Beyond a Singular Solution – A Holistic Approach to Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture is touted as a panacea for various challenges that cities face today, conjuring to mind images of towering vertical farms and biophilic utopias of the future. Although these conceptual explorations and experimental projects demonstrate the potential of urban agriculture’s contribution to more resilient regional food systems, they represent only one small component within a broader network of food infrastructure that must be addressed to resolve larger issues of equitable food supply and distribution. To explore the complexity of urban agriculture, KSS Partner Scot Murdoch joined Michael Grove, Chair of Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Ecology at SASAKI; Eugenia Ellis, Director, dLUX light lab and Principal of BAU Architecture; and Christina Drexel, Designer at BCV Architects and Interiors in conversation at Green Building United’s 2022 Sustainability Symposium. Read on for an overview of their dynamic session, “Beyond a Singular Solution – A Holistic Approach to Urban Agriculture.”

Why urban agriculture?

It is projected that by 2050, 68% of the global population will live in urban areas. This means our cities, and their land use and supporting infrastructure as well as policy and education, must evolve to meet this growing demand. In addition, the global food system accounts for more than 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and significant water consumption. Something so important as providing sustenance and access to food—a basic human right—is being offset by the environmental damage and broken ecosystems. We believe that when implemented holistically and connected to the communities in which it exists, urban agriculture is a multi-dimensional problem-solver that serves to meet the needs of all people, is sustained by policy, and serves as a healing and restorative component of the global efforts to fight against climate change. 

What is urban agriculture?

Traditionally, urban agriculture has been an extremely broad label for a variety of agricultural-related activities that occur in and around cities. These activities range in complexity, scale, and purpose—from a simple windowsill garden to a fully automated indoor hydroponic farm. Session moderator Christina Drexel noted, “It is this multifaceted versatility that makes urban agriculture such an appealing tool for reform, because interventions can be tailored to each specific city’s challenges and needs. By implementing urban agriculture through context-specific interventions, cities can address many urban challenges unique to their political, environmental, and social circumstances.” However, it is becoming apparent that these traditional functions must be interconnected with productive policy, effective distribution networks, better education, and job creation—and all other human systems that foster healthy cities—to create greater opportunity and value.

What is a holistic approach to urban agriculture?

A holistic perspective on urban agriculture as an ecosystem gives us a lens through which we can discern breaks or gaps in the current food system and then utilize design thinking to solve issues at multiple scales, across multiple disciplines but connected to the whole. This approach utilizes existing frameworks for sustainability, to find an approach to foster cohesion, ensure greater sustainability, and develop the potential for greater impact using conventional models. For example, applying an Environmental, Social, & Governance (ESG) framework to urban agriculture allows us to build a clear, interactive ecosystem and understand critical overlaps across these three areas, thereby beginning to form more nuanced relationships and connections. Identifying overlapping goals individuals, governments, and businesses can formulate actionable plans for implementation. With proper regulation and economic support, urban agriculture can have innumerable social and environmental benefits. It can help rebuild and strengthen communities, improve the health and nutrition of residents, and create pathways for employment and education. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is another framework within which urban agriculture can become part of a larger whole to solve issues ranging from reducing inequality to tackling climate change. When these two frameworks are utilized in tandem, a complex web of interconnection begins to form, demonstrating that no single activity is completely isolated from the greater value system.

How is urban agriculture expressed across typologies and scales?

As experts in their respective fields—Michael Grove’s civic master planning experience, Scot Murdoch’s industrial and distribution expertise, and Gena Ellis’ indoor agriculture research and knowledge — each speaker offered a unique perspective based on their discipline and background, ranging from macro to micro-level interventions. 

Michael presented the Sunqiao Urban Agriculture District in Shanghai where SASAKI is building a collection of vertical farms that will supply much of the city’s leafy greens locally, year-round, and at an economically viable scale. These systems are projected to increase yields by about 40-100 times what a traditional soil-based farm could produce.

Taking the lens of an interactive framework of uses, Scot presented some of the innovative ideas that KSS is pursuing in the realm of thoughtfully located and integrated urban food hubs with teams including Wegman’s. Through the co-location of multiple food-related businesses, there is greater opportunity in urban agricultural food communities that create more impact together than by working separately. Pairing indoor growing farms and microfulfillment robotics with production kitchens that serve on-site food halls and markets, and integrating regional urban distribution channels from Uber Eats to bike delivery, these synergistic integrated facilities afford consolidation and cooperation that expands their impact.

Gena spoke to a small but mighty component of urban agriculture—the community garden. While opposite from a master plan in terms of scale, “it is equally important for the city. These gardens contribute to the health and wellbeing of urban residents by encouraging access to healthy food, supporting a healthy lifestyle and exercise, and decreasing resident stress.” Community gardens are important educational tools that have the potential to engage residents of all ages around nutrition, beautification, entrepreneurship, and job training.

These three examples are all interconnected and strengthen one another. A true holistic approach understands that these issues need to be considered at varying degrees of detail and scale. Zooming in and out across scales helps us understand that design and policy decisions have a domino effect throughout the larger system. By changing the scale of our response to what makes good urban agriculture to encapsulate a broader and more holistic range of people, businesses, systems, policy, and education, each of us in our collective disciplines can start to greater broader connections and impact. Whether you are a politician, urban farmer, educator, or designer, we can each bear witness to the total of our collective food response being greater than the sum of its parts.  What is critical is the integration of these examples into a cohesive, sustainable, equitable system.