Connected Cities, landscape architecture, urban agriculture

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Food systems as part of our urban environments are nothing new. It is only in the last 100 or so years of city habitation that we’ve moved many parts of the process out of our cities and sterilized it such that children grow up not understanding that milk comes from cows, or the nitty gritty that goes into meat consumption. Cities built on the networks that gave us sustenance were named for them. Riverside streets in London are named after grains that arrived on boats from the agricultural fields. Butcher shops sat on the edges of cities where animals arrived from farms and fields, forming meat districts. (Hungry City – Carolyn Steel)

London map

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Industrial farming and distribution changed much of that.

Fortunately there is an emergence of urban food “awareness” and an effort to reintegrate the food system into urban environments. New interest in the urban food process adds to the typical production chain that involves farms, distribution, processing, packaging, sales, and consumption. It reveals and recognizes a part of the chain that has always been vital but rarely talked about – waste and decomposition. And it adds social functions to this seemingly linear chain with loops that link and weave food into other urban functions like education and recreation.

Whereas the (re)genesis of urban agriculture in the 20th century came from utopian and altruistic efforts to feed people (for example, Victory gardens during World War II, farming coops in intentional communities, and efforts by Catholic churches in blighted urban areas like Detroit), it quickly moved into a realm of fad and popularity. Don’t get me wrong – this is critical for warming the masses to what is ultimately a messy process. A friend in a ritzy high-rise in Portland, Oregon, was allowed just recently to put tomato plants on her publicly-viewed veranda. Realizing that rooftop gardens can add considerable real estate value, landscape architects are developing a new specialty when working with urban developers. Real estate agents now put the proximity to community gardens on their listings, and farm-to-fork grocery stores have become neighborhood catalysts.


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It is now time to look past the individual objects that make up food systems. One of the most compelling and motivating aspects of urban food systems to designers and planners is how these are being woven back into all the other interconnected systems within cities. We are examining how the different objects (gardens, fields, factories, stores, restaurants, compost bins) function together with elements of the city (stormwater, HVAC condensate, nutrient flows, open space, left-over space).

These systems are being understood and designed as organisms, nourished by the “big three” factors that underpin our understanding of sustainable development – economy, environment, society. They are relevant and responsive to modern needs instead of recreating a nostalgic agricultural past. They capitalize on modern modes of production, marketing, technology, sales, and consumption. They re-purpose old ways of doing things and aging infrastructure. A successful example is Eli’s Vinegar Factory in New York City, which put a small rooftop farm and grocery store in an old vinegar factory, creating opportunities to participate in and expose multiple parts of the urban food process.

Food system planning and design is happening at a spatial level, in how we organize and design spaces. It is also happening at an organizational and policy level, making possible or even incentivizing these processes. The landscape composition of house yards in Portland, Denver, Boston, Madison, and San Francisco (among others) now mix chicken coops together with plastic children’s slides and garden gnomes. Legally.

Although the good, old community garden may have been the catalyst for the expansion of the entire network in cities (community comes together to grow a garden that feeds its members, often in situ, while participating in communal goals and shared resources), the next phase of the design and planning of urban food systems will take on a more comprehensive span. It will consider and affect the larger physical urban context. It will more fully blend modern modes and innovations into its functioning. Financial fitness and creativity will drive it.

Look out for my next post to come shortly.



Rachel Hill ( is a landscape designer in AECOM’s Design + Planning practice. She worked for Verzone Woods Architects in Switzerland on the Food Urbanism Initiative (FUI). She helped develop a website that continues to grow as an “atlas” of urban food system projects, broken down into their functional components:

Originally published Jan 30, 2014

Author: Rachel Hill