Metropolitan Agriculture at All Scales

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

2 thoughts on “Metropolitan Agriculture at All Scales

  1. NIck Overall, RLA 10/14/2012 / 9:18 am

    For urban agriculture to work on an extensive scale it realistically needs to be financially feasible. Market forces drive what food is consumed where and what ag products are delivered to which location. I am a landscape architect working in the ag industry in Oregon and truck loads of plants are sent to the east coast because it is a high quality product, in demand at an appropriate cost.

  2. Marti Peralta 10/17/2012 / 10:21 am

    Urban agriculture is a great way to work with the environment, but it has to be well thought out because sometimes undertaken new projects in communities and suffer various problems, such as crops planted are forgotten or put them in places where there appropriate. So you have to plan very well these initiatives. In our country through hard work, is this topic

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