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Living Future 2010: Designing Regenerative Food Systems
Julia Levitt, 17 May 10

It’s no secret that people in the city love to grow things, and certainly we all love to eat fresh food. The question is: where do fruits and vegetables fit into the urban landscape? According to permaculturists and devoted urban agri-vangelists Paul Kearsley and Dave Boehnlein, the answer is just about everywhere. In their presentation, "Designing Regenerative Food Systems" at last week’s Living Future unConference, Kearsley and Boehnlein offered 30-plus ways to integrate food production into cityscapes.

Using many of the principles gleaned from permaculture, Kearsley and Boehnlein demonstrated how urban agriculture can be about much, much more than a tasty head of homegrown lettuce or fragrant herbs blooming on a windowsill. If you understand how all of their needs and natural benefits can integrate into the larger picture, you can weave food plants right into the urban fabric and they’ll start making even non-organic systems work better. Espalier, for example, is a horticultural technique that trains fruit trees (or any tree) into 2-dimensional shapes that can climb up the wall of a building, shading and reducing the need for air conditioning, or when several trees are grouped together, can even serve double duty as a garden fence. Courtyard gardens, whether in raised beds, hanging baskets or pots, provide the welcoming fauna necessary to create an oasis and community space within a dense urban neighborhood (green alleys can have much the same effect). Growing food in these spaces can further promote a sense of community as neighbors join in the care, harvesting and enjoyment of the bounty (using a technique called Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) farming, some entrepreneurial urban farmers in Philadelphia even converted their lawns into cash-generating cropland).

The ultimate message: from lettuces nestled in living walls to fruit trees bursting from windows (a technique known as “tree tenants,” pioneered by Friedensreich Hundertwasser), any place you can plant plants, you can grow food.

That’s good news for architects planning to take on the Living Building Challenge, which was recently updated to version 2.0. This new iteration, released in November 2009, introduces a focus on urban agriculture, requiring designers to designate a minimum portion of their site to food production in all but the densest urban areas (the more suburban the site, the more space must be set aside for urban ag).

In order for urban agriculture to thrive and support truly regenerative food systems, however, they must respond thoughtfully to the most urban of species: people. Kearsley and Boehnlein encouraged designers not to stop with the plants, but to intentionally design points for people to interact with them at all points in the process, from community gardens and greenhouses to community kitchens and spaces for picnicking. By inspiring people to engage with the land, the sun, their food and one another, urban agriculture can become a platform for building truly resilient cities of the future.

Editor's Note: This post is part of our recap of the 2010 Living Future unConference. Click here for more.

Image of lettuce on living wall from Living Walls and Vertical Gardens. Image of 'tree tenants' on the Organic Building in Osaka, Japan courtesy of Flickr photographer Veronica Belmont under the Creative Commons License.

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Thanks for a great post that goes beyond possible solutions, but which also looks in the mindset change that is needed. Do you have any further resources on the Espalier technique?

Posted by: Monica Hernandez on 17 May 10

Very interesting! I have been lucky enough to purchase a new house with enough room outside to create my own garden. This year I have started with herbs and vegetables. I look forward to expanding in the future. I feel that if we all do our own part we can make a difference.

I try and by eco- friendly products as much as possible. Today you can even purchase eco-friendly vodka which I just stumbled upon the other day (360 Vodka). People have finally become aware and are taking ownership for their part in protecting our Earth!

Posted by: Amber on 17 May 10

Thanks, Monica. This conference was the first time I'd heard of espalier myself, so if you want to learn more, I suggest checking with the speakers and their organizations: Paul Kearsley (Homestead Habitats) and Dave Boehnlein (Terra Phoenix Design).

Posted by: Julia Levitt on 17 May 10

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