Urban Agriculture Part II: Designing Out the Distance

Urban Agriculture Part II: Designing Out the Distance
A rooftop garden in San Francisco. © Peter Dasilva for the New York Times.

“The typical Urban Dweller today has no understanding of where or how food is produced/distributed. We have become dependent on huge, powerful, profit-minded corporations to bring huge quantities of food from industrial farms into our supermarkets – but the entire process is hidden, massively complex, and, ultimately, unsustainable.”

In Part I of this Series, I made the case that Urban Agriculture has incredible potential; unfortunately, however, in America, it has a long way to go. Our economy, our government, our technology, even our perception of what “food” is relies upon the Food System we currently have in place. Urban Agriculture could very well be the answer, but, frankly, not yet.

So where does that leave us today?

All over the world, citizens are taking the Food Revolution into their own hands, becoming urban bee-keepers, guerilla planters, rooftop gardeners, foodie activists. While community engagement and political lobbying are vital to these grassroots movements, so too could be design.

By designing our cities – our public and civic spaces, our hospitals and schools – with food in mind, we can facilitate this Revolution by making food a visible part of urban life, thus allowing us to take that crucial first step: eliminating the physical/conceptual distance between us and our food.

What does it look like to design with food in mind? More after the break…

To Be Seen, Be Cheeky

Revelers enjoying their annual Park(ing) Day, an event that reclaims parking spaces for public use. Via Rebar.

If you read Part I of this series, then you know that one of the reasons Cuba was able to create a self-sufficient Urban Agriculture Economy in a matter of years, was by being audacious.

Before the Government got involved in the farming initiatives in Havana, local citizens made them hard to ignore. Any spare scrap of land – from terraces to balconies, to unused lots all over the city – were turned, almost overnight, into gardens.

This “hacking” of public/private space for public interest is what DIY/Guerilla Urbanist projects are all about. And a new report from SPUR, San Francisco’s Planning and Urban Research Association, suggests that this model could be the best way to to subvert complicated zoning laws and let Urban Agriculture take root. [2]

Take, for example the cheeky group of artists and designers that took over a metered parking spot in San Francisco in 2005 and turned it into an impromptu park. By 2009, Rebar’s Park(ing) Day was so popular, that the city planning department created a new permit class for “parklets” and even established its own program, “Pavement to Parks,” which converts unused road space into public plazas. [3]

While San Francisco is unique in its Urbanist policies (refuting the logic of bureaucracy, they actually respond to the needs/desires of its citizens), it is one of many cities whose citizenry is engaged in this conversation about the ‘proper’ use of public space.

Another Rebar project, the VIctory Garden replaced San Francisco's Civic Space with a temporary farm. Via Afasia.

The same conversation and “hacker” spirit could be used to integrate Urban Agriculture into our public greenspaces. Another Rebar project in 2008 transformed the 10,000 square feet at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza into a “Garden of Communities,” “part of a broader effort to reconsider the way we think about urban open space, transforming ornamental landscapes into productive landscapes.”

The 100 lbs of fresh produce the garden produced a week (donated to local food banks) could never feed the entire city of San Francisco – but the garden did target a specific need, bring together disparate members of the community, and create a dialogue between citizen and politician about the productive potential of public space. [4]

While most Civic Spaces aren’t as disposed to becoming Productive Landscapes as San Francisco’s, there are many Semi-Public spaces, yet to be fully exploited, ripe with Urban Agriculture potential.

Educate & Integrate 

The Edible Schoolyard, by Work AC.

If you’ve missed Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution or Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaigns, then I’m afraid you haven’t been paying much attention. Aiming to eliminate the lethal combination of hunger and obesity crippling our nations, particularly in low-income communities, both these campaigns have recognized the importance of integrating hands-on Food Education in schools.

As co-founders of The FoodPrint Project, Sarah Rich and Nicola Twilley, of Edible Geography, pointed out in an interview for Urban Omnibus, health is “where people’s minds and eyes are right now.” Architects have already begun to use Active Design Guidelines to encourage healthy behaviors – it is no leap to suggest that we could similarly use design to encourage a healthier relationship with food. As Twilley shared in an interview with me: “Local doesn’t have to mean geographically local. There are design ways to reduce the distance between food and consumer.”

But designing “Edible Schoolyards”/Kitchen Gardens into schools, doesn’t mean limiting them to student use. In 2010, a pilot project in San Francisco aimed to make schoolyards open to the public outside of school hours, in the hopes of making them “community hubs.” [2] What if the same logic were applied to gardens?

In Cuba, the local community gardens only flourished with the creation of Seed Houses, agriculture stores that provided resources and, more importantly, information on farming techniques. Gardens as “community hubs” could similarly provide educational initiatives and community outreach to help make farming a ubiquitous part of urban life.

Hospitals, for example, which have already begun seeking more sustainable, fresher food sources for patients (according to a 2011 study by Health Care Without Harm, “80 percent of hospitals nationwide hosted a farmers’ market or community-supported agriculture program on-site, and about 60 percent bought food directly from a local farm”), would be well suited to integrate public, educational gardens on-site. So too restaurants roofs or parks – any public space could be activated to produce and educate about food.

Designing Out the Distance

A map showing the many Urban Agriculture Projects in San Francisco, a city on the cutting-edge of Urban Ag Policy. Via SPUR.

In short, the benefit of urban agriculture lies not in its potential to feed the city but rather in its ability to educate consumers about fresh, healthy food and the effort it takes to produce it; offer vibrant greenspaces and recreation; provide savings and ecological benefits to the city; help build community; and, potentially, serve as a new source of modest economic development.” [2]

SPUR has it just right. While architects certainly have the potential to rethink our cities as productive, efficient food landscapes, realistically, we must start small. By harnessing the power of these grassroots movements and designing so that their efforts become better integrated into the community, we can begin to educate city-dwellers about food, bridge the gap between consumer and producer, and make food production/distribution part of the conversation about urban life. Only then can food become the lens through which we discuss and design our future cities.


[1] Quirk, Vanessa. ”Urban Agriculture Part I: What Cuba Can Teach Us” ArchDaily. May 28 2012.

[2] “Harvesting the City.” The Urbanist. May 2012. SPUR.

[3] Badger, Emily. “The Street Hacker, Officially Embraced” The Atlantic Cities. May 07, 2012

[4] “Civic Center Victory Garden: Claiming civic space for food production.” Rebar.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Urban Agriculture Part II: Designing Out the Distance" 29 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/238382/urban-agriculture-part-ii-designing-out-the-distance> ISSN 0719-8884

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