February 4, 2010

Green Lecture Series at National Building Museums Puts Planners and Architects on the Right Track

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

I recently attended the lecture series at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.  The topic of the talk was urban agriculture.  What I found most interesting was that the lecture series was targeted at architects, planners and builders; even though the topic seemed to be directed at the sustainable food movement.  I think this is a really important development because urban planners, builders, architects need to be aware and skilled in urban agriculture as they design our cities for the next century.  The monthly lecture series is called “For the Greener Good.” Future lectures include “sustainable schools” and “greening the supply chain.”

The four people on the panel of this discussion were Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, Liz Falk, co-founder of Common Good City Farm in D.C., and Steve Cohen, food policy and programs from Portland Oregon’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.  The discussion followed the expected path of most discussions that I’ve heard in the past about the development of community gardens, urban farms, CSA’s, and Farmer’s Markets etc, and the growth of backyard and front yard gardens.  Seven million families installed new home gardens last year, which to me signifies a very tangible trend reminiscent of the “victory garden” movement during World War II.  During that period, only 60-odd years ago, over 1/3 of all produce grown in the United States was grown in home gardens.

That figure staggers me for two reasons. First, it gives us a glimpse of what is possible.  Sixty years in the development of our country and of the world is not a long time; that milestone could be reached again.  But additionally, I don’t even think we need something that extreme, at the moment I would settle for 10 percent.  Secondly, the growth in home gardens is taking place in a time when nothing has been asked of us.  In a time period when we aren’t even being asked to pay for two wars, let alone sacrifice one iota of an unsustainable food system based on cheap fossil fuels, individuals are taking it upon themselves to reconnect with food.

The other aspect of the discussion that I really enjoyed was the panel’s focus on all of the ancillary benefits of urban agriculture that while mentioned, often get overlooked and should be promoted with research to support it.  The benefits, beyond the produce that comes from the ground, include:  stormwater capture, water retention, the capturing of carbon in healthy soil, and the cooling of the urban heat island.  In a future world where water shortage and global warming are becoming the reality, urban agriculture is going to play an important role.  Urban agriculture projects can work, like Common Good City Farm, which will capture stormwater from buildings and use it to irrigate urban fields.

The Common Good City Farm – recently supported by grants – accomplishes two tasks. First, it diverts water that would have run off into the sewers, leading to potential flooding and sewage system strain, and places it in the soils at a slower rate where it can be absorbed naturally.  Secondly, it gives the farm a way to irrigate crops without taking it from the local water table.  Under normal circumstances, stormwater runoff sinks into the ground and replenishes local aquifers. However, the impermeable surfaces (e.g., asphalt and concrete) that dominate our urban environments mean that water is diverted straight to waterways and lost to the local soils.

The need for urban agriculture is slowly but surely taking hold in the minds of planners and local leaders.  It is time for city and state governments to get out in front of this movement by changing zoning and building codes that require green space and urban agriculture projects with all new developments.  No new school should be built without a large school garden component.  New housing developments should not be erected without a green space plan and an urban agriculture component.  The development of green roofs should be subsidized for their positive externalities, which is beginning to happen.  People who want to begin small animal production should be encouraged, regulated and educated.

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