The Future of Cities and Farming
Michael Grove of Sasaki discusses how cities and agriculture should evolve
But that exodus might be overstated, and the future of civilization – and the health and prosperity of people – still depends on cities. But it also depends on looking at agriculture in a new way, and creating a closer connection between cities and farming is an important trend.
That’s the opinion of Michael Grove, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki. He is very optimistic about the future of cities, and sees them continuing to move toward a bright future that benefits both people and the environment.
“I think the shift away from urban living is actually somewhat of a fallacy,” said Grove. “There was a bit of a knee jerk reaction in the beginning of the pandemic where people felt that living in cities was somewhat dangerous.”
While numerous, sensationalized news reports have chronicled an urban exodus, the big picture tells a different story.
“In most cities around the country, urban real estate prices have stayed consistent. They're still selling, and I think people are more nimble right now as we're in this work from home situation,” he added. “So, you have people flexible with where they are. Maybe they're moving to be closer to families, but they're still looking at cities. Cities are actually thriving. It's maybe just not the usual suspects.”
Cities Critical to Human Survival
Grove sees cities as being vital to human survival, and have a significant impact on agriculture and food production. “Cities are where about 80 percent of the world population lives right now. And it's only about 10 percent of the entire Earth's land,” he asserted. “So, cities are incredibly efficient in terms of how we use the land.”
The Role of Architects and Designers
In order for cities to work in the future, they have to evolve, according to Grove. He says that architects and designers, according to Grove, have an important role to play in helping that evolution.
“Urban designers and landscape architects have been shifting that narrative of the city of being this kind of concrete jungle, lifeless space, into something that's much more rich,” he continued. “Cities that have more biodiversity and more equitable access to open space. That's a more connected open space system that allows for improved pedestrian mobility around cities.”
Grove added that affordable housing is a critical issue for cities. With some cities – notably New York and San Francisco – being so expensive, it adds to density issues that can lead to many problems.
“That's where you have some of those kind of urban slum conditions of too many people living in spaces without access to beautiful natural open space. So, there's historically been kind of a marginalized group and underrepresented group,” he said.
Cities and Farming are Connected
One of the trends Grove sees growing is the idea of urban farming, which has benefits on so many levels. It puts food sources closer to people and reduces strain on farmland.
While urban farming is relatively small now, Grove believes it’s critical that it continues to expand. “When you think about it, we haven't really changed the way that we've been farming for 10,000 years. We're still moving forward, looking for fresh fertile soil, tearing down forests in order to feed our need for more agriculture.”
“There could be rooftop farms, which are soil-based. That's also helping our buildings become more energy efficient. It's capturing storm water that's falling into our cities. It's increasing biodiversity in our cities,” he explained. “It could be greenhouses both within the city and on the fringes of the city that are allowing for local produce to be closer to us and be fresher for us. Or it could be vertical farms that are grown in hydroponic environments that are stacked, that are very efficient growing under LED lights.”
Bringing Urban Farming to Life
The idea of urban farming is more than just an idea, it’s already started in some cities, and Grove sees it continuing. He and his firm are currently working on several such projects.
“We're working on a number of exciting projects around the world that involve urban agriculture,” he said. “One of my favorites is an urban agriculture district in Shanghai.”
Grove explained that most US cities get produce from Florida, California, and South America, which creates a huge carbon footprint from shipping alone. “What we're doing in Shanghai, where about 56 percent of their diet is already leafy greens like bok choy, and spinach, and lettuce – those are the perfect crops for these vertical hydroponic systems.
“We're working with the Chinese Academy of Agriculture on the project, and it's in design phases at the moment. But it's a really exciting opportunity where we're transitioning single-story greenhouses right now into something that's much more dense to really mirror the density of Shanghai, and feed that population.”
Urban farming projects like the one in Shanghai also have a future in the United States, according to Grove.
“It's already happening here in the United States, as well. There's rooftop farms like The Brooklyn Grange in New York City, which is doing some wonderful things on rooftops throughout the New York Metro area. In San Francisco Bay area, there's Plenty, which is an urban agricultural startup,” he continued. “Outside of New York city in Newark, New Jersey, there's AeroFarms, which is the largest vertical farm in the world. It’s happening here in Boston where I live, where we have Green City Growers planting urban gardens on top of Fenway Park.”
The Future of Urban Farming
Despite the exciting projects that are already happening, Grove says architects and urban planners have more work to do.
“These are small test ideas right now that I think are beginning to gain traction. But once we figure out how to make it more ubiquitous or around the world, around the country, then I think it will just become a part of how we're going to practice agriculture in the future,” he said.
“It's going to take a number of new inventive technologies to make it happen. And really just understanding the price of that technology. Right now, the biggest barriers are the cost of LED lighting, which is necessary for the indoor growing, the cost of space in urban areas, and the energy required.”
The bottom line, according to Grove, is that the traditional view of farming and cities being very separate things is evolving, and needs to continue evolving.
“I think in our minds, we have this urban/rural dichotomy where it's either one or the other. And that's how we've lived our lives throughout most of the 20th century,” he concluded.
“Today we have five multinational corporations controlling about 80 percent of the food that we eat. That needs to shift. And we need to redevelop a relationship with the farmers and the people who are growing the food that we eat. I think urban agriculture is really the solution to that, if we can get past the cost hurdles -- and I think that's coming.”
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