Grow Your Own

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People have long needed to be closer to their food sources. The pandemic makes that only more clear.

By Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA and Roxi Thoren, ASLA.

Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA, and Roxi Thoren, ASLA, have just published an excellent new book, Farmscape: The Design of Productive Landscapes (Routledge, 2020), which should consolidate many stirrings of the past decade in landscape architecture to reclaim a serious purchase on food production after generations of the two realms’ drifting apart. The book speaks into the gaps among where food is made, where it’s needed, and where it’s eaten. The examples pull from history through to recent practice, with the ornamented farm of early 1700s Britain; Frederick Law Olmsted’s Moraine Farm; the urban gardens of Leberecht Migge and Leopold Fischer in Dessau, Germany; and works by Martha Schwartz Partners, Mithun, and Nelson Byrd Woltz.

Just as the book came out, the pandemic began, quickly raising questions about food supplies. There were numerous reports of stalled and wasted produce, dairy, and eggs. Meatpacking plants were struck by outbreaks of COVID-19. LAM asked Lickwar and Thoren to trade notes by e-mail for a week in April about their reactions to the kinds of disruptions emerging, and how more intentional, landscape-driven approaches to food production might avert other disruptions down the line.

—Bradford McKee

Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Farm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, demonstrates how climate responsive agribusiness and agritourism can support the preservation of the cultural landscape. Photo by Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA.

ROXI THOREN: I’ve been thinking a lot during this pandemic about the food supply chain and how it’s evolved into, for the most part, a one-size-fits-all system. And we’re seeing now how broken that system is. I grew up in Upstate New York and have friends there who are dairy farmers. Farmers are dumping truckloads of milk because the supply chain they feed into delivers to schools in little cartons or to Starbucks in huge bags, and what people need and want is gallons, but the factories can’t produce that. So milk is getting dumped, and people are going without. The same thing is happening in agricultural fields. Farmers are plowing under beans and other crops because they don’t have their usual restaurant supply chain, and they can’t get the produce to a new market. And meanwhile there are huge lines at food pantries as people laid off can’t afford groceries. We produce more calories per person than most other nations, but when a disaster occurs, we have people going hungry. That’s wrong.

Here in Oregon, I feel very lucky to be in a community where there are diverse supply chains and a robust restaurant and direct-to-consumer market for local food. A friend of a friend has a chicken farm with about 500 chickens. They normally sell to local restaurants, not to a regional distributor. When orders dried up after restaurants closed, they asked their friends to offer egg CSA drop sites, and within a week they had a new market selling directly to consumers. Variety in the supply chain provides resiliency, and the more local the chain is, the more likely we are to get food from farmers to consumers when a disaster occurs.

Image courtesy Routledge.

PHOEBE LICKWAR: The pandemic is making it very clear how fragile certain aspects of our food system have become. The broken food supply chain you’re describing has definitely opened the door for an expansion of local markets and direct farm-to-consumer food sales. Here in Austin, as elsewhere in the country, we’ve seen huge increases in online purchasing and delivery of locally farmed food. People are turning to what’s available, and it’s local and seasonal. But there is not enough to go around. And given the state of income inequality in this country, it’s affordable only for some. The service I use for my family, Farmhouse Delivery, which brings local Texas produce, meat, and pantry items to our doorstep, has had to suspend new orders when they can’t meet demand, despite attempts to radically grow the business.

It makes me wonder if now is the time when we finally get serious about urban agriculture. I never dreamed it would take a pandemic, but here we are. Urban agriculture up to this point has been experimental, opportunistic, small scale, and vulnerable to development. But what would it look like if agriculture was systematically integrated into the urban fabric, designed and understood as an essential component of urban life? How would the supply chain be redefined if the city became an agricultural landscape, if people had better access to food produced in their backyards and their neighborhoods? What would the city look like if public and private lands were designed with an agricultural overlay? What new hybrid landscape typologies would appear? As we discovered through our research for the book, this idea has been tried before, in fits and starts, in response to dire need or political upheaval, but never carried through on a large scale. Could it be that this is where we’re headed?

THOREN: These issues of equity and access are really important. Local foods or shopping online provide a more resilient food supply, and as we’re trying to social distance, they provide safer ways to shop. But who has the money to buy local, organic food, or who has the Internet access to shop online and have foods delivered? We’re leaving portions of our communities vulnerable when the path to resilience is for families to spend more. And is it even resilient when we’re leaving people behind? Even community gardens have become something of a luxury or a leisure activity. Who has the space, the time, or the knowledge to grow their own food?

Our department at the University of Oregon has an urban farm on campus where students think they’re going to have fun, dig in the soil, learn to grow tomatoes, and bring a lot of nice vegetables back from class. And they do all that, but they also learn about soil ecology, food systems, food deserts and food insecurity, local economies, the cultural preparation of food—all the things that are tied up in agriculture. With the shift right now to remote teaching, we can’t run the urban farm class, but we have to continue maintaining our living classroom for summer and fall classes. So we’re generating a lot of food, which we’re able to give to local food banks, including a student food pantry on campus. Even in the college community, there is a lot of food insecurity, with almost 40 percent of our students reporting food insecurity in a recent survey.

The experimental garden at the Worpswede (Germany) artists’ colony, seen in 1926, influenced the agricultural urbanism of the landscape architect Leberecht Migge. Reproduced from Deutsche Binnen-Kolonisation, 1926.

We saw that in the book, where some of the case studies—especially around the World Wars—were designed in a time of food insecurity. Designers integrated urban agriculture to provide families with food, some economic independence, and exercise in the gardens. But as the food supply chain recovered, a lot of the agriculture dropped out of places like Welwyn Garden City, designed by Sir Ebenezer Howard and Louis de Soissons in 1920, or the Ziebigk development in Dessau, designed by Leberecht Migge and Leopold Fischer in 1926, where people were expected to grow crops on their property. Community gardens such as the Nærum Allotment Gardens seem to last better, maybe because people can opt in as they’re interested. That intermediate, community, or regional farm scale seems to be a critical element that’s weak right now. But what can we do as landscape architects? What’s our role in designing or promoting urban or regional agriculture? There are a number of ways we can help move this forward, including working with cities on changing zoning codes to allow agriculture or livestock, educating clients about the possibility of including agriculture in their projects, and including agricultural consultants on our teams. The two biggest hurdles are starting the conversation and educating ourselves about the processes, policies, and economics of agriculture that affect land owners.

LICKWAR: While I am reluctant to overstate the agency of our very small profession, I firmly believe that landscape architects are uniquely situated to reverse the historical displacement of agriculture from the city. We can integrate agriculture with competing land uses, developing new typologies that are layered and multifunctional. We need to move beyond conceptions of the city that position food-producing landscapes as somehow separate from other kinds of urban landscapes. In the book, we examine ways landscape architects have integrated agriculture in contemporary projects—within a university campus (Shenyang Architectural University), a Buddhist practice center (Green Gulch Farm Zen Center), and a housing development (Village Homes)—to support and reinforce education, conservation, and the building of community.

These kinds of hybrid agricultural landscapes provide local access to food, but they also push the boundaries of our assumptions about urban space. We have come to accept that urban landscapes will not sustain us, that crops and campuses do not belong together, that agriculture is to be found only in the community garden, or beyond the boundary of the city on rural lands. But these new forms suggest otherwise. They provide liberating models for ways to design an agricultural city, as opposed to an urban agriculture.

The landscape architect Martha Brookes Hutcheson was one of the founding board members of the Women’s Land Army in World War I, and ran a WLA farm at her property, Merchiston Farm, in 1917 and 1918. Photo courtesy Morris County Park Commission.

THOREN: That idea of hybridity is intriguing. When I fly out of Eugene, I usually fly over the agricultural areas along the Snake River in Idaho, and I’m always struck by how singular the land use is, with mile after mile of circular crop fields, and how separated they are from urban centers. There are cities there, but they’re mostly small, and the land is mostly given over to the single use of crop fields. That’s perhaps appropriate in rural areas, although ecologically problematic, but it’s not a model for thinking about urban areas where everything has to serve double purposes or more. So we have to shift our mental models of agriculture away from single-use and rural into multiuse and urban.

I’m also always struck by the connection that is so visible in those fields between how we make and maintain landscapes, how we define and bound land, and technology. The technology of center-pivot irrigation sets the circular forms, but the divisions of the Jefferson land grid constrained the development of the technology, ending up with millions of acres of circular fields defined by the quarter-mile radius of the irrigation system, and inscribed on 160-acre quarter-sections of the township and range system. How we conceive, define, and maintain landscapes constrains the forms that we design. What is the size and turning radius of a mower, tiller, or harvester, and how might that constrain our thinking about designing urban agriculture?

That also makes me think about the work of agriculture, and not only who has the knowledge to raise crops, but who does the labor, and how? Here in the Willamette Valley, a lot of the crops are fruit—grapes in vineyards, cherry and apple orchards, strawberry and blueberry fields. A lot of the harvesting is labor-intensive—hand-picking blueberries, for instance—and semi-migratory, following the harvest, and often there is risk of exposure to fertilizers and pesticides. The people doing the work are often politically, economically, and physically vulnerable. As we consider agriculture in design, we have an obligation to that community. Obviously, who does the work of maintaining and harvesting landscapes is outside the scope of design, but if we’re convening conversations that include food in the landscape, we need to be aware of these realities and bring those concerns to the table. The people doing the work aren’t typically at the table when decisions about the landscape are made. We need to represent their needs and wants, protect their health, and advocate for them, or better, bring them into the conversation early and learn from their knowledge of the landscape. We know that our designs aren’t static, that they require ongoing labor. Agriculture makes that highly visible, but it’s true in any project. We need to include those people in our conversations and thinking, especially vulnerable communities.

Over 50 years, Martha Brookes Hutcheson transformed a small stream into a livestock pond and eventually into an elegant swimming pool. Photo by Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA.

LICKWAR: This is a really important point you are raising. One of the significant aspects of agricultural landscapes is that we can understand cultivation as a form of care work, and that work is particularly legible in a landscape that is consistently shaped across days, months, and years. Agricultural landscapes require a level of care or management that can be considered as a design process in itself. The landscape is shaped over time, its form dynamic and responsive to human action or what we typically call management, a term that can feel inadequate because it is understood as somehow separate from design. In the making of urban agricultural landscapes, we have the capacity to engage communities as designers in the field. Management can be generative, a form of direct design engagement unique to the cycles and systems of agricultural production. The daily work of shaping an urban agricultural landscape needs to be folded into the scope of design. Such an expanded scope requires long-term engagement of the landscape architect, similar to the extended involvement of digital agencies past the point of initial launch in web development projects.

We’ve been exploring some of these ideas in our recent work at FORGE, where we’re developing the same kind of hybrid agricultural landscapes we wrote about in Farmscape. We’re looking at the application of regenerative agriculture to urban sites where we can engage communities in soil stewardship as a way to mitigate anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Working with the artist Brooke Singer and her collaborative Carbon Sponge, we submitted a recent proposal for a site on the Brooklyn waterfront that hybridizes public space and carbon-farming research. Demonstration gardens, spaces for workshops and film screenings, and an expansive field of sorghum invite play, exploration, and research. The project is conceived to empower the local community to participate in the carbon farming movement, to join us in stewarding urban soils to sink as much carbon as we can.

We’re at a moment in time where it’s become so obvious we really need to work together. If the pandemic has made anything clear, it’s how truly interdependent we are, how we need to join together across communities to address issues affecting public health and the environment. We need citizens to join designers in the transformation of our cities. This is not something landscape architects can achieve alone. I really believe it’s time to ditch our old ideas about “management” as something that happens after design, and adopt a new approach that democratizes cultivation as a design approach that engages citizens.

What would it mean if your neighborhood park were a place where you actively took part in reversing climate change? Where you shaped the shifting rows of cover crops and played among research plots, shoulder to shoulder with scientists measuring the biological health of soils you farmed to sink carbon? What would that mean for a generation, to grow up in a world where activism was just a part of daily urban life? What if citizens helped cultivate public space?

This farm in Muir Beach, California, is a model of agricultural hybridity, where farming is integrated with Buddhist practice and ecological restoration. Photo by Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA.

Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA, is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin and the founding principal of FORGE Landscape Architecture in Austin. Roxi Thoren, ASLA, is an associate professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Oregon and the director of the Fuller Center for Productive Landscapes.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misattributed a photo credit for an image of Merchiston Farm to the Morris County Parks Commission. The creditbelongs to Phoebe Lickwar, ASLA, a co-author of the article. The post has been corrected. 

From the June 2020 issue.

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