Feeding Cities: Getting What We Want, Sustainably, Out of Future Food Systems

How do we farm sustainably in an ever-urban world?

An aquaponic system at a Milwaukee, Wisc. urban farm. Credit: Ryan Griffis via Wikimedia Commons

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As the 2013 Feeding Cities conference unfolds this week in Philadelphia, Next City, a media partner for the event, will feature regular updates from bloggers covering its talks and workshops. Click here to see a rundown of our coverage.

“People want the best of both worlds,” said Marina Khoury, a partner at the architecture and planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, as she opened a Feeding Cities session on the future of food in the city. It’s exactly this attitude that has resulted in urban sprawl, argued Khoury, as I sat in the audience awaiting a reality check about the sustainability of human desire in the developed world.

For fans of the happy ending, where humanity both prospers and gets everything it wants, that reality check never came. Khoury and a second speaker, John Sugrue, senior urban designer at the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, went on to discuss alternative land use models that could indeed allow us to get the best of both worlds. The ideas presented were all essentially based around consolidating developments to allow more effective farming on undeveloped land, while at the same time creating dense clusters of activity in “integrated agricultural villages.”

James Haig Streeter, landscape design practice director at AECOM, was just as keen to find a solution where everything changes apart from our desire to get what we want, though he added a sci-fi twist for dense urban areas. “It makes a lot of sense to stack people up,” said Streeter, summarizing the entire history of urban development, “but it makes less sense to stack up agriculture. But by stacking the two together, there are benefits.”

Observing that architects and planners “spend a lot of time designing buildings so they are shielded from sun,” Streeter proposed an urban architecture where micro-farms act as shields, piled up along exterior walls and absorbing the “waste product” that is essential to their survival. This solution would be made viable by using aquaponics, a food production system that combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water).

Citing Cuban cities as examples of how lower-population urban areas can be self-sufficient, Streeter imagined a modern city where building exteriors are lined with aquaponic farms small enough to climb the height of a building, yet deep enough to absorb enough of the sun’s energy.

“There must be better, more sustainable, more energy-efficient, more water-efficient alternatives out there for urban environments,” Streeter said. As Khoury, Sugrue and pretty much the entire audience nodded along in agreement, I thought, does this mean I can still get everything I want?

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Tags: sustainable citiesurban farmingfood deserts

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