For many years, the future of cities has been a sort of noir, an ever-increasing array of buildings, concrete and glass that serves to emphasise that the urban is not the countryside. If we turn to the ur-text of so much of contemporary urbanism, ‘Bladerunner’ the ‘Director’s Cut’ ends with the protagonist escaping the neon-confusion and squalor of the city for a wooded valley. In doing so, he is fleeing controlling corporations and the compromises of mimetic capitalism, arriving in the real.
With the flow of our society into one dominated by information, the role of cities has become operating as nodal points in the flow of bits and bytes, where people come together to speed information and services onto the next node. These nodal cities have become consumption sites for materials produced and processed elsewhere, returning only waste products. Across the world architects and civil engineering, consultancies are building cities in anticipation that they will in time become these nodal points. There are also cities that have failed to become active nodal points, famously Detroit is being re-absorbed into the prairie from whence it first sprung. Cities can be overwhelmed by natural catastrophes, such as New Orleans or the flooding that engulfed Bangkok. Equally, they can be killed, the urban warfare that has engulfed so many ancient cities in the middle east shows how a city or even, as in Aleppo, sections of the city can be crushed.
But this relentless urban vision is being disrupted by those who see the necessity for the concrete to be punctured by the green, particularly edible greens. With the concerns about future trends in food security, a response can be seen in ‘vertical agriculture’, which is mainly importing agricultural technology into urban areas and replicating intensive farming within the urban envelope. This agritectural has given little thought to the agri-culture implied in these designs but rather present a fantasy of a high-rise greenhouse, a twist on the towers of glass and steel that dominate so many cityscapes.
More significant are the citizen-led initiatives to transform their cities, in this context ‘grassroots’ is both accurate and a pun. In many cities, residents are looking to the brownfield sites, the verges, and over-run corners as sites with potential. In a world where food is cheap, ubiquitous and alarmingly disposable, the craft and community of growing your own has become a counterpoint to bland perfection. The extraordinary efficiency and success of the food system has turned against it, as people feel detached from the offer of supermarkets and the rigours of consumption. Growing in the corners of the city, gathering with neighbours and Facebook friends to cultivate a meal, to share that experience and distribute it has become a way of reclaiming the city. Urban agriculture is one of a range of organisations that foster belonging and community that are appearing in cities across the world, operating as mechanisms for creating new relationships between people. They are part of re-asserting that life in the city is just as real and related to nature as a life led in a rural context.
Of course, this is not a challenge to those farmers who grow vast hectares of cereal crops, or thousands of chickens or pigs in vast sheds. But it is a reminder that horticulture at least until recently was local and seasonal; that market gardens used to ring cities. The urban gardens are a symbolic challenge, and as such a work in progress but they provide a series of questions as to the way in which cities are developing and how life in them could be. At one end of this spectrum are those who view this as part of city marketing, in the global competition for the talented and the entrepreneurial, or the tourism spend, cities need to cultivate a vibrant ‘food scene’. Somewhere at the other end of this spectrum are those working to create an inclusive food economy, where those reliant on food banks have better access food security, and a community grows around the street markets and micro-businesses growing, processing and selling this food.
The difficulty for those analysing these trends is that contemporary capitalism is mimetic. As soon as a trend or movement arises, already it is being copied, emulated and marketed, – if that trend does not do that to itself. Lurking in these experiments remains an impulse that suggests things that cannot be turned into the calculations of corporations. It is a generosity and excessiveness that points to both an older mode of business, and potentially a future one. Many living in urban areas carry with them an experience of a previous rural life, and others the aspiration for migrating to the countryside, their escape to the country. Increasingly this exit is blocked, rural domestic property is unaffordable, rural economies are dominated by the nearest city. The rural historian Alun Howkins describe this as the death of the rural, but rather it can be seen that in losing its autonomy many rural areas have become ex-urban, that we live in a post-rural situation. In this context citizens might as well re-create the rural in the city, bringing their memories of rural life and their aspirations for a re-connection to nature to the place that they live.
A friend of mine creates an aperitif from flowers gathered in the city’s parks, which he brews, bottles and distributes only within that city. The process of making this drink is a re-imagining of the tradition with contemporary high-tech food processing. His workforce is very largely people who have found themselves socially marginalised, and his equipment is the latest technology from the home of all such craft production (Italy). None of this he wants you to know from the label, he does not want the product to shout or preach, rather he just wants it to be fun and ‘sexy’. The operation he runs owes more to a design studio or an atelier than a factory, and his ends are to do environment and social good within the city, without being forced to declare his hand. He runs a business, not a charity, but his concern for others is excessive for a business, his awareness of the externalities of his production generous. He is in many ways self-consciously old-fashioned but also looking to the future where food is re-localised and cities flourish in new ways.
The nature writer and ecologist Jules Pretty several years ago broke the word agriculture, into agri-culture and this offers a suggestion as to how food is going to reshape the future city. It will not be through draping buildings with greenery or megastructures of greenhouses but a changed relationship between food and city. That the city will be the site of production for some foods, some will not spread far beyond that place, and residents will be involved in its production. Rather than consumers within the city’s food systems, they will be protagonists.
What does this mean practically? For designers and architects, either professional or pro-am volunteers this emergent food system will provide considerable opportunities:
- How can we give people growing space around their homes and shared areas? What the regulations and requirements for new dwellings that allow for some self-provisioning?
- How might we offer the chance to forage for food in the city? Do we just plant fruit trees in the parks, or should green corridors link into the surrounding countryside to allow for exchanges that take on their own dynamics?
- What do communal growing and dining areas look like on the street? How do we plan shared spaces to allow for not only growing but the sharing of food, where will the pop-up restaurants be found, the stop for food trucks, the market spaces?
- What are the limits of combining homes and growing? What can retro-fitting achieve, roof top gardens are established but what about bioreactors for algae, small-scale dairies or poultry production?
- How do we integrate food production and urban infrastructure? Can we grow fish in the river the runs through the city, can we float islands on the reservoirs or fruit trees alongside the road?
- How do we use the networks of cyberspace to allow people to exchange their produce? In the increasingly smart city how do we link people together in ways that allow for food to flourish beyond the purview of the council, schools and residential homes, in ways that nurture community rather than impose tailored solutions?
- What does a micro-business premises look like? how do we plan for the brewers, growers, rooftop beekeepers, food recyclers and cellar mushroom growers, when cities have become dominated by the logistical needs of chain stores.
- Can I open my urban food kiosk in front of the superstore? This transition will not always be smooth, there will be conflict and competition, who sets the rules and holds the ring as these are worked out?
Like much of the future, some of it is already present, and it is waiting for a wider distribution.