create more sustainable systems. In a pilot phase, workshop attendees tested out growing koi, bluefish, and catfish. Some then experimented with “aquaponics,” which uses the waste from fish as fertilizer to grow produce. “This is more sustainable growth,” as the fish byproduct isn’t simply dumped into waterways.

Now, the VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative, a scaled-up aquaponics operation for the community, sells fresh produce to local restaurants and stores.

Amazingly, the fisherman who lost their livelihoods with the oil spill have “supplemented 100 percent of their earlier incomes,” said Bui. Taking out marketing and transportation costs, some “80 cents of each dollar goes back to the cooperative members.” Now, there are aquaponics plots spread throughout backyards. Also, some 2 acres of urban farms are now being worked in a 4-acre site the community development corporation rented from a community member.

This project has been a long time coming. Working with Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, and Wes Michaels, ASLA, at Spackman, Mossop + Michaels, they created a wonderful masterplan for an urban farm back in 2007, which won an ASLA professional design award.

Unfortunately, Bui said, “we couldn’t make that project work” given the land is “jurisdictional wetland” and required remediation. The 28-acre site the community had purchased was returned to its original owners. But the community development corporation found other solutions, and there’s no doubt this unique form of aquaponics-supported urban farming will continue to expand.

Image credits: (1) Vietnamese urban farmers / Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation, (2) Mary Queen of Vietnam community meeting/ NOLA, (3) Mary Queen of Vietnam community aquaponics / USDA, (4) Mary Queen of Vietnam community aquaponics / WYES New Orleans, (5) ASLA Profesional Analysis and Planning Award, 2008. Viet Village. Mossop + Michaels / Image credit: Mossop + Michaels

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On a modest site downtown, Lafayette Greens yields a good deal more than just food.

By Linda McIntyre

Detroit is having quite a moment in the media at a time of renewed interest in the trials and tribulations of cities, but it’s still kind of surprising to find a small, trapezoid-shaped edible garden thriving among the towers of its downtown. This is Lafayette Greens, designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, on a block that, until now, was best known for its homegrown fast food rivals American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island (“Coney Island” is Detroitspeak for chili dog). Now the Coneys are improbably sharing the neighborhood with vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers, all grown on a scant half-acre at a busy intersection across from the historic Book Cadillac Hotel (now part of the Westin chain) and the city’s federal office building and courthouse.

A little more than a decade ago, the notion of a neat, well-designed garden here at the paved epicenter of car culture—the General Motors headquarters is a few blocks away—would have seemed like a hallucination. The site’s previous occupant, the Lafayette Building, was a 14-story V-shaped Italian Renaissance tower built in 1923. It was demolished in late 2009, having been vacant since 1997. It had become one of the beautiful ruins for which Detroit has become ghoulishly famous, with broken windows, graffiti tags, squatting hipster artists, and weedy trees growing out of the roof.

But although abandoned buildings and vacant lots are still vexing issues in many parts of the city, this section of the downtown core has been transformed. The waterfront along the Detroit River is slowly developing into a series of linked green spaces and public plazas. Sports venues, even the home of the hard-luck Lions pro football team, draw hordes of loyal fans downtown. New cafés and pop-up retail spaces lure shoppers from suburban malls. Companies such as Compuware and Quicken Loans have opened big offices here and brought in employees from outside the city.

Compuware was one of the first companies to come back downtown, and one of its founders, Peter Karmanos Jr., has been a steady force in efforts to revitalize downtown Detroit. Karmanos, who stepped down as CEO in 2011 (he’s currently the company’s executive chairman), was one of the leaders of a group of businesspeople and philanthropists who raised $20 million to design, build, and maintain Campus Martius Park across the street from the company’s headquarters and just up Michigan Avenue from Lafayette Greens (see “Miracle on Woodward Avenue,” LAM, November 2006).

Lafayette Greens is a Compuware project too. Meg Heeres, the company’s art and community programs manager and the project director for the garden, says that Karmanos (who’s a Master Gardener) originally wanted to start an urban farm somewhere in the business district.

That’s not as weird as it might sound: Detroit is huge—almost 140 square miles—and by some estimates there are as many as 40 square miles of vacant land. There’s a long history of farming here, starting with French settlers’ early-18th-century “ribbon farms” along the Detroit River. Grassroots gardeners have started community gardens all over the low-density city, which has an abundance of single-family houses with yards. Detroit’s historic Eastern Market wholesale and retail food complex has a lot of local fruit and vegetable vendors. And in December, the city planning commission approved a new urban agriculture ordinance that updates the zoning code to allow land uses such as farms, tree farms, and orchards.

Compuware wanted the project done fast, but it also needed a design firm with the right kind of sensibility. “We knew this was not a straight-ahead landscape architecture project,” Heeres told me. “The designers had to understand the community here, how to engage a lot of different stakeholders and create a welcoming space for all, while meeting our demands for a strong aesthetic and innovation. My involvement as the client would be very, very hands on, and they had to be okay with that.”

Ken Weikal, ASLA, who started his firm in the Detroit suburbs in 1989, and Beth Hagenbuch, Associate ASLA, a partner in the firm and the project’s lead designer, were already involved in GrowTown, a nonprofit group formed to help improve derelict urban sites with easy and inexpensive design interventions and technology. They had recently worked on a community project in the north central part of the city.

The design quickly evolved from the simple kitchen garden concept that Heeres pitched to Weikal and Hagenbuch—raised planting beds divided by mulch paths—into a modern riff on the French potager. Corrugated steel clads the raised beds and plays off the concrete and high-rise buildings that surround the space, as well as the dramatic weathered brick wall of an adjacent building that serves as a backdrop to the greenery. The shiny metal and the reclaimed wood used to build a trio of wacky storage sheds were inexpensive and manufactured locally. They also give the space an industrial vibe that suits Motown quite well.

Compuware loved the design and wanted it built as soon as possible. But the city owns the site, and Mayor Dave Bing’s administration has been looking at creative ways to use vacant land, including larger-scale urban agriculture. A lot of consultation and negotiation by Heeres was required to hammer out the year-to-year lease agreement in a short time. The design was made final by January 2011, the city’s blessing was secured in time to start work in June, and most of the work was done by the end of July.

The prep work for the garden was not as hard as you might expect. Weikal says that after the Lafayette Building was demolished, the site was excavated about 15 feet down, and soil was hauled in to bring it up to grade. The team replaced the top few feet of that soil but didn’t have to deal with a huge contamination legacy.

The designers manipulated the site in subtle ways to give the garden a spatial charge. Two gravel paths radiate out from a paved terrace and gradually diverge from each other, widening for a forced perspective. This arrangement makes Shelby Street, to the west, look farther away than it is from the terrace. They integrated the site’s four-foot grade change into the design. It helps the hardscape drain into a swale edged with gabions and planted with redtwig dogwoods and other water-tolerant plants. It also varies the height of the raised beds for comfortable and accessible gardening. The tops of the planters all rise to the same flat level, but the bases follow the slope, resulting in a range of bed heights, from eight to 40 inches, and an intriguing sense of depth across the whole garden.

A small, circular children’s garden, 38 feet in diameter, sits at the southeast corner. It is edged with fruiting shrubs and sunflowers, and its planters are filled with colorful flowers, sweet-smelling herbs, fuzzy lamb’s ears, and spiky succulents. Made from recycled 55-gallon steel juice barrels, they repeat, in a smaller size, the children’s garden’s circular shape. These geometric shapes, and the strong lines of the rest of the garden, bring order to all of the lushly planted raised beds and help the small space hold its own in the tall and dense urban streetscape.

All of the planting in the 2,000 square feet of raised beds was done on one sweltering and labor-intensive day in July 2011, during which the landscape contractor, the WH Canon Landscape Company, executed what Weikal describes as a “military-style operation.” Plants were grown from seed off-site in the nearby town of Howell by Motave Meadows, a small organic grower, in 12-inch pots that could be slotted in to the raised beds without much root disturbance. “The challenge that day was to plant several thousand tender transplants into more than 30 beds according to a very detailed planting scheme,” says Hagenbuch. “Getting the plants into the right beds, the specified patterns, watered in, and drip irrigation in place and properly adjusted on a very hot day required dedicated teamwork.”

Apple and pear trees, and swaths of lawn, were installed separately. Weikal says the lawns, planted with fescue that doesn’t require a lot of irrigation, help the garden look good all winter and open up more space for programming. Along with gravel paths, they also contribute to the site’s mostly (70 percent) porous surface. As in most cities, stormwater management is a problem in Detroit: According to a 2012 report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, in 2011 the city sent 7 billion gallons of stormwater and untreated sewage into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. The city government is trying to use more green infrastructure, but its dire financial situation has slowed progress.

Since its official opening in late August 2011, Lafayette Greens has been a big success. In 2012, its first full growing season, the garden produced almost 1,800 pounds of fresh produce according to Gwen Meyer, who manages the garden for Compuware full-time. The food, which is grown organically, is donated to Gleaners, a local food bank, and other community groups (volunteers can take small amounts with them). Kids from Compuware’s in-house day-care center and other nearby programs come to learn and play. Volunteers from Compuware, the federal building, and other nearby offices show up regularly to pull weeds (the raised beds and overall tidiness make it easy for people in work clothes to do a bit of gardening at lunchtime) or hear talks on beekeeping, vermicomposting, and other garden topics.

And some people come just to hang out, which is fine with Meyer. “Our whole purpose is to be available for people to sit and relax, take a break,” she told me. “They can get involved if they want to.” The garden is open year-round, and so are volunteer hours, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. In the winter, fewer volunteers show up, but the ones who do shovel snow, keep an eye on the covered hoop houses Meyer is trying as an experiment, and plan for the next growing season.

Some concessions to the reality of urban parks had to be made. Heeres says that Compuware would have preferred to leave the site open, but the city insisted on a fence. The garden is locked up at night and on most weekends, and a camera allows Compuware security staff to monitor the site, which is well lit at night.

Vegetable theft hasn’t been a big problem, Meyer says, but it happens. “We’d rather engage people than reprimand them,” she told me. “I might ask them to pick more so I can take it to Gleaners. Honestly, I’d rather train thieves to harvest properly so the plants continue to grow. It doesn’t occupy much of my time.”

Lafayette Greens doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Urban farming has become something of a class-based flash point here. The concept was mocked by some residents in the recent documentary Detropia, and the city council’s December approval of the sale of about 1,500 city-owned lots to a local businessman, John Hantz, who wants to start a tree farm, was controversial.

Compuware has been careful not to fan any flames. Heeres and Meyer stress that Lafayette Greens is by no means the first or only edible effort in the city. “The media attention is positive, but it doesn’t always fully represent how deeply spread out growing is here,” Meyer says. At the dedication in 2011, Heeres focused on the park aspect of the project. “It’s like Campus Martius with vegetables,” she told the Detroit Free Press.

Heeres says that the ecofriendly aspect of Lafayette Greens is nice, but it wasn’t what drove the project—it was about building relationships in the community. The project offers some timely lessons. Green spaces are part of Detroit Future City, a long-awaited strategic plan released by the Bing administration in January. The product of a two-year process led by local government, business, academic, and nonprofit leaders, the plan is a broad blueprint for improving the city’s economy and making better, more efficient use of its vast amount of land over the next 50 years. Among other things, it envisions more walkable, high-density neighborhoods with inviting parks and gardens. Kind of like what Compuware has done on a smaller scale.

Other companies, whose willingness to deeply engage has the potential to make or break the strategic plan, might be paying attention to the company’s success. Heeres says she’s had “probably a half-dozen calls” about the process. “None of those have come to fruition yet, but we would love for that to happen.”

The city, and the people who live and work there, will benefit if it does. “Lafayette Greens has created a real amenity in downtown Detroit,” John Gallagher, a business and development reporter for the Free Press, told me. “The design of the park is very much advanced over the usual community garden in a neighborhood setting. The organization of the garden, with Compuware volunteers tending the plants, maintains the quality level.” Few places need that kind of amenity as urgently as this one.

Linda McIntyre, a Detroit-area native, is a former staff writer and frequent contributor to LAM.

In honor of National Landscape Architecture Month (NLAM), the entire April issue of LAM is available for free.

Image credits: (1-2) Lafayette Greens / Beth Hagenbuch, Associate ASLA

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