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Filling Urban Voids . . . With Farms?

by Lisa Stiffler

Ripples, and sometimes waves, of the economic tsunami continue to roil through cities across the United States. One product of the downturn is stalled real estate projects. Many shelved projects have left vacant lots, derelict buildings, or parking lots where housing or office space was planned. The need to put these spaces back into use has motivated some great thinking about how to integrate open space and farming into the urban landscape. Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Philadelphia has been working on projects to convert “brown space” to “green space” for years. Philadelphia’s voids were created by migration from the cities to outlying urban areas, not a specific downturn. In 2005 they held an international design competition called Urban Voids.  The point is, Philly has paved the way—er, broken new ground—for other cities to follow. And the best ideas about what to do with vacant property have to do with food.

You can review some of the design contest entries here. For the most part these ideas are at the edge of feasibility, but that’s the point of design competitions: to push the limits of what conventional wisdom says is possible.

One of the successful entries to the Urban Voids competition was Front Studio’s cleverly named Farmadelphia concept. Farmadelphia was another competition created to generate ideas for urban agriculture in empty urban spaces.  

Here is an aerial view.


Some more detailed images. Here is a pasture for urban cows.


We wouldn’t want to leave out the chickens.


What is a farm with out some goats?


Farmadelphia knits together a couple of ideas we’ve discussed about urban farming  and food insecurity. Specifically Farmadelphia challenges us to consider the end of the dichotomy between rural and urban. This idea of connecting farming with urban life is not new to the Northwest. And new doors are opening as urban properties remain undeveloped.

Seattle’s Greg Smith has allowed a great food truck to park right around the corner from the Sightline offices on property that is no longer going to be developed. Portland has been doing this for years. Seattle, Portland and Vancouver allow chickens and thanks to City Councilmember Richard Conlin Seattle allows goats.

Seattle has a municipal farm, the Marra Farm, that is not only in an urban area but in part of the city that’s downright industrial, South Park. The Marra Farm is a working farm that is right near the day-lighted Hamm Creek. The Marra Farm was one of the many farms operated by Italian immigrants in the Duwamish River Valley that supplied produce to the Pike Place Market in the early years of the last century. Today it provides for a city food security program called Solid Ground. Portland and Vancouver have similar programs. Vancouver has also entertained a skyscraper farm called Inhabitat.

Putting farms on more and more vacant lots makes sense on several levels: transportation costs would be cut for hauling produce, green spaces help reduce runoff into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans; healthy food would be more available in more neighborhoods. And just as important urban farming reminds us food doesn’t come from the grocery store but from the land, animals and water.  

So perhaps, one day, our region might realize a version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, a city of tall buildings surrounded by open space and farms. Something about this concept is very appealing.



It’s the ultimate: density paired with open space and proximity to healthy food. But…maybe it’s the flying machines that would really seal the deal.

This article originally appeared on

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Went to a session on Monday, November 10, 2008, on "Sustainable Design and (un) Development in Cities" by Justin Hollander of Tufts at Harvard. As a student of the Professors Popper at Rutgers who first proposed the Buffalo Commons, Hollander has been examining the cities that have lost population in the last 50 years or so, asking how people are planning for decline rather than growth. He is part of a small movement called "smart decline."

It was a short presentation mostly dealing with Hollander's studies of the Rust Belt and Flint, MI. It seems that some of the loss in housing has been replaced by urban agriculture but Hollander didn't really explore the idea that agriculture can be both economically transformative and necessary for survival in a sustainable future. Hollander spoke with favor about the transition now happening in Youngstown, OH and their mayor, Jay Willliams, and the work of the Shrinking Cities Institute at UC Berkeley.

Planning for decline as well as growth is a wise move but politically difficult. Nobody talked about the present housing and mortgage crisis and how it might relate to these issues which I thought was interesting. I brought up resource issues and Peak Oil, especially as one cause mentioned for population decline was the transition away from rail transport and we may soon be transitioning back from trucks. Lots of blinders here, smart people with narrow vision.

370 cities lost population from 1950-2000 worldwide
122 metropolitan areas in the US lost population from 2000-2004 - German Federal Cultural Council
European countries are confronting population loss (and aging)

Smart decline toolkit to be released soon by Kent State Univ

I would think that there are some people looking at this problem in Japan as well, due to their rapidly aging population.

Posted by: gmoke on 21 Jul 09

Appealing? Not on your life. Le Corbusier's Radiant City school of planning wherein tall towers are surrounded by fields has been proven time and again to be a disaster. Consider Projects. We can and do have urban farming within human-scale, livable, vibrant neighborhoods. This is not as glamourous or pie in the sky, and it doesn't allow you to name drop Frank Lloyd Wright, but it is appealing and it is what works.

Posted by: Stella on 21 Jul 09

I applaud Front Studio (and the other architects I've seen lately) for promoting urban farming, as it will be very important in ensuring food security in an unstable future, but I can't help but be a little annoyed at the farms they design. Every image in Farmadelphia is of a single crop monoculture, which is hardly sustainable. Cows on an empty lot are pretty unlikely, and they had better shoo that goat away from their cabbage before it's all destroyed. I know it's all for show, but they could have consulted an urban farmer for a dash of realism. Does this project advance the conversation at all?

We already have urban farms (see Growing Power, Boggy Creek Farm, American Community Gardening Association, etc etc) and we should focus our energies on further developing their processes into workable/profitable models that can be applied on a broader scale as a network of small urban farms and community gardens in blighted urban areas all over the world.

Posted by: Scott on 22 Jul 09

You might find the work of Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative interesting. Their Shrinking Cities Institute investigates more sustainable forms of urban development, within the context of depopulation. One recently completed project is the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland report, which outlines principles and strategies for returning vacant land to productive use. The full report and companion Vacant Land Re-Use Pattern Book can be downloaded on their website under Cleveland Land Lab ( ). The community Pattern Book includes regional climate-based specifications and estimated costs for a variety of potential pilot projects, ranging from community orchards and market gardens to water-management and neighborhood geo-thermal wells. $500,000 in funding has been made available to neighborhood residents and community development organizations to implement pilot projects beginning this year. It will be exciting to see what kind of transformative effect these projects will have on the city when completed.

Posted by: david j on 22 Jul 09

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