The Edible City

Watch a new animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that shows how to turn a conventional community into an edible city. Learn how to transform unproductive spaces into agricultural landscapes that help fight obesity and reduce food deserts:

According to the United Nations, some one-fourth of all agricultural land is seriously degraded. As a result, people are now turning to untapped urban land. In fact, some 800 million people a year worldwide are practicing urban agriculture. Beyond creating green spaces, urban agriculture may aid those who don’t have secure access to food. In the U.S. alone, some 49 million Americans experience food insecurity and another 23 million live in food deserts where there is little fresh produce or public space. To fight insecurity, many Americans, even those in poorer areas, are taking food production into their own hands: Some 38 percent of households or 41 million people grew vegetables, fruits, or herbs on their property. (Sources: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations; RUAF Foundation and Feeding America; “Urban Agriculture: Practices to Improve Cities,” Mia Lehrer and Maya Dunne, UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute )

While growing food breaks the law in many U.S. cities, innovators like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin, are now changing regulations to accommodate the growing numbers of urban farmers. In those communities, many types of private and public spaces — front and backyards, courtyards in multi-family complexes, abandoned lots, and building rooftops — can now be legally transformed from unproductive spaces into low-cost sources of nutrition. In Washington, D.C and Portland, homeowners can even lease out their yards to local organizations and reap the benefits. In Cleveland and Detroit, abandoned lots owned by the city are leased at almost zero cost to farmers if they promise to grow things on them. In Chicago, the rooftop of one youth center was redesigned as a farm and now produces 1,000 pounds of organic produce each year while teaching urban kids where food comes from. (Sources: Backyard Farmer; DC City Farmer; Rooftop Haven for Urban Agriculture, Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, ASLA / Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago, Illinois; and “Keeping Urban Farmers Safe,” The Dirt, ASLA)

Commercial urban farmers are also starting to make money on rooftops. In New York City, the Brooklyn Grange, a 40,000 square foot farm, grew some 15,000 pounds last year. Underutilized spaces can be leased out for around $1 a square foot, creating enough financial incentive for urban farmers to take root. Another great idea being considered: big-box stores could lease out their massive rooftops to farmers, and then purchase the food there to re-sell. However, many landscape architects argue that for these new urban agriculture projects to really work, they need to be knit together into a network. Produce grown in neighborhoods can be distributed via farmers’ markets, shops, coops, food banks, even mobile storefronts. With local networks in place, nearby suburban farms can also participate, finding new markets and creating a more healthy food system in the process. (Sources: “Farm the Rooftops,” The Dirt, ASLA and “Urban Agriculture: Practices to Improve Cities,” Mia Lehrer and Maya Dunne, UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute)

5 thoughts on “The Edible City

  1. Mario Cambardella 05/01/2012 / 9:35 am

    Great article. So glad to see food enter the fold of the landscape architecture profession. If edibles in the landscape are to be commonplace in the future how can LAs design for safety in food producing landscapes? Is ASLA going to acknowledge the liability issues surrounding food produced in the designed landscape?

  2. Diane Garey 05/02/2012 / 8:52 am

    Last month, in Astoria, Queens, an apartment building owner poured a concrete pad over a .25 acre rectangle of grass in back on one of his buildings, just after some of the tenants were asking for permission to plant tomatoes there. It seems that the idea of food production was somehow threatening — it will take a while before these edible landscapes become “commonplace.”

  3. Austin Maloney 05/02/2012 / 5:33 pm

    Fantastic! Now, if American’s, after 150 years of exodus off small, integral farming Units into industrial/city/urban/petrol communities, can expedite the restoration/conversion of all arable lands currently un-used for agriculture, while concurrently conscripting globally from any ‘population degrading the global environment’ (slash and burn, overfish, depleted monoculture, etc), using indigenous peoples on long-term AG visas to install permaculture, biomass, ribbon farm and buffer farm installations (buffering big AG), we might save the planet… Or get some more years added to the doomsday clock. Since Obama walks across the water, endorsing a radical ecological mandate might do wonders for restoring our blood-stained global image… Consider the addition of hundreds of thousands of small, sustainable farms buffering and disecting monoculture for improved soil retention and water management… self sufficient farm/garden/permaculture/orchard engines of improved health for residents and the earth they live on… the garden of eden is more than a metaphor… it is our human potential realized

  4. debra march 05/03/2012 / 12:01 pm

    What a great resource! We should all be growing edible plants!!

  5. Meredith Greene 06/29/2012 / 8:02 am

    this is fantastic! i grew up in northern vermont, where a backyard veggie garden goes without saying. clearly not the case elsewhere. i read recently about a project proposal in milan that is slightly different, but could perhaps be implemented to the ends of food production?

    i wonder if some of the zoning laws could also be circumvented through these gardens’ mobile, car-like nature.

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