Thursday, May 8, 2008


Since I am new to the blogosphere I haven’t gotten fully comfortable sharing my thoughts with everyone out there. I’m just not used to writing everyday, or even every week yet—I feel like I need to wait for some news of paramount importance to come along to be blog worthy. I am sure that all 3 people who read the blog are pretty bummed about that (ok, you’re right—I have included myself in that count). Luckily today I became aware of some pretty amazing news and I hope to have a flurry of activity over the next few days and really kick this blog thing off right.

First, after a couple of months of being hit over the head by the media I finally got it—we have a world hunger crisis on our hands!! Right now most of you must be thinking “Shit, this guys an idiot, he just figured it out?” I know, I know! I feel like a fool too. But now I am finally on the bandwagon. So, just in case you’re like me and you don’t read the news everyday, or you have trouble putting all the pieces together, let me fill you in.

BACKGROUND - Recent History
Since 2005 global food prices have been rising at alarming rates. According to Newsweek the current crisis is a rise in global food prices caused by “surging demand for agricultural products as an alternative fuel source, the growing food needs of developing countries like China and India, higher transportation costs, droughts and floods.” My first clue was the Wall Street Journal, who ran an article a few weeks ago about rising rice prices in Asia and how the hoarding of rice in places like Indonesia and Thailand are going to make it worse and it might lead to unrest.

The second tip was Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, who made a statement that the US’ interest in developing alternative fuel sources, aka bio-fuels, were depriving less wealthy nations of foodstuffs such as corn (I believe the statistic was something like the amount of corn that it takes to provide one tank of fuel for a car could feed a child for one year, roughly 90 kg). At the time I thought—so what, plant a little more corn—we need to reduce our carbon footprint! The UN’s argument at the time seemed reductive to me—boiling down the world hunger problem as a battle between starvation and the environment (could there not be a third way?), but it does hold some water. It still seems strange to me however, and very scary, that these two monumental global problems—world hunger and climate change—could somehow be at odds with each other.

Finally, today I open up to find this: Somalis Riot Over Food Prices. Rioting is occurring because of food prices!! People are going hungry! There is a rice black market! We have to do something about this!!


Luckily, architects, landscape architects, and urbanists have been planning for this type of situation. There have been many proposals in the last couple of years for dif
ferent types of agricultural based infrastructures that can be integrated into nurban areas, what I am calling AGRO-URBANISM. The impetus for these proposals are manifold and include the concerns previously mentioned as well as issues of sustainability and sustainable development, a re-positioning of the landscape architecture discipline and the rise of the hybrid discipline “landscape urbanism”, and recent trends in architecture focusing on performance-based design which derive inspiration from ecological and biological systems. What I would like to do in this post is to present a compilation of some of the urban farming proposals that I personally find most interesting—it is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just some of “Dave’s Faves”.

I have grouped the following AGRO-URBAN projects into three broad categories based on their general spatial morphology—Horizontal Projects, Vertical Projects, and Mobile projects. For some of the authors of the projects these morphologies represent a strong ideological stance for the particular trajectory that urban farming should take in the future. It is my belief though that the pressures of urban geography, political structure, and modes of living result in such highly diverse contexts that a fully integrated agro-urbanism must exploit the potentialities of each of the three strands and their various sub-types.

Horizontal Projects
In the 90’s projects began to appear that integrated ur
ban and environmental systems. Parc Andre Citroen for example, designed by Clement and Provost, is a large urban park in Paris that exploits the productive nature of agriculture as a medium and fuses it with recreational and educational functions. Two unrealized projects that are very interesting to look at are Agronica by Andrea Branzi and City Fruitful by Kuiper Campagnos and Oosterhuis.

Agronica (1994), and its follow up project for Strijps Phillips in Eindhoven (1999), is the result of the evolution of Branzi’s theoretical research into flexible urban systems since “No-Stop City” and his collaboration with Archizoom in the 1960’s. Agronica uses industrial production techniques to create a provisional, flexible, low-impact agricultural infrastructure that respon
ds to today’s demands for fluidity and rapid change of use. It is based on a theory Branzi developed called “Weak and Diffuse Modernity” based on the transition from mechanical to digital technologies and new economic systems that demand micro-managed temporary equilibriums rather than definitive, lasting solutions. Agronica can therefore be seen as a transitional project and can take advantage of agriculture’s ameliorative properties to prepare brown field sites for future uses. It should also be pointed out that the Eindhoven project also proposes public transportation infrastructures and recreational uses for the site—including a gigantic roller coaster!

City Fruitful by Oosterhuis, et al., developed out of a particular problem in the Netherlands that most countries do not face—a lack of space for housing due to a highly developed agricultural industry largely using greenhouse and hydroponics technologies. The idea was to integrate agriculture and housing, typically “monoculture environments”, in one urban plan. The resulting design consisted of hybridized greenhouse and residential structures, agriculture public spaces, and the use of heat-exchange for an environmental and economically efficient system. You might say it is an early example of an ecolomical project, to quote a recent buzz-word of both public policy and design.

In general, the Netherlands has produced a model for highly efficient, spatially dense agriculture industry that I think could be a prototype for the rest of the world. The result of the amalgamation of the greenhouses is something I have often thought of as a “farm-city” that can be integrated into urban areas or even into hybrid building types. When I first encountered them last year near Delft I wondered if it could be possible to integrate these structures with other horizontal building types such as parking garages, big box retail, and storage facilities—the detritus result of sprawl and contemporary lifestyles, particularly in the US.
Photo of greenhouses in The Netherlands, by author.

In addition to these large-scale plans it is worth mentioning the rise in popularity of co-op and community gardens worldwide. These grassroots efforts at producing agro-urbanism are great ways of improving the environmental and social sustainability of neighborhoods and cities.

Vertical Projects
Vertical urban farms have become in vogue recently largely through the publicity efforts of Dickson Despommier and his Vertical Farming project. Despommier is a professor at Columbia University and has developed some important articles and projects espousing the virtue of vertical farms. The statistics are quite convincing: if population projections hold true our world will have 8.9 billion inhabitants by 2050, requiring us to increase our current 800 million hectares of agricultural land by 109 hectares-roughly the size of Brazil. The problem is twofold—first, the amount of arable land is limited, and second, cultivating the land for agricultural use destroys eco-systems and reduces bio-diversity, particularly with monoculture farming techniques. Vertical farming is the logical result o
f these issues—you can grow more crops on less land while also freeing up current agriculture land to return to its natural state. According to Despommier one thirty story vertical farm with the footprint of one city block (roughly 30 mill sq. ft.) could provide enough produce to accommodate the needs of 10,000 people.

A visit to the Vertical Farm website will demonstrate a number of vertical farm designs by practitioners and students alike. To me, the most beautiful of the propositions is the Living Tower by atelier SOA Architectes, perhaps because it is the least high-tech scheme featured on the site (and it has some great graphics!). It is also one of the few hybrid schemes featured, integrating office and residential, and agricultural functions in one building. While this is a provocative idea I wonder if that reduces its feasibility—both from a implementation perspective (what agency or developer would commission such a concoction?) and from a building technology perspective. While these are serious co
nsiderations for the future of vertical farming, I do not want to diminish the power of the Living Tower’s design.

No discussion of vertical farming would be complete without bringing up MVRDV's Pig City project. Well, perhaps it would be complete, but it was the project that first introduced me to the notion of vertical farming. Besides it's obvious humor and irony one of the things that is interesting about MVRDV's proposal is that it is one of the few projects that focuses on the production of MEAT instead of vegetables. The carnivore in me just loves that!

Recently Work AC has jumped on the vertical farm bandwagon as well—or perhaps their proposals can be seen as a hybrid of the horizontal and vertical projects as they seem to have married the urban farm to Virilio and Parent’s “function of the oblique” concept. Their competition winning proposal for this summer’s PS1 competition in New York introduces an urban farm as a piece of traditional urban furniture cum infrastructure—a folded surface that acts as stage, seating, canopy, and above all, an agro-urban ground. From the architect’s description: “our project becomes the ‘Urban Farm’ – a magical plot of rural delights inserted within the city grid that resonates with our generations’ preoccupations and hopes for a better and different future. In our post-industrial age of information, customization and individual expression, the most exciting and promising developments are no longer those of mass production but of local interventions.” Work AC also revisited this theme when asked by New York magazine to produce a Utopian vision for a site in downtown New York. Their terraced apartment building features rooftop farms and putting greens. What is interesting is that this building is essentially a collapsed version of Abercrombie’s valley section and plays on recent trends of suburbanites moving back to the city and bringing everything with them but the kitchen sink (cuz it’s already there but the golf courses, wal-marts and home depots are not).

Mobile Projects
This last category features a series of projects that respond to evolving trends in lifestyle (increasingly nomadic) and tourism (eco-tourism, to be more exact), particularly the increased mobility of the world's population. These projects are highly exploratory even among this collection of speculative proposals, and introduce movement into agroURBanism--either the movement of people in relation to agriculture, or the movement of the ground itself!

The ‘Nomadic Garden” is a transportable garden designed by Nadeau, Dupont-Rougier, and Alexander and exhibited in Paris in 1999. The concept is based on the increasingly mobile lifestyles of the urban dweller whose transient nature does not permit the ability to invest in a garden. The design consists of a stainless steel cube that opens up to reveal four wooden shelves that can be shifted horizontally and vertically to allow a variety of configurations. It utilizes a hydroponics system for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers and it can also be converted to a small-scale green house. When the owner moves she can simply pack up the box and take it with her.

‘Soil Horizon’ is an art installation by Lateral Architecture that reveals how agro-urbanism can embed eidetic and educational purpose allowing it to transcend the primarily technocratic nature of many urban farming proposals. While not intended as an urban farm as such I think it could become a model for a nomadic farming similar to the nomadic garden project. Taking inspiration, I think, from Robert Smithson’s non-sites, Soil Horizon is part garden, part art, and part mapping project. It reveals the diverse geographic character of a region—it essentially acts as a lens through which one can view an entire territory. It also demonstrates the fundamental beauty of dirt—something I have been fascinated in since my days of soil judging in 4-H.

Alishan Tourist Routes, by Reiser + Umemoto, while not exactly urban, demonstrates the symbiotic potential of agriculture, tourism, and geography. From the architects’ website: “One degree of latitude = One kilometer of altitude. This is a crucial equation in the understanding of the potential of the Alishan Mountain as a tourist site. It allows both an ecological and cultural connection between Taiwan and a family of nations via a material argument about culture in the new global society: that new regionalisms can be constructed at all levels of material practice. We propose transforming the Alishan railroad right-of-way into an agricultural strip, supplying a series of specialty restaurants and a microeconomy of taste tourism…Agriculture maintains a varied and dynamic landscape of extreme variance. A Journey up the Alishan Mountain is a journey through four distinct ecosystems. We propose to harness this difference and accentuate it, so that the different climactic regions are reflected in a gradient of culture, cuisine, and landscape along the line. What we are proposing is the development of micro-agriculture to support international cuisine tourism along the Alishan train line.”

-to be continued-

Additonal Links and References:
Hand to Mouth in Newsweek
Global warming rage lets global hunger grow
In hungry world, Japan's farmers stuck with rice found in the Boston Globe, regarding diversifying diets and the demands it makes on Asian agricultural traditions.

Urban Farming
Sky Farming
Next Energy News features an article about a vertical farm in Las Vegas

Sustainable Agriculture from Wikipedia
Urban Agriculture from Wikipedia

Architects and Projects
Eindhoven, un modello di urbanizzazione debole article on Branzi's Eindhoven project
Architettura e agricoltura: article on architecture and agriculture in Italian (I translated it with Google translate)

From Other Blogs:
Tree Hugger


tim said...

The idea of urban agriculture, beyond being environmentally friendly if done right, can provide an ascetically pleasing view to urban areas, but has the potential to teach children as well as adults in highly urban areas about agriculture, that they might otherwise not learn. Personally, it is disturbing when a 10-year old is asked 'where milk comes from?' and replies with 'From the store'.

Dave said...

Hi Tim-
I fully agree! That's why projects like Soil Horizons are so powerful to me--it's like a science fair, an art exhibit, and a sustainable practice all wrapped up in one project!

Nathan said...

I think that all of these ideas are really cool, and can see how they would be useful. Are any of these projects actually being implemented or realized?

Also, any thughts on how agro-urbanism could expand past the urban environment and into some of the places that are struggling the most with global hunger?

Dave said...

Hi Nathan,

Unfortunately most of the projects shown have either not been implemented or were temporary installations. I think that the Alishan Tourist routes is under development, but I'm not sure how much of the original intentions will be implemented. On the vertical farming website there is some discussion about the difficulties of implementation and some speculation on how to do it.

There was an article in the additional links about building a vertical farm near Las Vegas but I'm not sure when/if it will really happen.

About your second question--I think I might address this in a follow-up post. But I did have a quick look at the urban agriculture page in Wikipedia and there are some urban farms in Mumbai, Bangkok, and Shenzhen China. I think these techniques can be used in other undeveloped and developing nations.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm coming to this long after the fact, but I'm catching up on your blog and enjoying it. I love the overview of past proposals for "agroURBanism", yet as you said yourself, this isn't a new idea. It also isn't simply a matter of not having yet caught on. As an architect and urban designer I love the vision and yearning for rural-urban synthesis (in any form but the suburb) embodied in these projects. But even a cursory review of economic geography literature (or a few years of dedicated study) will expose the weaknesses of such proposals. I believe its out there, but we haven't yet seen the transformative spatial and economic proposal for productive agronomic activity in the city.

piet said...

The Tour Vivante is now here :