Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Agriculture in Golden Gate Park - Landscape Legacy vs Lettuce Beds

[Aerial view of Golden Gate Park, photo via]

Is urban agriculture an appropriate use of city parks? This is a question we'll hear more often in coming years, as interest in urban farming grows, and advocates try to identify open lands within city limits. I have advocated for it in the past, writing about urban ag in parks here. Several months ago, at the Mayor's Forum on Urban Agriculture in San Francisco, an audience member asked the candidates about the potential for farming in Golden Gate Park. The subsequent debate got me thinking a little more deeply about the issue. Several of the candidate's responded categorically that farming should not be allowed in the park, citing the park's Master Plan. And I for one agree.

Well sort of.

But let's start at the beginning. It is sometimes erroneously believed that Golden Gate (GG) Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous designer of New York's Central Park. By the time Olmsted was asked to design GG Park, he had turned away from the idea of a singular large park, and his suggestion to San Francisco was a chain of smaller parks, similar to the Emerald Necklace in Boston. His recommendation was rejected, in favor of the Central Park model, and the park we have today was designed by William Hammond Hall and later John Mc Laren. Both men agreed with Olmstead's naturalistic prefernces, feeling a park should be a place apart from the city, where people could enjoy 'nature'. William Hammond Hall is quoted as defending the open spaces, saying "The value of a park consists of its being a park, and not a catch-all for almost anything which misguided people may wish in it."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Extreme Agriculture - Faultline Farm at 29 Palm Inn

29 Palms Inn is sited at the edge of a natural oasis in the Mojave Desert just outside Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. A funky desert getaway spot for Los Angelenos, the inn boasts the usual suspects - a pool and poolside bar, an air-conditioned dining room, a well-tended lawn - along with a more surprising feature (at least to me): an organic farm. Managing to coax a wide variety of vegetables and herbs from parched ground under a beating sun, the farm demonstrates how determination can make 'local' food a reality in any climate. When I visited the staff was busy setting up for a wedding, so I wasn't able to ask anyone about the challenges of managing the garden and water use. Would love to hear what you know, readers, if you've been there!

[Entry sign and view of farm fence]

[The farm is edged by a deep, inviting, shady grape arbor]

[An antique sink under the grape arbor serves as a wash station for produce]

[View of herb beds]

[Overall view of farm beds]

[Rustic crop labels for visitors]

Agriculture and Landscape at the ASLA (part 2) - 'Re-engaging the Land'

The third agriculture-related talk at the ASLA conference focused on rural landscapes and conservation (for a recap of the urban agriculture talks, see Part I).

The talk was led by Thomas Woltz, of Byrd Nelson Woltz, and included one of the firm's designers, Breck Gastinger and James Gibbs, a biologist with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The speakers emphasized the environmental impact that can be made when working at the scale of large estates; traditional agriculture as a major polluter, and the importance of working with biologists and ecologists to ensure that our interventions are based on sound assumptions.

[Meadow at Seven Ponds Farm, photo via]

The collaboration between the speakers on a 270 acre farm-estate in Virginia (not shown) formed a case study in creating a 'network of metrics',  working with SUNY biology students who collected information on air, soil and water temperatures, and monitored for species including salamander, deer, bees, bats and birds. During the monitoring period, the landscape architects designed the physical benchmarking objects, creating a grid of monitoring posts that communicate to the layperson through color coding their purpose (blue, for example, indicates groundwater). The monitoring results informed the final masterplan that combines best-practice agriculture at a small scale with restoration of sensitive landscape areas. The success of the project has led neighboring property owners to engage the firm.

[Nick's Head Station, photo via]

The firms' work at Nicks Head Station in New Zealand (which won a 2010 Honor Award from the ASLA) was also shown. The master plan for this estate explored restoration of cultural, agricultural and native landscapes, including fencing the promontory to create a preserve for native species, and reforestation of hills previously dedicated to cattle grazing. Again their work focused on removing land from agriculture that "should have never been farmed", and relocating orchards to more suitable lands.

[Nick's Head Station illustrated plan, image via]

[Diagram of Nick's Head Station, image via]

Other projects mentioned included a plan for Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's estate) that would restore the agricultural context and tell the 'agrarian narrative' of the land and Medlock Ames, a winery in Healdsburg, whose tasting room gardens I wrote about in an earlier post. The firm is now embarking on a conservation ecology study of the vineyards and adjacent woodlands for the winery.

[View of resevoir, vineyards and forest at Medlock Ames, photo via TexaCali Wine Trail]

James Gibbs focused on the nature of collaborating with scientists, identifying the strength of conservation biologists as their ability to "drill down", to focus on specifics - which points to the beauty of working with landscape architects who can balance the specifics in a holistic approach. He also described the need to structure the collaboration with scientists so they get credit for their work, which is of paramount importance in the scientific fields. Finally, he shared his optimism for the "private lands conservation" approach, which moves faster and can impact more land than the traditional focus on public lands.

The session was very inspiring  in its advocacy not for agriculture alone, but rather for agrarian lands within a larger context, including social and environmental aspects. Landscape architects are famously lauded as generalists, and  this is the approach I hope the field moves towards, a deeper understanding of food landscapes beyond the food itself to encompass the whole.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Urban Agriculture & Landscape Architecture at the ASLA

Last week, at the ASLA conference in San Diego, agriculture was again positioned as an integral part of the field's area of work, represented in three talks, and one field trip. I was able to attend the talks, and wanted to note the highlights. [As I was writing this, the post seemed to become very lengthy, so I decided to focus on the two urban agriculture talks here, and post later on the restoration ecology presentation.]

April Phillips spoke on 'Food Cities' with Jacob Voit of the Bush Foundation. The talk was positioned from a consumer-based approach (that is, people need to know where our food comes from, and if its good for us; we all like food; we all have food journeys) and she suggested that "inviting the cultivation of food back into cities" was part of sustainability. I liked her re-quote of Jamie Oliver's "food is a gateway drug to sustainability", suggesting that via food issues we can educate on the spectrum of environmental issues. The talk also briefly touch on elements of a food system, some obvious (production, distribution) and others more intriguing (education).

Mia Lehrer's panel on 'Cultivating Spaces' also began with a focus on the consumer (liveability in cities, building community) but featured more radical thinking on the topic. She suggested agriculture as territory within the city, and discussed her work mapping Los Angeles to understand the potential scales of commercial farming in the city. One of the most compelling ideas was decommissioning golf courses for food production - she points out that only 1.4% of L.A.'s population plays golf, yet there are at least five courses in city limits. Maya Dunne focused on health aspects of food and open space, and discussed her work on Orange County Great Park, a 1,400 acre public park with 114 acres dedicated to agriculture. In particular the 'Farm Food Lab' at Great Park provides a great precedent - master gardener demonstration plots next to community gardens, creating a space for knowledge transfer.

[Mia Lehrer - Los Angeles Food Planning, image via]

[Mia Lehrer - Farm on Wheels, image via]

[Food Farm Lab at O.C. Great Park, photo via]

Charles Cross discussed urban farming in Detroit as part of the panel, and the specific history of the city that has resulted in both so much need, and opportunity, to address food access and security. He showed many great projects including the Peacemaker Garden (a small farm run inside the shells of former buildings), Recovery Park and Catherine Ferguson Academy. He also showed slides of Lafayette Community Garden, a public park (sponsored by a corporation) with food gardens managed by volunteers, and harvests donated to food banks. The garden was designed by Kenneth Weikel Landscape Architects, and demonstrates the way design and agriculture can be integrated to create a larger landscape and suggest new forms, which can be especially important in urban areas. The formation of agriculture expressions within the city, the way culture and farming collide on metropolitan ground is a very exciting potential for the field of landscape architecture. 

[Lafayette Community Gardens from above, photo via]

[Lafayette Community Gardens, photo via Little House on the Urban Prairie]

[Lafayette Community Gardens, photo via]

[Peacemaker Garden, photo via]

[Rendering of Recovery Park, image via]

The final panelist on 'Cultivating Spaces' was Barbara Finnin, of City Slicker Farms in Oakland, CA and she focused on "place-based health disparities" and her organization's work in running 6 market farms in the disadvantaged area of West Oakland. The market farm sites total 24,000 sf (just over half an acre) currently and produce 10,000 lbs of food annually which is sold at sliding scale to their neighborhoods at farm stands. They also have begun a backyard farm program, helping people with yards install their own gardens, and that project produces an estimated 24,000 lbs of food annually. This organization represents a really strong case study in the potentials of small-scale, disperse urban agriculture to address community food needs. It also represents the flip side to the Lafayette Community Gardens, where without corporate sponsorship there is may be no money for 'extras' like design fees.

[City Slicker Farms, photo via]

All of which begs the question, what is the role of the landscape architect in urban agriculture projects? Much of the conversation about food systems is policy centric, but the work of landscape architects is form-based, physical, tied to the land. The keynote panel addressed the topic of 'Shaping The ... City" and some of their thoughts are instructive here. Laurie Olin's suggestion that designers don't create change (it comes from the people) but give form to change, and that cities are cultural landscapes suggests a collaborative approach. Martha Shwartz's observation that "what is new in cities" is that they (we) face limited global resources, points us towards a humbler aesthetic, while her stance that there are not enough big ideas reminds us not to settle. Maurice Cox posited that the strength of designers, their special skill set, is imagining a new future when others can't, and imagining it in concrete terms that help others envision (and embrace) alternative futures rather than fear change. Would love to hear your thoughts on the role of landscape professionals in the urban agriculture movement - purely aesthetic, planning, visioning, or simple advocacy? Leave a comment!