Stocking the City: A new ArchDaily series

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Chris DeHenzel is one of 2012 lucky recipients of a John K. Branner traveling fellowship, awarded by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Architecture. Throughout the year, Chris will be visiting more than 25 cities in 5 continents to research on alternatives to our resource-intensive industrial , represented at retail level by the corporate supermarket.

¿How could an alternative system of physical markets support an alternative food system? Chris will dispatch for ArchDaily from Latvia to Calcuta, in this new series about how to design better ways to sustainable stock hungry global cities. If you want to join him, you are welcome.

Read Chris first dispatch after the break

Stocking the City, by Chris DeHenzel

Food is back on the agenda in pop culture and academic disciplines: TV hosts, urban planners, designers, writers, environmentalists, social activists, artists, chefs, etc. – everyone seems to be talking about it.  And they’re all saying different versions of the same thing.  In the words of writer and activist Raj Patel, “Unless you’re a corporate food executive, the food system isn’t working for you.” (1)

Architecture and planning, as spatial practices, are complicit in the mess of our industrial food system, from the scale of regional planning to the design of the supermarket shopping experience, while corporations, almost exclusively, have profited. Critics of our current food system suggest that alternatives are possible, but would require significant political, economic and spatial modifications.  Imagining an alternative food system is no less than imagining alternative ways of living, which implies new connections between urban and rural culture, economy and infrastructure.

I am one (of three) lucky recipient(s) of a John K. Branner traveling fellowship, awarded annually by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Architecture.  I have been traveling for the past 3 months, and for the next 9, I will be visiting cities on 5 continents to research relationships between food markets as structures, infrastructures and socio-economic systems.

My research is focused on basic structural alternatives to our increasingly pervasive, resource-intensive industrial food system, represented at the retail level (where consumers interact with it) by the corporate supermarket.  My question is simple: How could an alternative system of physical markets support an alternative food system?

What do I mean by ‘alternative food system’?  How about, more local, for starters?  Before I moved to Berkeley from Washington DC in 2009, I didn’t think much about the geography of food, or its relevance to architecture and urbanism. Attitudes about food in California are a bit different (some would say sophisticated, others snobby), which isn’t so surprising given the substantial amount and variety of food produced there.  Considering this, and the increasing consumer demand for local food, why should Northern California, an area literally saturated with farms, need to depend on Safeway for it’s food supply?  There are 260 Safeway supermarkets supplied by the corporation’s Tracy distribution center, located an hour drive from Berkeley, CA! (2)

© Andreas Gursky

UC Berkeley professor, and godfather of food writers, Michael Pollan, wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“There are good reasons to think a genuinely local agriculture will tend to be a more sustainable agriculture. For one thing, it is much less likely to rely on monoculture, the original sin from which almost every other problem of our food system flows.  A farmer dependent on a local market will, perforce, need to grow a wide variety of things rather than specialize in the one or two plants or animals that the national market (organic or otherwise) would ask from him”. (3)

Productive Infrastructure

Of the essential infrastructural systems that support cities (including water, energy, communication, transportation, and waste services), food systems not only combine many elements of the other systems, but also connect to cultural and economic processes.  As Pierre Belanger, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the GSD, stated in recent interview, “Food production and agriculture are the fundamental infrastructures that hold cultures together and sustain (or cease) the longevity of regions. These are spatial, they provide sustenance and form an ecology that generates exchanges, markets, and economies.”(4)

Work AC public farm © WorkAC

Work AC’s 2008 Public Farm (PF1) project at PS1 in Queens (and following book, titled Above the Pavement, The Farm) was phenomenal in its combined scope, both inventively engineered and socially aware.  Meredith TenHoor wrote an essay for the book titled “The Architect’s Farm”, which (along with Nicola Twilley’s “Edible Geography” blog and Carolyn Steel’s book, Hungry City) has substantially inspired my thesis.

TenHoor argues that a paradigm of opposing conditions prevail in the discussion of urban agriculture: on one side a distributed, networked, activist-led, communal “horizontal” organic garden and an industrial, high-tech, iconic, vertical farm.  She suggests that the Work AC project at PS1 may be neither traditionally horizontal or vertical, but “oblique”.  She writes: “Unlike massive, high-tech vertical farms, PF1 seems to point out that urban space can also support small-scale farms that generate communities around the production of food”. (5)

Pie in the Sky

Nevertheless, vertical farm projects are all the rage, and heavily promoted by Columbia University Professor of Microbiology, Dickson Despommier, in his book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. According to Despommier, “High tech greenhouse farming is already being deployed in many places around the world, most notably in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Australia, Canada and the United States. … The only missing element is the urbanization of the concept.”(6)

© Atelier Soa Architects

There is a utopian zeal to the book, that, while well intentioned, neglects so many issues that it would require a whole other book to dispute it.  A 2010 article in The Economist attempts to answer one rather practical question, “Would it really work?”(7)  The embodied energy of food production is a complex issue that remains contested, and there may also be no significant advantage to locating a vertical farm in a central business district compared to a less densely built area of the city.  But beyond the logistical and economic problems, the social implications of productive urban towers seem unfortunately modernist.

Despommier’s proposal also relies heavily on the assumption that transportation accounts for the majority of industrial agriculture’s ecological impact, although a May 2010 report by the USDA report, titled “Local Food Systems”, suggests otherwise.  According to the report, “Comparisons of local food systems to food sourced from mainstream retailers found no significant differences in transportation energy use, except for those products transported by air. The shorter distance traveled in local markets was offset by the greater transportation efficiency of the mainstream system, which lowered energy use per unit transported.”(8)

Although production is a significant  component in food systems, different modes of production relate to entirely different economies of scale, processing and distribution.  In my opinion, the “designer obsession” with production has neglected a close scrutiny of distribution models.

The question should not just be, “How do we integrate production in cities?” But also, “How do we reorganize infrastructural systems (especially distribution models) to support more alternative forms of production?”

In the next few posts, I will further outline the ideas of the project, and catch you up on what I’ve been doing since January.  I look forward to receiving thoughtful comments and criticisms, and if you’re living in a city on my route, I would be thrilled to meet for a drink, or lunch at your local market.  In the mean time, I hope you’ll follow along online through the year, and don’t be afraid to get involved!

I am currently writing from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  My itinerary (subject to change) is as follows:

  • (May – July) Rabat, Fez, Granada, Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, Santiago de Compostela
  • (July-September) Avignon, Paris, Copenhagen, Latvia, Budapest, Venice, Florence
  • (September – October) New York, Philly, DC, Cleveland, Seattle, LA
  • (October – December) Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Istanbul, Koudougou (Burkina Faso),
About Chris DeHenzel

I am currently an M.Arch/MLA dual degree student at University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of one (of three) John K. Branner fellowships awarded each year by the UC Berkeley School of Architecture, which gives me the opportunity to travel for a year doing research for my graduate thesis.  The project is a concoction of many interests: design, urban systems, infrastructure, and food.  My questions are not new, but I am trying to look at them a bit differently from much of what is published.  Not that I know exactly what I’m doing, because I wouldn’t be here, but my scope is focused, even if the possibilities are limitless… I graduated from the University of Virginia with a BS in Architecture in 2004, and worked in Washington DC and Copenhagen before moving to California in 2009.

Citations

(1) Raj Patel. Stuffed and Starved, 2008
(2) http://www.bizjournals.com/eastbay/stories/2003/06/30/daily10.html
(3) Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. p.259
(4) Pierre Belanger.  Interview with Jennifer Leonard. http://www.recodemagazine.com/interviews/pierre-belanger
(5) Meredith Tenhoor. “The Architect’s Farm” in Above the Pavement – The Farm! Architecture and Agriculture at P.F.1. Amale Andraos and Dan Woods, eds. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. p.188
(6) Dickson Despommier, The Vertical Farm. St. Martin’s Press, 2010. p.129
(7) http://www.economist.com/node/17647627
(8) Steve Martinez, et al. “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues”, ERR 97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2010. p.48

Cite: DeHenzel, Chris. "Stocking the City: A new ArchDaily series" 01 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=230708>
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  • Raffy

    Great read…Happy travels!

  • Lauren

    Good luck with your quest. This topic is undoubtedly heard time and time again (but maybe that is because I went to UCB’s architecture program)… but is an important one… and hopefully you will discover completely new and marvelous.

    I would, though, be hesitant to suggest the generalization that “Attitudes about food in California are a bit different (some would say sophisticated, others snobby)…” about all of California.

  • Cyndy

    I always thought it was interesting in MN that all the local farmers sold their corn to large companies and were forbidden by their contracts to sell it locally.

  • Erin

    Chris, I am an MArch at UW in Seattle and I am working on a thesis project on alternative urban food right now. Let me know when you are coming to Seattle in the fall, I would love to connect while you are here. I spent a month at the GAIA ecovillage outside of Buenos Aires, which was one of the reasons I got into URBAN food.