The distribution processes for food are complex and lead to serious questions concerning how much we know about our food and its path to the table. How integrated are these processes? What can be learned and built upon for the practice of urban planning and design? How can more systematic responses be formulated? And what role can ULI members play?

In an appeal to the American public, First Lady Michelle Obama states a simple but compelling point: If you care about your children, you need to care about what you feed them and where that food is grown. Her White House garden showcases food grown locally. Chef Jamie Oliver is seeking the same focus on kids with his attack on school lunch programs in the TV show Food Revolution.

An awakening is occurring. City planners, landscape architects, developers, and urban designers are now more than ever challenged to consider how long- and short-term health is affected by the physical and social environment. Through their expertise, people in these professions can exacerbate the nation’s health problems or help solve them.

The level of obesity among Americans, which has reached crisis levels, has many experts concerned about not only the longevity of the next generation, but also the increase in serious chronic diseases such as diabetes among its members. According to a paper titled “Dynamics of Obesity and Chronic Health Conditions among Children and Youth,” in the February 17, 2010, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the rate at which U.S. children are contracting chronic health conditions due to obesity and other risk factors more than doubled to 26.6 percent in 2006 from 12.8 percent in 1994.

The public has grown nervous about the production and distribution of food as an industry. More attention has been focused on food-borne diseases and national security concerns, and to this is added public concern about the nature of what food has become—a highly processed product with complex ingredients added.

lehrerAgriculture_1_351There also is some cultural re­­thinking of whether communities need access to all fruits and vegetables regardless of the season of the year. Author Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, chooses to live all year on her own land, adhering to the food cycles of a farming life.

As cities increasingly focus on how climate change will affect day-to-day lives, public officials need to think more proactively about the ways they can deliver services and food more efficiently because the environmental cost of transportation affects communities. All these issues together form the basis of arguments for people to take back their connection to fresh food.

From this has sprung a movement both at people’s homes and in urban communities across America. People are planting home gardens and forming community movements that support urban farms and community spaces such as farmers’ markets where they can buy locally grown fresh food. Some urban centers are responding to the call to better sustain or control their fresh food supply.

At the regional level, the distribution processes for food are complex and lead to serious questions concerning how much we know about our food and its path to the table. How integrated are these processes? What can be learned and built upon for the practice of urban planning and urban design? How can more systematic responses be formulated?

Urban agriculture has a number of advantages for communities, including:

  • improving the quality of the urban environment through the introduction of green space and, thus, a reduction in pollution and global warming;
  • supporting the reduction of energy use through local production of food, including savings in transportation costs and food storage. Purchasing produce from farmers within a 100-mile (160-km) radius reduces automobile emissions and eliminates packaging waste;
  • helping close the urban loop system characterized by importation of food from rural zones and exportation of waste to regions outside the city or town;
  • incorporating use of wastewater for irrigation and organic solid waste for fertilizer;
  • promoting alternative development options, such as cultivation of vacant urban land for agricultural production;
  • helping build equitable responses to food needs by providing local food sources for low-income communities to improve access to fresh foods;
  • invigorating the community by incorporating local ideas and engagement; and
  • incorporating a cross-sector approach to look at long-term, systemic solutions to problems in cities with the goal of improved health and wellness.

In urban agriculture, the variety of responses to the new focus on healthy food and the environment range in magnitude from those confined to the backyard to more systemic responses, such as the city-sponsored initiative enacted by San Francisco that promotes larger-scale community farming.

Backyard and Community Gardening

Home gardens/chicken coops. More than 38 percent of U.S. households, representing 41 million people, grew a vegetable garden last year, tending and harvesting their own fresh food. Increasingly, local residents are also raising small animals such as chickens to improve the quality of food and educate children.

Community gardens. Chicago has more than 40 established community gardens spread throughout its park system, the oldest established during World War II. One of the newer community gardens has been designed and implemented in a nontraditional space—on the rooftop of the Gary Comer Youth Center, located on Chicago’s South Side in one of the city’s “food deserts.” The rooftop garden was transformed into a one-third-acre (0.13-ha) rooftop farm that produces up to 1,000 pounds (454 kg) of produce, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, and many other vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The bounty is distributed at a youth-led farmers’ market and through an entrepreneurial project, Comer Rooftop Crops.

Milwaukee began leasing five lots left vacant by foreclosures for use as community gardens as part of an effort to revitalize a central city neighborhood. The three-year leases give gardeners a sense of tenure and stability, but do not prevent the land from being developed over the long term, says Yves LaPierre, a real estate analyst for the city.

Edible landscapes. With the goal of connecting people to real food, landscape architects and community members are looking at public walkways and spaces for ways to integrate fruit trees and vegetables into their planning. Local artists in Los Angeles have even created a mapping project, describing the locations of fruit trees to encourage public foraging and appreciation.

Los Angeles also has an initiative called the Urban Farming Food Chain Project, which constructs food-producing wall systems and mounts them on buildings. The wall systems are aluminum or stainless-steel panels that are produced with 3-, 4-, or 6-inch (7.7-, 10.2-, or 15.4-cm) depths and accommodate soil for deeper-rooted plants such as vegetables and grasses. Manufactured by Green Living Technologies, the patented design allows free water flow and drainage and unlimited root migration with no root rot or wasted irrigation, and panels can be custom made for special uses.

A partnership between Green Living Technologies and the New York City–based firm Elmslie Osler Architect installed four wall panels in downtown Los Angeles to help feed lower-income and homeless people.

Broader System Responses

Zoning/planning. To better accommodate urban farming, Miami officials, as part of the Miami Urban Agriculture Initiative, are overhauling the city’s zoning ordinance to include new laws regulating community gardens, rooftop gardens, greenhouses, and backyard gardens. “We’re looking at ways to add urban agriculture because it helps build a sense of community, encourages people to live healthier lifestyles, and provides educational opportunities for children to learn where food comes from,” says Luciana Gonzalez, assistant to the planning director.

Master plans. Urban agriculture is a key component of a large military reuse site in Irvine, California, the largest master-planned community in the United States. The first phases of the 1,437-acre (582-ha) Orange County Great Park—twice the size of New York City’s Central Park—when complete will consist of a 114-acre (46-ha) operating farm and a community garden where residents can grow their own produce. The Great Park will be one of the nation’s largest public parks and is located in the middle of one of the most densely developed counties in the nation, a place where once active farmland has disappeared with urban development. Sustainability and community health are key values for the park design, and agriculture will add an important dimension to bringing fresh produce to the region.

In south Los Angeles, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles is developing a master plan for the redevelopment of Jordan Downs, a large public housing neighborhood. In conceiving the mix of uses to accompany a proposed 2,400-unit housing development, firms have proposed not only economic development opportunities, but also creation of a community garden plot or integration into the project of roof gardens and courtyards with fruit trees and fresh vegetables.

Urban farms. In Milwaukee, Will Allen, a MacArthur fellow, is inventing an urban farm model called a Community Farm Center. At a historic two-acre (0.8-ha) plot in the middle of a mostly residential community, his organization Growing Power has used every corner of the property through the cultivation of crops on tiers, with aquaculture on a separate tier. The property has a small bee farm and an animal farm, and includes ingenious but simple winter adaptations for plants. Allen’s organization provides training so that, with little land and little money, anyone can be a farmer.

Urban farms have increasingly proved to be an effective tool to teach children and parents about healthy eating and physical activity. Greensgrow Farm in Philadelphia uses an abandoned site as an urban farm to teach the community how to grow food. Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco hosts weekly community activities to educate and involve local residents in agricultural practices. In the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale, an 11-acre (4.5-ha) farm at a middle school, provides a “living campus” where students get hands-on agriculture experiences that cultivate both healthy habits and environmental leadership.

Distribution hubs. Local distribution of fresh food from farms presents a challenge. To help farmers bring their produce to the urban marketplace, Mia Lehrer + Associates of Los Angeles designed a food distribution concept called Farm on Wheels. Farmers bring their locally grown produce to a centralized farmers’ distribution market, where a trained market manager coordinates whether individual foods should be sold on site or put on low-carbon-emission produce trucks to be sold curbside in neighborhoods throughout the city. Through this concept and other creative distribution methods, consumers can buy fresh produce that is picked on the day or within days of sale rather than food processed and shipped across the county or the ocean over the course of weeks. This alternative to supermarkets allows farmers and shoppers to benefit from the social, economic, and cultural benefits of farmers’ markets that bring together people and products.

Food policy councils/task forces. Across the country, cities are engaging various stakeholders to form food councils or task forces to solve the larger-scale distribution and production problems and to look for long-range solutions. In 2009, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed a Food Policy Task Force to provide a set of recommendations on city food policy and an assessment of the food shed—the regional ecology of the food production and distribution cycle. Among the topics the task force is researching are food access, sustainable agriculture and pesticide use, nutrition education programs, and urban/rural community relationships. Locally produced food is an important component of the Los Angeles initiative to achieve a sustainable environment. As a part of this process, the national Roots of Change organization gathered input for the city from farmers, ranchers, food banks, activists, media, public agencies, educators, and others.

Food banks. Other critical players for planners and designers to recognize are the regional food banks, which provide food for those with limited means. During the past few years, these local organizations have been overwhelmed by demand and have had limited access to fresh food. One example of a partnership is the Orange County Great Park, which provides thousands of tons of fresh food to regional food banks.

Citywide efforts. Detroit communities are looking for solutions to the loss of jobs and income by using the city’s abundance of abandoned, vacant land. Youth groups have formed campaigns such as the Detroit City of Hope to identify, encourage, and promote infrastructure-building initiatives, including urban agriculture, to create a sustainable local economy. Detroit community leaders also want to “reinvent work” to help people and build the community. Other efforts include Urban Farming, which has created 90 garden and farm sites in the Detroit area.

On another front, John Hantz, CEO of the Detroit-based Hantz Group, has committed up to $30 million of his funds to buy land over a ten-year period on which to create a commercial farm in Detroit. The initial phase of Hantz Farms will be a demonstration project and is planned for more than 100 acres (40.5 ha). Hantz Farms is still negotiating for land, and expects to begin the process of getting the farm up and running in late spring 2011.

In Seattle, where municipal officials declared 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture, the city council is considering creating zoning that supports city farming and changing laws that currently prevent people from selling their backyard produce. Urban agriculture is already taking hold, with parking strips sprouting raised beds, productive gardens replacing lawns, and even a service called Urban Garden Share emerging to match landless gardeners with residents willing to share their lawns and land. Seattle leaders are working to form a Regional Food Policy Council with the goal of strengthening local food production and the reliability of local food sources.

lehrerAgriculture_6_300In July 2009, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (now California’s lieutenant governor) issued an executive directive creating a Food Policy Council and directing comprehensive food policy actions. The directive called on various departments to report on adding into the city’s general plan policies and actions to support several specific food-related goals, including advancing urban agriculture. The directive states that food production in San Francisco has tremendous potential for growth and mandates that the Food Policy Council address two main barriers to urban farming in the city—limited access to land and lack of educational/technical support. A land audit has been conducted to identify potential city-owned plots of land that could be used to grow food, and educational and technical support for all levels of urban gardeners is being augmented and coordinated throughout the city. The directive also asked the redevelopment agency to develop a food business action plan with strategies such as enterprise zones, expedited permitting, and tax incentives, and directed participating city departments to seek funding to support urban agriculture to increase food production inside the city. To reinforce this effort, it also asked city departments to give preferences to businesses that sell healthy and sustainably produced food, as well as to city events that purchase local and healthy food as defined by guidelines.

Community engagement. Community members are starting up their own alliances. One example is transition communities, in which residents meet to solve local sustainability issues, including starting community gardens. Social media actions are bringing young adults together to support local farmers who need labor for startup projects, or to start a city policy action.

As local residents push for changes, they are facing some roadblocks from urban planning rules that limit the use of agriculture in residential areas. A recent example is San Francisco, where two local farmers want to create a small market garden model to sell fresh and organic produce on a parcel zoned for single-family homes. In many cities, officials are requiring a conditional use permit for such activities. Broad statewide and regional conversations need to take place at an accelerated pace, and land banking, zoning for agriculture, and other community tools need to be broadened.

Regional and national solutions are needed from professionals in both the private and public sectors. As planners dream of their next general plan, will they include an agricultural or fresh food component? As they are asked to review and process their next master plan, will they look to models to include urban and suburban agricultural land and economic development models that sustain fresh food options? Will models maximize land use and support easy replication without the need to overhaul city codes? As neighbors ask to farm their own land, will local zoning agencies increase the flexibility of codes and zoning to bring back this use?

Food sheds needs to be more deeply understood by planners and the public. ULI members can play a critical role. A regional approach to providing fresh food to communities is so basic a need that planners, designers, and landscape architects must increase their understanding of these backyard and broader system options for producing fresh food within each development or parcel, and also seek out partners regionally to address broader community needs. If ULI members offered their expertise to help resolve some of these issues, especially at a regional level, the nation would inherit a better, more sustainable future.