Transition Culture

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21 Oct 2014

Carrots among the concrete: the role of urban agriculture


As architects and developers plan new developments, they are certainly thinking about roads, parking spaces and footprints, but are they also thinking about productive plantings, the role of rooftop gardens and biodiversity?  Almost certainly not.  Having visited some great urban agriculture initiatives in the last couple of years, this feels a shame for two reasons.  Firstly because urban agriculture is a rapidly growing field, so by leaving it out they’re being left behind – and secondly because they are designing for a future that will very much need it.  Urban agriculture is cutting edge.  It’s what we need right now.

coverIn order to weave urban agriculture, and its potential, into our discussions this month on ‘Reimagining Real Estate’, who better to talk to than André Viljoen and Katrin Bohn, architects, academics and authors of the recently published Second Nature Urban Agriculture; designing productive cities?  Their first book, Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes (CPULs), published in 2004, put the idea of urban agriculture onto the agenda of the architectural profession.  Things have changed a lot since then.  I caught up with them by Skype a few weeks ago.  As André told me, the reception when 10 years ago they first suggested to publishers a book on urban agriculture was “agriculture? We do architecture!”

The shift since CPULs came out has been remarkable.  For instance, the city of Berlin has now adopted an urban strategy that wants to accommodate productive landscapes, and many of the stories of how it is spreading around the world are captured in the book (some Transition initiatives and their work around urban food production make an appearance too).  The book is presented as a review of most recent research and projects as well as “a toolkit aimed at making urban agriculture happen”.  It succeeds in very richly doing both.

Urban agriculture and the New Economy

One of the first things that stands out in the new book is the extent to which urban agriculture initiatives, in a similar way to Transition groups, are increasingly looking at building economic viability into what they are doing.  I asked Katrin about this trend:

“Some of the examples in the book work and do make a living. Only if enterprises manage to do this is there a real future for urban food growing. That doesn’t mean that these commercially viable schemes need to be commercially viable in a profit-oriented way. They can be social enterprises. But what has been noticed in the last 10 years, what is really crucial, is that if we want to maintain the assumption that urban agriculture can change the physical appearance of cities then we need to provide concepts in which agriculture is also an economic factor. It can’t stay community gardening”.

For Katrin, the emergence of commercially viable urban agriculture projects around the world gives her, as she put it, “the right to say yes, urban agriculture has been a good idea. Because we can see that these viable versions are beginning to work”.

One of Growing Communities' market gardens in Hackney.

One of the best examples of this, which André pointed to, is Growing Communities in Hackney in London.  They have built up an expanding business which involves training, urban market gardens and an evolving model for how London might better feed itself.  However, André acknowledged that:

“While we can see the emergence of projects which are beginning to be economically viable they’re still very hard work and the people operating them put in a lot of effort. A lot of them have multiple income strands”. 

As an example, he cited what is possibly the world’s best known rooftop farm, Brooklyn Grange Farm in New York. Their commercial viability comes not just from food production, but from taking a wider entrepreneurial approach.  As he told me:  

“They operated commercially in relation to the amount of food which is good, but they also rent the space out as a space for celebrations, for weddings and parties and events. That’s an important part of their income at this stage.  The ones which are working purely on a commercial basis are tending to use hydroponics at the moment on rooftops. They’re lightweight, they grow food very intensively and conventionally, and I think the interesting question is whether hydroponic systems can be converted to aquaponic systems which bring us closer to closed loop systems”.

Brooklyn Grange Farm, New York.

The challenges of scaling up

Another key to making urban agriculture economically viable, according to André, is its being seen as an integral part of closed loop systems using urban waste for compost and nutrition.  As he put it:

“If that understanding is made then the possibility for making it commercially viable by thinking of it in relation to waste streams becomes more likely”.

But how might we scale this up?  I’m intrigued to know how they think we how might most skilfully see urban agriculture more widely adopted by planners and architects as a common-place fact of life in planning new developments.  Katrin told me:

“In Brighton, where we are both based, the Council have entered into their local planning requirements a small change on the website which checks when you submit planning applications not only whether they provide car parking or enough window opening surfaces or balconies, but they also check whether this new development provides space for food growing”.


For her, it could be through this kind of legislation, being pioneered in Brighton and elsewhere, that urban agriculture might best gain acceptance and a foothold.  “The best way might be via these legislations so that people understand that their local council is demanding something and they have an advantage to follow it”, she told me.

The Brighton precedent arises from Food Growing and Developmenta Planning Advisory Note which the Council developed in conjunction with Brighton and Hove Food Partnership. While these don’t act as a condition for getting planning permission, they do mean that if you undertake certain activities, the application will be looked at more favourably. In Brighton, André told me, “this has had a notable impact on the number of applications that include food growing spaces within them”.

This then, of course, leads to new challenges.  As André put it:  

“The challenge that that arises is that if you introduce food growing spaces, we know how to design them, but there is an issue of who is going to look after them and maintain them and that in some projects is still a challenge”.

Mapping the benefits of urban agriculture

One of the key ways of expanding urban agriculture is to point to the evidence base building up for its many beneficial impacts.  As André told me:

“There’s a lot of work that documents the mental health benefits of access to open space, the social cohesion benefits of community food growing. The Green Thumb programme in New York which is supporting the community gardens has amassed quite a lot of evidence for social and health benefits, both physical and mental of these spaces”.

There are other benefits too.  André pointed to the High Line in New York, and while featuring mostly ornamental plantings rather than edible ones, is still a huge attraction to people, which has increased property prices in the area.  Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin has shown that urban agriculture is an aesthetic that tourists like, and another urban garden, Marzahn, also in Berlin, is showing how urban agriculture is increasing the attractiveness of a deprived neighbourhood. 

Beehives at Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin.

Another benefit, and one we’ve explored here in a previous theme, is the extent to which urban agriculture (and Transition for that matter) can be seen as a public health strategy.  It’s an idea André has been giving some thought:

“There’s the notion of ‘health-enabling cities’ and activities like urban agriculture fit entirely into that strand of thinking, and probably more so than activities ‘green gyms’.  But there is some evidence which really it would be interesting to test.  In Middlesbrough we did a project called DOT, “Design of the Times 2007”, introducing urban farming into Middlesbrough at a series of different scales.

A student of ours who surveyed residents found that in Middlesbrough people who started growing food, even if it was really token, they’d grow a couple of tomatoes or something, actually their behaviour started changing. They started purchasing food seasonally and they started eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. She compared people living in Cambridge to people living in Middlesbrough and found that in Cambridge where people already were very much engaged with health messages and were aware of environmental factors, more so than in Middlesbrough, food growing didn’t have such a big impact.

But in a place like Middlesbrough it had a huge behaviour change impact. That’s never been – as far as I’m aware – researched more rigorously. We think it probably is one of those activities that people are always seeking, behaviour change enabling activities which links directly to health improvements”.

For Katrin, it is also an easy method to convey ecological education overall:

“Whether they’re commercial or communal food growing places, many projects also engage in educational activities whether they have school groups there or whether they have particular sessions where people learn to cook or where they learn to differentiate between different lettuces”.

Urban agriculture and the architectural profession

Architecture is, like the world of fashion, prone to fads.  What’s in one year is out the next, and this year’s cutting edge idea could, in 4 years, be “like so 2014”.  How could that be avoided?  How to make sure that urban agriculture is here to stay?  Katrin acknowledged that that could be a risk:

“This danger is one reason why many protagonists in the urban food growing movement are aware that their ideas have to make this jump into policy. Sustainably influencing planning policy is really important.  Architecture is fashionable and architecture follows fashion but it also follows the client’s requests. So as long as the client requests these food productive spaces then architects will engage with them”.

André added:

“We’re at that stage where we really need to get people to understand the significance of these spaces in terms of part of the city’s ecological infrastructure that they’re understood as being essential spaces, part of essential infrastructure within the city. If that mental leap is made, and we think there’s enough evidence to support it, then these spaces will become embedded in the cities. That’s really the stage we’re at, I think”.

Leading on from this, for André and Katrin, one key part of mainstreaming urban agriculture is through good research.  They are part of a research project called Urban Transformations from Practice to Policy. In terms of research, André points to the work of Debra Solomon in the Netherlands, called Urbaniahoeve.  They are introducing edible landscapes into a number of cities there.  The focus of their work, in the run up to a conference in September 2015, will be developing tools to leverage policy change in relation to urban agriculture.


Last thoughts

Second Nature Urban Agriculture is pretty extraordinary.  If we are to create built environments which are ‘locked in’ to the radically low carbon future we need to be creating, we really can’t afford to build any new developments that don’t include urban agriculture.  It needs to be everywhere, and clearly  at the moment that isn’t happening fast enough.  Viljoen and Bohn tackle this from a range of angles, and there is something here to inspire those anywhere along a spectrum from, at one end, wondering how to grow food where they live in a city, to, at the other, planners and designers wanting to undertake ambitious scale projects.  Hard to recommend it highly enough.

Who are they?

Andre“I’m André Viloen and I’m an architect. I currently work in the University of Brighton where with Katrin Bohn we’ve been teaching a programme for Masters students and before that I was involved quite a lot with research into low-energy architecture buildings and how to make passive buildings. That’s how we came to be interested in urban agriculture”.

Katrin Bohn“I’m Katrin Bohn, who also teaches at the University of Brighton but also holds a guest professorship at the Technical University in Berlin and in both cases trying to work around that subject of food and the city. With André I also share the work in Bohn and Viljoen Architects, which now is very small and we do mainly consultancy, installation, feasability work. Again, because that subject of productive landscapes became so important for us, this is mainly what we do, and we like it”.

Why ‘Second Nature Urban Agriculture’?

(From the book):  “The term ‘second nature’ has a double meaning: on the one hand it describes embedded, normalised habits and customs that take place without a thought, and on the other it refers to the manmade, cultivated space surrounding us in a similar way to (first) nature”.  

The above is selected from the full interview I did with Andre and Katrin.  You can hear that in full, or download it, below.