Monday, October 21, 2013

Supply Side: Pop-up Design Culture Addresses Food Deserts

Temporary urbanism, pop-up culture and sustainable architecture often meet in the re-use of shipping containers for everything from restaurants, offices, retail outlets and even one Starbucks location. San Francisco's Octavia Street is veritable gallery of re-use prototypes, with a beer garden, coffee shop, gourmet ice-cream store and a boutique menswear store all housed in various configurations of shipping containers. Shipping containers are a popular 'green' architecture material because they are durable, easy to come by, and represent an enormous embodied energy. 

One start-up has found a use for shipping containers that addresses food deserts, providing access to healthy, organic, and often local, produce in Seattle neighborhoods that lack other grocery store options. (The USDA estimates that more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts.) Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery was the brainchild of two MBA students who envisioned small, low-cost stores housed in shipping containers located in parking lots. The stores would stock the most common, high-turnover items, and rely on customers to help decide what should be stocked. The use of containers created a low-startup cost compared to brick-and-mortar, and the small size of the stores would mean low overhead and operating expenses. The small size and technically temporary nature of the store's design also allows for quick implementation, avoiding lengthy code and design reviews.

 The two initial stores have been so popular that they quickly outgrew the shipping containers and expanded into permanent structures, but the company has plans to continue to expand the container stores in the Seattle region and nationally. More details on the business plan can be found here. While I might wish for more innovation on the design side of the store, the mission of the store is solid, and successful.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Breaking Even: Urban Ag Tax Incentives (AB 551)

If enacted by local or county governments, a new California law promises to ease the financial impacts of urban real estate values on agriculture projects. Assembly Bill 551 offers reductions on real estate taxes to landowners who dedicate their urban sites to agriculture for a minimum of five years. Such tax incentives are common, both in California and other states, on rural and suburban lands but the urban law is a first. In both rural and urban areas, access to land is one of the most pressing issues in farming, as rising land values for commercial or residential development often make agricultural uses non feasible, barring land grants, subsidies or tax incentives. Read more about the law and some of the farms it impacts in the LA Times or on one of the sponsor's sites (SPUR).

[image vis]

Friday, August 2, 2013

Foto Friday - Truck Farm

This installation in the Seattle Children's PlayGarden is a playful nod to the concept of 'truck farms,' and part of an integrated agriculture concept that includes chickens, vegetable beds and honey bees. The PlayGarden is designed to take into account children with special needs and to be "a space where children of all abilities can play outdoors and stretch their imaginations and independence". via Pacific Horticulture, photo by Debra Prinzing.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Frogtown Farm - Urban Ag | City Park

[Rendering of proposed farm, via]

Frogtown Farm is a planned public park in St. Paul, MN that combines productive, recreational and reflective landscape programs in a neighborhood underserved by public open spaces. The plan focuses on human health - through the fresh produce grown on the 5-acre farm and the fresh food grown in backyards of residents trained on the farm; through exercise opportunities; and the mental health benefits of relaxing in natural environs. The plan also focuses on the long-term health of the community - positing that a unique and well-loved public space can make the neighborhood stronger and more stable. 

The park is proposed for a 13-acre site formerly occupied by the Amherst Wilder Foundation, which was recently purchased for this use by The Trust for Public Land. This project is a great example of holistic thinking and integrating agriculture into other landscape typologies, and one which will be great fun to watch develop...

[Views of proposed park, via]

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Quote Sunday

[Image from Shelby Farms Park proposal, by Tom Leader Studio]
"Farming, done properly, is a very efficient engine of cultivation that requires a careful understanding of the site and clear intentions. People don't farm in an ambiguous way and that's what I like about it as a reference  If we're going to intervene in the landscape, it should be for a clear reason." - Tom Leader

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Envisioning a New Food Policy

The California Food Policy Council, a collaborative group of local food policy organizations, has approved a working vision of a governing document called 'A Vision for a Healthy, Vibrant, Equitable Food System'. The document consists of ten points, covering labor, health, environment and education among others, as the fundamental building blocks of a new food policy. 

"Food and agriculture has a profound effect on the health and well-being of our communities and our natural environment. The goal of California's food and agriculture system must be to achieve greater health, equity and prosperity for our diverse communities and natural ecosystems. "

Read the full document here. Great map of where the good food movement is headed!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Edible Rooftop Review - Part I

[Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Brooklyn, NY]
Rooftops are one of the major underutilized spaces in cities and for this reason have long been targeted for greening efforts, from plazas and ornamental roof gardens of the early 1970s to today's rooftop farms and edible gardens. In this post I've highlighted a few of the technologies related to rooftop farming, and some case study farms that represent a spectrum of ways to incorporate farms on roofs, from technology to programming. This is only a small sample of all the urban rooftop farms out there -  if you think I missed an important one, please shout it out in the comments! If you're planning or designing a roof garden (edible or otherwise) an excellent resource is Roof Gardens: History, Design and Construction by Theodore Osmundson. For very small projects (think garden shed) Small Green Roofs by Nigel Dunnett is a handy resource. 

[Typical green roof section]

Soil-based roof gardens are classified as either extensive or intensive. Extensive gardens have very shallow soil profiles (2" or less) and can only support small, shallow-rooting plants like succulents. Extensive roof gardens mitigate urban heat effects and slow and store stormwater runoffs, but cannot support larger vegetation. Intensive gardens have deeper soil profiles, sometimes to several feet depending on the structural capabilities of the building and the plant material desired. Intensive gardens can support edible plants, shrubs and even trees depending on how they are designed. Sometimes these two are differentiated as greenroofs (extensive) and roof gardens (extensive). Planted roof systems typically consist of a number of layers designed to protect the roof itself from water intrusion, and vary most in the design of the growing medium, which must be both lightweight and able to hold water effectively. Rapid water loss to evaporation is one of the major challenges to roof garden plants. Other options for roof-gardens include planter boxes, hydroponic systems, and greenhouses.


[Gary Comer Youth Center edible roof garden, Chicago, IL]
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, in Brooklyn, NY converted their entire 6000 sf warehouse roof into farmland, by installing an extensive rooftop garden wall-to-wall.  Crops are grown in beds of soil 4-7" deep, and sold in an on-site market and to local restaurants. The farm also runs education programs and is open to the public daily. Brooklyn Grange is a successful 2-acre commercial farm using an extensive roof garden design, also in NY. Both these farms embody the most traditional aesthetic of 'farm', as if a little piece of Kansas had been blown onto a Brooklyn rooftop.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sci-fi Urban Farming: virtual land, adaptive re-use and high-tech growing

On the top level of a downtown Vancouver parking garage, North America's first commercial vertical farm has set up shop. 'Local Garden' converts an impermeable, polluted, heat-generating and underused urban surface into arable 'land', and plans to grow an estimated 150,000 pounds of greens and herbs for the local market this year. 

The humble exterior of the structure that houses the facility does nothing to hint at the sci-fi, high-tech interior, which resembles a food production unit on the set of a 1950's futuristic film. Trays of hydroponic growing medium, stacked twelve high, are in constant motion along a conveyor belt, and the aesthetic is minimalist white to the max. Each tray is tufted with its crop, be it kale, spinach, arugula or basil. The produce is packed on site and delivered to market the same day. 

The project works skillfully with the site's constraints, converting obstacles into opportunities. The sixth floor location maximizes exposure to sun, which is often an issue for gardens or farms in central urban areas, and mitigates wind effects (increased water loss) through the use of a protective greenhouse. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

New Shade of Greenhouse

[Experimental LSC greenhouse at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum]

story and photos by Daniel Tran

Imagine if you could attach tiny photovoltaic cells along the edge of your old drafting triangle (mine was pink) and generate electricity while while you were drafting.  You can.  Luminescent Solar Concentrator (LSC) technology isn't much different in theory and has been around 1970's but has faced major obstacles in terms of cost and long term durability of the plastics and dyes required.  Recent advances in the automotive industry have led to plastics and dyes resistant to long term solar exposure while advances in the solar industry have lead to more affordable hardware.  These breakthroughs coincide with emerging horticultural practices that explore the health and performance enhancing effects of color filters on plant photosynthesis.

At the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, university scientists and researchers are embarking on intersectoral 'cutting edge/growing edge' research into how LSC can be best adapted to new systems of greenhouse production.  The research project just finished its first season comparing crop trial performance in two different greenhouses: one conventional and one retrofitted with an experimental LSC system that incorporates red light filters and produces 800w in full sun (50w per sqm.  Of the several different crop varieties, solanums (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) in particular are know to benefit from red light.  Meanwhile solar energy is collected from the rest of the color spectrum in the embedded concentrators via refraction within the red LSC sheets.  Incidentally, solanums are also primary cash crops for many greenhouse and high tunnel productions in cold and marginal climates like Santa Cruz.  Crop production data is yet to be released.  

[Views inside the experimental greenhouse]

Another aspect of the research is a series of interviews and workshops that Ian Carbone and Derek Padilla will be conducting with small farms in Santa Cruz County in which they hope to address the following questions: 

-Can the solar greenhouses be used to help smaller or more environmentally conscious farms become more competitive in California food systems? 
-How can we develop a design process that takes into account the conscious and also unforeseen needs of small-scale Santa Cruz County farmers? 
-Who do we want to include in the design process and to what extent?

They further hope to start a non-profit organization to facilitate the next phases of collaborative design and implementation of LSC greenhouses.

Aside from the potential of providing small scale farmers with new affordable means of sustainability, grid parity and energy independence, there is also great interest in how LSC applications could enable large scale greenhouse producers to double as large scale renewable energy producers while enhancing their plant production within same footprint.  While standard PV panels cost $1/watt and produce 200w/sqm, LSC panels can produce 50w/sqm at a $0.50/watt cost and alllow light transmittance below.  

Meanwhile the many potential applications of LSC in the city for both city growers and city dwellers alike remain to be explored.... 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Photo Friday - Lost Agrarian Landscapes

Barbara Kingsolver has said: "At it's heart, a genuine food culture is an affinity between people and the land that feeds them." Which describes well the impulse behind the current urban farm/backyard food garden/farm-to-fork movement. In our madly urbanizing world, whole generations of people who have always lived in cities, have felt the call to connect with the land. 

But what about those still tied to the land, and to traditional farming practices? For such peoples it is probably not about a food culture, but it is the very basis of existence, their society and culture that relies on such an affinity. In this vein, I highly recommend Khadak, a beautiful surreal narrative film in the tradition of Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov, that examines the social and spiritual effects of official relocation programs on Mongolian herders. 

The film moves from the stark, vast landscape of the Mongolian steppes, to the 'drosscape' of a coal mine and finally into the modern Chinese city. It is an open critique of political and social policies towards farmers and ethnic minorities - and it is an accidental critique of land use policies and centralized planning efforts. The effects of the mandatory 6-8% growth rate on the Chinese landscape cannot be understated, and this film is a great essay on lost agrarian landscapes and the attitudes and policies behind that loss. It is also a glimpse into the changing landscape, it's design and values.

all images are film stills from Khadak