The Importance of Sustainability

Urban Agriculture, Development and our Road to Eco-Cities

When was the first time you heard about community gardening? What did it mean to you when you heard it? Odds are, very little. You may pass an empty lot on your way to work, with the sign “Community Garden” and notice, even admire, how it transforms from barren land in the winter to a variety of greenery in the summer and harvest seasons.

But why does your community garden matter?

Humans are dependent, even today in the age of technology and advancements, for their survival on biophysical goods and services. This means that as a collective species we depend heavily on that which nature provides. We are contending with rapid climate change that is showing us the aftermath of our steady depletion of natural resources. Effects such as droughts and heatwaves that have impacts on soil moisture will continue. Increased precipitation that has the ability to drown crops during, what is now, lengthened grow seasons, will persist.

To summarize, here in the Midwest alone we’re expected to experience extreme heat, heavy downpours and flooding that affects infrastructure, health, agriculture, air and water quality, and more (NASA).

This leads us to an essential question; will our remaining natural resources be even theoretically adequate to support the growth of our population along with the material standards we hold? The simple and quick answer to this question is no, unless we’re able to adapt rapidly and assist in the replenishment of our natural resources, or find alternatives. Our goal of sustainable living is to provide the roadmap we need to Eco-cities. While it may not seem like the cutting edge and trendy solution, eco-cities provide the physiological, ecological, social and financial solution we need to face the next century. Luckily, we don’t have to rely solely on theory and speculation. Many cities in the United States and the world over have been testing various solutions and applications of sustainable livings ultimate goal; eco-cities, and we will find that urban agriculture is at the base of this progress. Throughout our discussion here we will explore; the definition of sustainability and eco-cities, what we know about both and how we’re currently using that knowledge today. The importance of urban agriculture and how we’re adapting it to our modern world can be quite evident. How should we connect the two and build the momentum.

We need to push the trend of sustainable living through urban agriculture and catapult ourselves into the future.

More than half of our global population lives in urban areas. Urban areas being defined as a region surrounding a city, highly developed with dense human structures (i.e., houses, commercial buildings, roads, etc.). As you may have guessed, our population has not stopped growing and will continue at a rate of 1.85% annually, all in urban areas. We must adapt to our current state of natural resources with our populations and societal demand for the goods and services that are produced from these resources. Across the US, and many major cities in the world, we are running anti-sustainable processes in our cities. Our water, energy, minerals and food are transported in from other sources, increasing our carbon footprint and generates more pollution on top of the pollution created in the making or raising of these products.

We have first-hand experience in another major problem of our cities; rapid expansion. The effect that we see from building more residential and commercial spaces via city expansion, is a loss of rural land, fertile soil and habitats for local wildlife. By the year 2025, 80% of the worlds population will inhabit cities which means more expansion, less land and less local wildlife that aides biodiversity, which is often overlooked, but needed for our own survival.

The widespread effects of climate related disasters have also led to the serious consideration of how we’re preparing for the next century of building and structuring our cities, questions that city planners must be prepared to answer. Protecting and enforcing our roadways, bridges, parks, powerlines, public infrastructures, homes and degraded ecosystems are part of the larger picture of sustainable living.

Therefore, let us start the conversation by first understanding the ultimate goal; what is sustainability, what are ecocities, and what is urban agriculture?

According to Marni Evans, sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For our specific purposes, we’ll also define sustainable living as the capacity to improve, through our daily lives, the quality of life while simultaneously supporting the eco-system. Within the last few decades, we have taken tremendous strides toward the epiphany that is sustainability. If we look at our reuse, reduce and recycle campaigns across the globe, there are significant changes to be proud of. In 2014 the US alone reduced annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 181 million metric tons, by recycling 89 million tons of solid waste. As of June 2009, a mandatory composting law was passed in San Francisco, CA by Mayor Newsom.

The benefits of this plan are evident, as San Francisco has an 80% landfill diversion rate. This gives us the perfect example of sustainability as it demonstrates that recycling and reuse has the affect of reducing the use of virgin resources. Eco-cities, unlike sustainability, is not so easily defined. Admittingly, it is an elusive goal that we’re still trying to specify. Consider eco-cities from the perspective of developers who build our cities and structures, it is developments that reduce or minimize inhabitants’ exposure to climate hazards with an ability to deal with direct and indirect climate change consequences. A simpler definition is a human settlement modeled on the self-sustaining resilient structure and function of natural ecosystems. Within this definition we come to understand that there is a such thing as Urban Ecology. This means within the proximity of our city we must have the answers for energy, resource, waste, and food renewal without transporting it in, which increases our carbon footprint.

Some countries have decided to implement slowly with planning future developments that comply with the green building standard. Those buildings will include water-saving solutions, insulated walls and windows, and south facing orientation to optimize on sun exposure and heat. Although both are major factors of ecocities, it’s important to make the distinction between sustainability, as defined above, and livability which considers walkability and green spaces, wildlife and biodiversity. If we’re closing our eyes to envision the perfect eco-city, the eco-city of the future, what we may see are many bike paths and predominate use of public, low carbon emission, transportation. Residential homes that depend solely on solar energy for lighting and energy. Commercial buildings that consume no external energy, instead they rely on solar and wind energy. 100% landfill conversion, converting waste to energy in order to provide their consumers with products or services. There are co-ops that source exclusively from local farms. Even more, the possibility that the co-op grows their food right in the backyard or on the roof! Not just the grocery stores and co-ops, but everyone from individual residents and restaurants and communities practicing the different forms of urban farming. Thereby reducing the need for mass scale, and often monoculture farming of crops, dairy, fish, poultry, and meat.

It's important to realize that although we continue to strive for sustainability in such a substantial way, we should remember that we have current examples of people and cities that have already made significant gains in each area. In Minneapolis, MN the Hiawatha Eco-village Apartments present a close to home example of developing buildings with sustainability in mind. There are a number of eco-friendly benefits that the Hiawatha Apartments has to offer. Green elements that are great first steps to developing buildings with sustainability in mind. Rainwater will be treated and reused along with a weeping wall, raingarden and pervious pavers. All of which are solutions for the reuse for water on a large scale. There will also be a green roof, which is a feature that has become popular to provide two benefits; a green space for people to enjoy, and a space for individual horticulture. Rooftop gardens, vertical gardens and major indoor garden facilities have been erected using current technologies such as hydroponic farming and solar energy. This is the goal of urban agriculture and the purpose and definition is made even more specific by the US Farm Bill, passed in 1990, that outlines a more sustainable agricultural industry. According to the Farm Bill, sustainable agriculture is

“an integrated system of plants and animal production that satisfies human food and fiber needs, enhances environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends, makes the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources…and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Look no further than Chicago, IL which is the Urban Agriculture capital of the United States. Leading by example with the largest indoor farm in the US and a total of 821 growing sites across the city. This is accomplished through technological advancements, such as hydroponic systems, and provides the immediate benefit of being able to feed communities locally which cuts down on the importing of goods. With the ability to mimic outdoor conditions, indoor farms are being built as large as 90,000 square-feet. Technologies like LED lighting systems, fresh water filtration systems, and advanced air filtering systems are providing cheaper ways to feed communities. Chicago’s Pullman Park district has the largest rooftop greenhouse in the world. This facility grows upward of 10-million-products year-round that are being consumed by local restaurants and retailers helping to stimulate the local economy as a collateral benefit. How do we take it a step further? Understanding the challenges that we face and using current urban agriculture and sustainable developments as examples leads us to how each can and will play a role in designing our eco-cities.

Gotham Greens

The World Meteorological Organization suggest that urban farming is a response to climate change and a way to build more resilient cities. With urban farming we are making our cities less vulnerable to food shortages and droughts. Studies show that gardens provide a reliable source of food for participants, their communities and neighbors. Urban farming provides more green space in cities that will otherwise see most green spaces turned into developments. Urban gardens create green spaces that revitalize the neighborhoods they’re built in as another residual effect. Researchers have noted that places with urban farming increases biodiversity which is good for local ecosystems. Green spaces such as rooftop gardens are surging and providing the distinct benefit of sequestering toxins from the air, filtering and collecting storm water, and reduces utility cost for the development/building. A small community garden has been known to grow over 150 different crops in a single season, those crops representing 104 species from 34 families to enhance biodiversity in a place that would have otherwise not seen it.

The role that agriculture plays in moving us forward, is by providing the solution to many problems we’re facing from a purely climate standpoint, as well as the basics of producing food for communities showing it’s economic and practical value. The place of Urban Agriculture in our future push to eco-cities is clear. Development, while exciting, can be a bit more complicated.

We’ve discussed places like Eco-village Hawthorne in Minneapolis, MN as an example of where eco-responsibility and property development meet. The key to property development lending its hand and experience can be seen in the way we build our infrastructures. The first step we can take is to simply stop building. I could, at this very moment, give you five city blocks in five different cities where buildings are abandoned, run-down and ultimately destroyed. We should first focus our efforts on restoring such buildings, rather than demolishing. Challenging views of developments built for the “clean-slate” and appreciating the character and utility that can be found in restoring the worn and torn can unlock potential in our cities. Architecture and construction have moved past many old techniques that are prime for the battle we face and the goal of the eco-city. One example being the walls built into the exterior of an existing wall (usually brick, stone, and south facing) that absorbs and retains solar heat.

That is not to say that we have no use for new developments, since the factors of new developments in our society now are factors for city planning in general. New developments consider location, degree of design, political agendas, property values and development feasibility. While hoping for the futuristic city that we see in the movies and maybe even imagine in our own minds, it’s up to the developers to tell us if this is feasible. Tossing up a new structure, no matter the intentions, is dependent on factors like site features, building features, private governance arrangements such as covenants, easements, and corporate rules.

The second way the development industry can help is by using sustainable materials. GreenTown USA is our most promising example of incremental changes that the industry can enforce. While rebuilding the town with a green focus, materials such as insulated concrete, structural insulated panels, modular wooden locks, high performance windows, efficient lighting, plumping and geothermal heat pumps became the standard for every structure built. GreenTown took advantage of one of the most helpful trends we’re seeing today; prefabricated houses and materials. The cost and energy savings of prebuilt homes is still being determined, but we have a solid framework to start with. Prefabrication immediately reduces waste by removing the traditional method of construction that often results in extra, unneeded materials. While there is still the chance of extra materials with prefabrication, those materials are immediately recycled and reused in-house. The benefit of more precise constructing is also present. Precise constructing leads to tighter joints, better insulation and air filtration, all adding up to increased efficiency of materials. The development industry does not have to have a singular focus of filling as much space as possible. Although it seems that is how it ends up, the industry can simultaneously give back the green space that it plans to occupy. This is an approach that burdens mostly the architects and designers who are part of the development teams. We have to ask what it takes for cities to plan for multipurpose areas that incorporate green spaces into commercial areas. We’ve discussed rooftops, which is also a good way for developers to build green spaces as they’re using them.

It could all be so simple. Applied technologies and theories have already begun to spread worldwide as we push toward more sustainable living. We’ve outlined what we know and what we’re already doing. It reminds me of the saying; if you know better, you do better. The conundrum is what’s stopping us from a full transition to eco-city framework and city planning. The rewards are evident. With urban ag we’re able to shield ourselves from food insecurity. The collateral effect is also seen reducing vulnerability of poor and otherwise disenfranchised communities to the flux of the international food market and food industry. Urban agriculture with all its benefits, has its risk that must be considered before making it a blanket approach. The potential risk of urban agriculture is mostly centered around health. Inappropriate use of contaminated irrigation water due to improper filtration of reused water, could cause major health issues for those consuming produce from urban gardens. For urban farms that choose livestock as their main product, you run risk with inadequate management and space. This can lead to further contamination issues for humans and animals. To mitigate these risk, urban agriculture needs to move out of the space of being tolerated as a noble idea and practice, and be placed into a position where the practice is regulated and actively managed. This may be the reason that up to this point, sustainable agriculture has been seen as a process and purpose better suited to small, family-scale farms rather than large industrial farming centers. Mike R summarized the risk for the development industry in striving for more sustainable development. Mike stated,

“developers exposure to the risks… is limited because their commitment to a project is short…. development necessitates a whole-of-sector approach including landowners, financiers, builders and suppliers, engineers, consultants and designers.”

We used GreenTown USA as an example of a recent dedication to building sustainably. I’d be remised if I didn’t mention that this surge came after a natural disaster that destroyed most of the town. This made the town a prime petri dish to test the bounds of sustainable building. It also reduced the overall risk, the rebuild was mandatory, government sponsored and government funded along with donations and local collective effort. They also had the passion, which can’t be underestimated, and the strong desire to get it done, after experiencing the alternative. A city not prepared for increasingly aggressive climate events and resource scarcity. Without a strong push from consumers demanding more eco-friendly neighborhoods and sustainably built materials used in their cities, it’s not likely to happen. A developer is already risking financially anytime a structure is built.

The old saying “build it and they will come” is not true. Land owners sell for the top dollar, developers invest for the potential income that land/property will bring. A designer and architect keep in mind traffic and the wants of consumers, not necessarily the basic needs. If we want eco-cities, we have to make it worth building. We could entice the industry with the potential savings on energy cost which presented as over $300 million in a study done by Ryerson Universities Architectural Science department, but that is a possible savings for an absolute cost to construct. Prefabricated structures are our best argument to combat the risk. The savings vastly benefits the construction team, and those savings are seen throughout the development process. Remembering that developing is as much a political game as a property game, encouraging and questioning local politicians should also reap rewards. We are in a prime position to drastically change the way we develop our cities and take the next step toward sustainable living.

In a world where Earth is a scare commodity, how do people expect to continue living where they live like they live. The rain forest, which generates 20% of the oxygen for the Earth’s inhabitants, has been depleted at a rate of 78 million acres per year. Finding the right way to restore the respiratory life-cycle, Carbon Dioxide to Oxygen, on every level is how human beings start to draft a world that nurtures itself. That provides a way to heal while existing. Modern agriculture means putting grower and consumer in the same direct ecosystem. This will enable all components of this environment to give their best. Mutual construction. The incorporation of urban agriculture and development is the keystone to sustainable living in our future. We should take examples from China who has a goal of 285 eco-cities using the sustainable urban designs and technological systems they have been experimenting with. Chicago continues to make urban agriculture one of its highest growth industries. A change in the way we develop and consume is what we need, a change of demand that will lead to the evolution of our urban spaces.