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How Food Systems Shape Cities
Thomas Jost and Kathleen Bakewell

Two urban specialists have composed the following comment pieces for World Architecture News to complement an event taking place in Manhattan’s Financial District, NYC on 2 May 2012, which will look at how food systems can shape urban environments in America. For a list of speakers and more info about the event visit, please click here.

Thomas Jost, Senior Urban Strategist, Parsons Brinckerhoff

Our global economy is predicated upon growth, increasing material wealth through production, primarily from non-renewable resources. Everywhere we turn, we face the fact that we are reliant upon fossil fuels to support our economic engine, largely to the detriment of our natural environment. And while the industrial revolution brought forth tremendous progress, we are entering an age of resource scarcity that will force us to evolve to a new economic model where growth will stem from the careful use of limited natural resources.

Formal recognition of the friction between economic growth and environmental responsibility can be traced back to 1987, when the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, identified that the needs of our economy must be balanced with those of the environment and society. In the intervening decades, despite increased awareness that continued growth is coming at the expense of the planet, use of fossil fuels has dramatically increased, bringing into sharper focus the need to structure a new economic ‘path’ towards a sustainable future. The answer lies in our ability to shape an economy where growth enhances our environment, a fundamental transformation that will only come about as people change their lifestyles. One such lifestyle demand is the rise of the local food movement. We will examine this phenomenon and the possibility that it can point the way towards a sustainable economic model.

Over the past century, in response to the massive upswing in global population, industrialized food production has largely replaced the family farm. In America in 1900, farmers represented 40% of the


employed population, by 1990, that number was less than 1%. However, in recent years there has been a renaissance of the local farm and increasingly urban dwellers are demanding locally sourced products. While growing in popularity, is demand alone going to be sufficient to spark a rapid growth in local food production? Regional and local food represents a fraction of what we eat as a country and our small and mid-sized farmers continue to struggle to compete against global food manufacturers in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

We will focus on how to scale local and regional food production while maintaining a sustainable operational model. We will examine the business models for local food - ESAs, co-ops, not-for-profits - that focus on sustainable growth models as opposed to the maximization of profit. We will look at the infrastructure needed to support this industry and the opportunities for farmers, business and government to partner to connect to cities to ‘grow’ this new sustainable economic model. We will look at the implications of regional food in terms of capacity, land use, employment and ecological opportunity in cities, and also in suburban and rural areas. We will ask the question, can regional food create better communities?

Kathleen Bakewell is the Executive Director of BioCities

Given the stark reality that we are now in a time of deficit spending of the earth’s capital, it is imperative that we regard our economic systems as inextricably bound to ecosystems. The two words: ecology and economy - in fact, are derived from the same Greek root: eco, which means house. Food systems are a primary example of the interaction of the two disciplines and a closer look at food through the dual lenses of ecology and economy reveals many startling inefficiencies and even absurdities in how we currently grow, produce, distribute, consume and dispose of food.

Studying the lessons of wild ecosystems provides some valuable direction for redesigning efficient and non-depleting methods and practices for feeding humans. As clever as we are, we have not yet developed technological processes that are better than nature for renewability. All human-designed products and processes require a draw-down of the earth’s capital stock. Wild ecosystems, in contrast, build organic material and resist stresses, performing this work on contemporary sunlight (as opposed to that embodied in fossil fuels) indefinitely and for free.

We have millennia of wisdom - embodied in wild ecosystems and human thought and experimentation – from which to learn. To cite just one example, the practice of milpa agriculture in Mesoamerica has evolved over hundreds of generations into a mutually beneficial network whereby farmers temporally and spatially shift the growth of maize to feed local populations while sequentially


regenerating small forest areas.

In our rapidly urbanizing world, can we design cities that more closely emulate dynamic and productive ecosystems like the milpa? Perhaps agriculture, reinvented as a form of urban infrastructure, could offer such promise, particularly if combined with the multiple synergies of food production, biomass creation, CO2 reduction and sequestration, nutrient recycling, resource renewal and purification, economic revitalization and social vitality.

Clearly, wild ecosystems are radically superior to conventional agriculture practices, at least in terms of renewal and diversity. Agriculture based on the standards of wilderness could therefore lead to regenerating landscapes that grow and expand without the negative impacts to the environment while also producing food for humans.

Tom Jost has made a career delivering complex, multi-disciplinary sustainability projects of international significance. Tom managed the plan for the conversion of Fresh Kills Park, America’s largest landfill, into New York City’s largest ecological habitat, the ‘Central Park of the 21st Century’. He also managed the design and construction of NYC’s High Line, internationally recognised as the new standard for urban open space. Currently Tom focuses on urban scale sustainable solutions for Parsons Brinckerhoff: a 14,000 person global infrastructure firm. Tom has lectured nationally on the topics of sustainable urbanism and sustainable design and is an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute Graduate School of Urban Design in their Environmental Systems Management program.

Kathleen Bakewell is a landscape architect and LEED Accredited Professional with specialties in Neighborhood Development and Building Design and Construction. She is the Founding Principal of Brook Farm Group, an ecologically-focused landscape architecture practice based in New York City which recently completed a new habitat green roof at New York University Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. She is the Executive Director for the non-profit BioCities, on the board of advisors for FarmingUp, a rooftop farm and food research initiative and a founding director for Our Growing Place, a children’s food growing and cooking program which launched at Gracie Mansion in 2010.



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