Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

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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At the National Building Museum, a controversial set of two new photography exhibits asks us to consider whether a city can die, whether districts of ruined, abandoned buildings reverting back to nature can define a city that still has a population of 700,000 people. The answer is no: Detroit is still alive, but perhaps shamed by its decline. At a presentation by two photographers — Camilo Jose Vergara and Andrew Moore — Detroit was viewed as a warning of things to come, a modern-day Necropolis or city of the dead, but fortunately this storyline doesn’t tell the whole tale about that city.

Vergara, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, sociologist by training, and also an evocative photographer, covers the process of decay in many cities in the U.S. Each year, he travels to cities like Camden, Chicago, and Detroit, to document how “time, elements, scavengers, and people” do “whatever they do to fine buildings.” In Detroit, he has taken series of photographs showing the decay of the same few buildings over time. Year and year, Vergara comes back because he’s fascinated by “what is going to happen” to these buildings. “Some are engulfed in vegetation or become ruins.”

The Chilean photographer has spent a lot of time at the old Ford Packard Plant, which once churned out the cars and trucks that populated Detroit’s streets and all of America’s arteries. Once the factory closed, the mile-long building became home to over 200 businesses, beginning in the early 90s. However, those businesses seemed more focused on disassembling or scavenging. “This was now the place you took your car to be taken apart and turned into scraps.” Other businesses collected old shoes or cardboard boxes to be reused or recycled.

In a view of the old plant Vergara returns to year after year, he documents a time when there were “wild parties” organized within the walls, organized via pagers, to a period of partial demolition, to nature eventually taking over again.

Now, it’s a dangerous place filled with scavengers and homeless people. “Fires have further weakened the structures.” But a theme both Moore and Vergara returned to again is that this place and others in Detroit are also sites of creative rebirth. Within all the decay, it has become a “museum of graffiti,” where any graffiti artist of note wants to have a piece.

For Moore, a leading contemporary large-format photographer, the process of documenting Detroit’s glorious ruins are like “mental blueprinting.” His father is an architect and he grew up with the idea that “you can tell a story through a space.” He says that “buildings are an incorruptible witness of history.” Buildings inflect history; buildings can’t lie, whereas the faces of people can tell lots of different stories.

Like Vergara, Moore takes photographs of cities undergoing change, even if that change is destructive. His work has spanned New York City’s Time Square and Fulton Fish Market areas over the years. In early 2008, he began to really take photos of Detroit and was at once “amazed by the quality of the architecture.” He sees the ruins as particularly “emotionally charged” because that city’s fall is so recent.

In the Ford company’s Dry dock building, where Henry Ford first worked as an apprentice, “one guy is now living there, with a wind screen up to block the cold air.” (The historic building is now slated for condos).

A grand old theater that opened in 1928 with an appearance by Gloria Swanson is now “damaged by water, neglect.” The muted palette of the buildings create a sense of “loneliness, desolation, and abandonment.”

Both Vergara and Moore also see a “surreal” quality of the city. A theater with an amazingly beautiful ceiling was turned into a parking lot, because it was more cost-effective than tearing it down. Nature is also seen as playing a key role in creating the surreal effect. “Wherever there is a void, nature returns in full force.” For example, what Moore thinks is Henry Ford’s old corner office is now covered in moss. An old post office building’s roof has caved in. The space was once a depot for storing old books. Those books have decomposed and turned into mulch and now provide a foundation for birch trees that grow out of the hole in the roof.

Within this landscape, Moore said, there’s also good and bad. “There are black hats and white hats. The black hats are interested in destruction, blowing things up. The white hats looking at documenting, taking photos.”

Both photographers, who almost seem to view buildings as living things – with their own cycle of life and death, said the ruins are “always changing over time. Ruins aren’t static.” Vergara, though, also thinks that the ruins are indicative of what “we’ve done to the earth. The ruins are the future. I’ve internalized what I’ve seen. It has energized my life, but it isn’t positive. The experience of these desolate places has marked me.”

And while both do include photos of living people (occasionally), both said people in these places are few and far between. In their tours, there just weren’t people walking around. And perhaps because of this, both feel a greater responsibility towards the buildings — and to document the buildings, instead of the people who created them and let them decay. Vergara said: “I feel a responsibility to all those buildings. I have to know what’s going to happen to them.” By shining a “strong light on their ruin, we can bring attention to what’s happening here. That’s positive.”

For Carolyn Mitchell, a Detroit native and now Washington, D.C. resident who attended the lecture and was interviewed after, the photographers “only showed the death, but not the life of the city.” The exhibits were “misleading.” She said some great buildings were always well-maintained and others have been newly restored. “We have some of the greatest Art Deco buildings in the U.S.” Still, the exhibits brought back “memories of how the city once was.”

Many neighborhoods are still maintained like those in any other city and are real, thriving places. In neighborhoods like Woodbridge and Corktown, “homes have porch swings. There are lots of community gardens. Neighbors know each other.” This narrative isn’t really out there. The story of nature taking over, both positively in the form of urban farming and new forests, and, negatively, in the form of decay, may not be accurate. As Mitchell argued, “nature has always been in the city.”

In their presentations, Moore and Vergara admitted that they have received criticism from the local community, and there’s no way the exhibits will ever be shown there. As the moderator John Beardsley, head of the landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks and a professor at Harvard University, said, “well, these photos don’t paint the best portrait of the city.”

Mitchell also thinks that the photographers failed to place the ruins in a historical context. She said the exhibits could have been more powerful had they shown “the before and after, what the city once looked like, how fabulous it once all was.”

In the end, the photographs then don’t answer the real question: What happened? Why did Detroit fail while other large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles renewed themselves? Mitchell, who used to work for the Detroit city government, said it was a real “lack of vision, leadership” at the top. A series of corrupt mayors and their cronies stymied positive change and drove out business owners. City services declined with mismanagement and a falling tax base. And while there are a number of non-profits coming in to create bottom-up, community-led visions, “these can’t really replace the lack of vision from the mayor.” Detroit sounds like any other big city — with its mistakes, but not dead yet.

Learn more about the two exhibits and see a book of Moore’s work on Detroit.

Image credits: (1-3) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara, (4-7) Copyright Andrew Stone, (8) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara 

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That’s at least one definition of this innovative practice, explained Jillian Hovey, the Toronto-based head of Sustainable Living Network at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. Another possible definition: “a holistic design methodology to access the intelligence of natural ecosystems.” Really, the goal of the ever-growing tribe of permaculturists is to “co-create with nature.” Permacultural projects include organic food, edible landscaping, forest farming, and other small forms of urban agriculture.

Hovey said one of the central tenets of permaculture is regenerative design. While sustainable design involves simply mitigating the negative impacts of humans on the planet, regenerative design goes beyond and seeks to create a “positive role for people on earth.” Practitioners of permaculture seek to merge landscape, people, and technology to create “food, shelter, and energy.” Hovey said it’s a “philosphical approach to land use” in which “intricately conducted ecosystems, consciously designed” are put to work. (Still, she said some critics argue that, in these permacultural systems, humans are at the center of the regenerative effort, so the approach is still too human-centric, and doesn’t truly benefit “life in all forms,” as permaculturalists say they do).

Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the movement, wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, back in the 1980s. Early permaculturalists  in Australia wondered whether it could actually be replicated in other places, but they decided that other temperate climates could make the systems work. So a slew of Australian books came out, followed by American and European guides. Recent how-to literature includes Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscapes Naturally and Edible Forest Gardens.

Standing on Greenbuild’s oddest “dog-bone”-shaped center stage, Hovey walked in circles showing off photographs of permaculture projects being designed and built. One practitioner she showed, Austrian outlier Sepp Holzer, is well-known for his “crater gardens,” stepped, terraced landscapes, which involve moving earth to dig out gardens, creating more surface area for agriculture and microclimates for different plants.

Holzer was recently brought in by Hovey’s group to help build a stepped crater garden at a school in Detroit. With the use of a translator, Holzer communicated to the bulldozer operator to create a set of steep walls out of the earth, adding in wood joints made of out sticks to “increase the productive edges.” Wood was also put in so that it decomposed and made richer soils. Once the area was seeded, straw was put on top. As Hovey described, “nature hates bare soil. Weeds happen when soil is left bare.”

The project, and others like it, demonstrate how “nature can be used as a model.” Hovey said permaculturalists use a design process wherein “everything is connected, every function should be supported by multiple elements, and every element should serve multiple functions.” This type of design process “builds in redundancy and resiliency.”

Permacultural design also enables feedback to be incorporated throughout the process. “This is a cyclical, iterative, spiral approach.” This kind of approach allows permaculturalists to “eliminate pollution.” While waste is abundant in nature — because it produces so much — pollution is not. Pollution is the “concentration of waste to such a degree that nature can’t handle it.” Interestingly, Hovey said lawns are a form of pollution because they “suppress existing ecosystems.”

Hovey went into great detail on the benefits of compost (if done right, it shouldn’t smell), along with the application of permaculture in parks, small urban plots, and even windowsills. 

Closing with a thoughtful take on regenerative design, Hovey argued that if these systems are designed to be self-sustaining, “the agricultural output is theoretically unlimited.” And if designers understand “ecological succession,” these landscapes can be “self-maintaining and even replicating.” Hence, permaculture as a state of permanent agriculture.

Check out Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture at the small-scale.

Image credit: Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco / Hood Design / image copyright Marion Brenner and Beth Amann

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The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between designers’ potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here I look at a few examples from landscape architecture.

Consumerism acts as an engine for economic growth. This engine shapes design as market values increasingly outweigh civic or environmental values. One example is private suburban communities. Peter Cannavò reports that the growing trend for making new suburbs private—privatization is a requirement in a number of cities—means that more and more whole neighborhoods are managed as property rather than as communities or civic places. This type of management usually limits the variety of structures and allowable types of landscapes, often aiming for an outdated suburban ideal of big houses, big cars, and resourced-intensive landscapes, all of which drive increased consumption.

New suburbs are privatized, becoming consumption-driven commodities rather than communities. Photo Patrick Huber.

Consumerism also shapes landscape design when market actors control the location of public places. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape. This is similar to other “privately owned public spaces.” Whoever has money to pay impact fees determines location, whether or not the location adds wider value. The locations and contexts then dictate the benefit that any landscape design can bring to the urban fabric as a whole.

How Landscape Architecture is Reshaping Consumption

Despite these problems we’re also seeing cases where landscape design is shaping, or reshaping, consumerism. Here we look at the examples of sharing, appropriation and interactivity. The discussion above suggests that the location of landscape amenities can limit the way they enrich the public realm. Although we think of a landscape as stationary, recent examples of mobile urban farms and floating parks begin to question what it means to share a landscape. Two examples are the Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool, essentially a floating park, and “The Farm Proper,” a mobile urban farm.

Set & Drift developed this experimental, mobile urban farm using abandoned shopping carts, among other things.

Landscape architects are also looking at ways to appropriate and reassign existing landscapes that are underperforming socially, often because spaces are shaped by market efficiencies, to the exclusion of social or environmental values. In these cases designers highlight and uncover added value in tactical ways. An example is the Park(ing) Day project by ReBar, where money in the meter converts on-street parking spaces into temporary pocket parks.

Western countries are driven increasingly by “positional” consumption—for status rather than to meet basic needs. But research indicates that providing a better quality commons, including public space, could offer new means for gaining social distinction and weaken the link between status and private consumption. To this end, designers are enriching public spaces in new ways.

Play encouraged by flexible, fiber-optic “stalks” that emit sound and light as people passed near them in “White Noise, White Light” by J. Meejin Yoon. Courtesy of Howler + Yoon Architects.

Examples are experiments in interactive landscapes such as Enteractive (by Electroland Studio) and White Noise White Light. In both cases public spaces were “wired” to react to public and social activity. This interaction introduced play, but also temporarily personalized the place without privatizing it. Interesting developments occur as these interactive components are deployed in urban greenscapes as well as hardscapes.

This guest post by author Ann Thorpe is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism (Earthscan/Routledge 2012). Thorpe currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called Luum. She is also author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

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S, M, L, or XL-sized metropolitan agriculture? Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Mia Lehrer + Associates, said it’s not just about one size, which definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to cities, in a session at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting. In an era where it seems like any school or community can start a garden, perhaps it’s time to step back and think about the bigger picture. What’s the goal? Lehrer thinks it’s comprehensive urban agricultural systems that are relevant to the unique cultural, social, and environmental conditions of a city.  Metro-region agriculture, if planned, designed, and supported financially at all scales, can address issues related to social equity and health issues like diabetes and obesity, while building regional agricultural communities and economies.

In California, where Lehrer lives, she said the agriculture system is completely out of whack. While the state grows some 50 percent of America’s fruit and vegetables, just 2 percent is kept and eaten locally. About 98 percent is imported from Chile or elsewhere. Unfortunately, California isn’t alone: “These issues also go way beyond the North American continent.”

In an effort to build and sustain urban metropolitan systems at the XL and L-scales, Sibella Kraus, Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), made the case  for “New Ruralism,” a place and systems-based approach to farming and smart growth that seeks to “preserve and enhance the rural and urban edge.” She said these places at the edge are counter-intuitively “indispensable to the vitality of cities.” This is because the footprint of any city really reaches far beyond the core — to the edges, to the suburban and rural communities and economies that make the whole metropolis work.

In the San Francisco Bay area, Kraus explained that she’s been working on metropolitan agriculture planning, including a San Francisco foodshed assessment. She said that project came out of the question, “could San Francisco survive on food grown within a 100-mile range?” Not likely for now, but perhaps more so in the future. In justifying the program, Kraus said like any other planning effort, urban agriculture also needs its own “nuanced, detailed planning” effort.

At the sub-regional scale, another project on the Coyote Valley agricultural region, a 7,000 acre valley near San Jose, focuses on creating a vision plan, with layers outlining how farmland, nature habitat, and development can better coincide. Over the next 25 years, $50 million will be spent to make the plan a reality, purchasing easements and land to make sure development happens in a way that protects the vital cultural landscape of the agricultural region.

Kraus said one of the ultimate goals of SAGE’s work was to “promote rural and urban placemaking” while linking sustainability at those two different scales. In the European Union, the places where the rural and urban meet, “urban edge agricultural parks,” are completely valued — people understand the need to protect and even cherish these historical agricultural landscapes. She pointed to a 1,000-acre agricultural park outside Milan, Italy, where there are recreational, farming, and cultural opportunities combined.

At the M and S-scales, Glen Dake, ASLA, GDML, former green deputy for the city of Los Angeles and a landscape architect, described his innovative “community development-based approach” to metropolitan agriculture in Los Angeles. Dake said he’s averaging about 3-6 gardens per year, and has worked on more than 50 in total. As an example, he pointed to his work with Crenshaw Gardens, where he’s been helping them access local community development block grants.

Dake called for a “public health approach” that leverages local city programs. In Los Angeles, that has meant working with and tapping resources available through a range of federal, state, and non-profit programs like L.A. Sprout, L.A. County Renew, and Little Green Fingers programs.

In a rapid-fire survey of research, Dake argued that at least indirect evidence demonstrates that urban agriculture does help boost positive health outcomes. With 2/3 of adults in the U.S. expected to be obese by 2050 if nothing is done, just getting people outdoors exercising, eating healthy produce matters. What particularly works: doubling gardening with nutrition education. When kids and adults alike learn that you can eat “lots of processed foods and not feel full,” they also learn that fresh, unprocessed food helps reduce weight if coupled with exercise.

The little green fingers program is also important because there “obstacles to having kids in gardens.” Parents worry that they will get dirty; they also worry about supervision. In a new design Dake worked on, the gardens had areas that made supervision easier. Interestingly, Dake said in his work setting up these projects, he has actually found that a lack of bathrooms wasn’t an impediment to making these gardens work.

Another speaker delved into Detroit, where there’s a real grassroots effort underway to turn the city around. A big part of that effort, which runs from XL through S scales, said Charles Cross, Detroit Collaborative Design Center, is producing food. He said all the locally-grown produce at Detroit’s Eastern Market is “amazing.”

At it’s height, Detroit, which comes in at a gargantuan 13,859-square miles, had a population of 2 million. Now, it’s about 715,000. The population started to drop in the 1950s, with the collapse of manufacturing. Now, there are around 105,000 vacant lots. About 125 schools have closed. One neighborhood that used to have nearly 90,000 people now just has 5,000.

Working with landscape architecture firm Stoss and Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cross’ group developed a plan that connects all the scales, from the “personal to the neighborhood to the non-profit to the commercial scales.” Talking to the mayor, Cross made the case for making the plan a reality, saying all the city’s local farmers needed better “distribution, infrastructure, and facilities.” One proposal they’ve pitched even calls for large-scale urban forestry within the city limits. Christmas trees or wood products from Detroit could be coming to a city near you.

Cross said companies are also getting involved in this bottom-up agriculture-driven revitalization effort. In fact, Compuware, which is headquartered in Detroit, just won an ASLA professional design award for their remarkable urban garden called Lafayette Greens. A lush garden and public space, Lafayette Greens provides access to all local residents who can come help harvest the produce, which is then donated to food banks. Other local bottom-up programs include Detroit School gardens and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Recovery Park, an amazing program, provides former felons and addicts with self-help and rehabilitation services, while creating “productive landscapes” within the city. This ambitious project is working on unearthing a creek, developing a horticultural center, and converting 2,000 inner-city acres into farmland.

In a nice finale, Kraus said that all these examples show that “agriculture is the new golf.” Lehrer went one step further, calling for cities to convert their existing water-hogging golf courses into farmland. L.A. golfers beware: She may be aiming for your courses soon.

Image credit: (1) ASLA 2012 Professional Award Winner. Lafayette Greens. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch BLA, (2) San Francisco Bay Are Foodshed /San Francisco Chronicle. Stephen Joseph, (3) Crenshaw Garden, (4-5) Recovery Park

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Artist and landscape designer Fritz Haeg, who is also author of Urban Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, has been busy since we last spoke to him at the 2010 ASLA annual meeting, with two new installations worth checking out. Haeg will soon be hosting an opening reception at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for his Domestic Realities installation, a part of the museum’s MoMA Studio: Common Senses project. He’s also been working with renowned landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations on a new project in the Everton park in Liverpool, UK.

Haeg tells us that Domestic Integrities is a survey of “local and seasonal patterns and rituals of interior domestic landscapes,” which explores “the way we use what we resourcefully find around us to artfully make ourselves at home.” 

The funky, organic feel of the circular garden installation has a nice contrast with MoMA’s sleek high-modern sculpture garden. The work was created in partnership with the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn.

The tiny garden, which was planted this summer by a team of gardeners, offers “medicinals, herbals, edibles, and plants for pollinators” and has been cultivated throughout the season in preparation for this month’s launch.

Another linked component — a circular rug, which is called the Domestic Integrity Field – is set up indoors in partnership with Mildred’s Lane in Pennsylvania. There, Haeg will use elements harvested from the outdoor garden, such as “tea infusions, fresh bread, dried herbs, and flower arrangements,” presenting them on the “crocheted spiral rug of discarded textiles.”

The pieces are supposed to work in tandem. Vistors are expected to “explore the garden outside and make themselves at home on the rug inside, taking off shoes to sit down, inspect, touch, taste, and smell that day’s various Domestic Integrities.” Haeg talks more about his rug installation on MoMA’s blog: “Proprietress J. Morgan Puett donated antique linens, which we cut into strips and crocheted into a 6-foot-diameter circle that will gather more rings as it travels. By the time it arrives at MoMA in the fall, it will hopefully be around 20 feet in diameter, and large enough to serve as a welcoming domestic landscape.”

Another one of Haeg’s recent projects in the UK is also worth checking out. For the Liverpool Biennial, Haeg partnered with James Corner Field Operations to create Foraging Spiral at the Everton Park. James Corner, ASLA, and his team are now working on a new master plan for the park.

The project takes the “elevated central site of the bowl-shaped hollow,” which was previously occupied by a small wheel manufacturer, and creates a set of interesting outdoor happenings. “The project includes an a one-day archeological dig, the planting of a wild edible spiraling garden, a temporary basecamp headquarters for a series conversations about the park’s past and future, a printed journal that reports on the gathering, and a video that tells the story of the park from multiple points of view.” The idea was to “treating the hollow as a microcosm of the entire park, a series experiments is presented to publicly present the range of activities and features the local community would like to see in their park.”

First, there was a day-long archeological dig, which uncovered the facade of an old church buried there. Then remnants of the church were used to build out the next piece, the Foraging Spiral. Haeg describes this project: “Existing grass within the entire area bounded by the circular overlook drive in the center of the park to grow and gradually turn into a tall wild meadow, into which paths are mown which follow the crest of the bowl and down into the center. A 6 foot wide by 450 foot long bed of wild, native, and edible plantings (with local partners Squash Nutrition, The National Wildflower Centre, and the Everton Park horticulturist) lined with excavated brick from the archeology dig, was [then] established.” The new spiral garden includes an amazing variety of different fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

See more images of Domestic Realities and Foraging Spiral.

Image credit: Fritz Haeg

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