Future food for thought

Could the Big Apple feed itself? To answer the question, New York architect Michael Sorkin took a stroll down the sidewalk to self-sustainability and found it was possible to produce 2,500 calories a day for each of the city’s eight million-plus residents.

Theoretically, that is. New Yorkers would have to cut down on red meat, and while Manhattan’s skyline might resemble a sea of green, the costs of transition shoot up into the stratosphere. His team calculated that at least 25 nuclear plants would be needed to power the show.

Still, Sorkin’s optimism - unlike the planet’s finite resources - remains undiminished. By imagining the ideal city, he hopes to create a future-proofing blueprint for rapidly-expanding urban environments [cities] now called home by more than half of the world’s population.
For the last decade Sorkin’s non-profit organisation, Terreform, has been investigating the most effective ways to design and repurpose existing space to ‘dramatically and realistically’ make cities more sustainable.

An Alternative NYC Masterplan

He’ll present the food findings at next month’s World Architecture Festival in Singapore. From multi-storey ‘vertical farms’ to car parking spaces transformed into veggie patches, Sorkin believes future opportunities abound for innovative architects, designers and planners.

Rooftop farms and vegetable gardens are already appearing on industrial, office and residential buildings, claiming unused space and reducing energy use through better insulation. But not so much in Australia.

“Because we don’t get snow here, we don’t have the rooftop weight-bearing requirements,” says academic Nick Rose, a leading proponent of urban agriculture.

He singles out Curtin House in Melbourne’s CBD, where the owners received council approval to spend $100,000 installing reinforced steel columns to build a rooftop veggie and herb garden, and worm farm.

Organic waste from Mesa Verde, a hip Mexican-inspired cantina on the building’s top floor, is fed to worms that produce fertiliser for soil where the restaurant grows its best ingredients.

On a recent visit to Brisbane, Rose, national coordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), was also impressed by a residential building where apartment owners had worked with the landlord to create a sizeable rooftop farm.

But these developments remain exceptions in built environments that Rose believes are failing to keep pace with growing community sentiment around local food production and sustainability.

“It’s a significant trend,” he says. “The popularity of farmers markets, for instance, shows how people want to get closer to food and know where it has come from. I think architects and planners have an important enabling role to allow more people to participate in different ways.”
In 2013 the previous federal Labor government’s National Food Plan provided recognition and $1.5 million in grants to the urban agriculture and community food sector. But the Coalition government axed the program before it could take root.

Grassroots Food Revival

The campaign for wider recognition continues from the ground up.

Rose says community activities - from the emergence of kitchen gardens in primary schools to experiments like Melbourne’s first ‘urban food forest’ - is beginning to shape and change attitudes in local government policy and planning.

“Perhaps the most important change would be at a state government level, with planning frameworks that recognise urban agriculture as a permitted use across different classifications.

“That would be a signal and message to local governments that this is something to be encouraged, with ideally some resourcing from the state government to help with infrastructure and start-up costs.”
Michael Sorkin’s work on urban self-reliance was prompted by 1990s research that highlighted our ‘ecological footprint’, and the chilling finding that four planets would be required if everyone consumed like his countrymen.

Food of the Future - Challenges and Opportunities

His non-profit began The New York City (Steady) State project a decade ago, investigating how independent the city could become in its main ‘respiratory’ functions - food, water, waste, energy, transport, construction, manufacture, air quality and climate.

Primarily concerned by environmental degradation and rising social inequality, radical new approaches to protect sustainability are vital to avoid, as Sorkin puts it, “the world going to hell in a handbasket”.

He argues for solutions close to home, part of which is an overhaul of our concept of the neighbourhood - where food and energy production, water capture and waste remediation become “visible and near”.

“One of the manifestations of our divided city is the food desert—the large areas in which fresh (never mind organic) produce is hard to find and in which fast food dominates diets,” wrote Sorkin in The Huffington Post.

“And our anxieties about agri-business, hygiene, vanishing “slowness”, waste and other social, environmental and political aspects of the food system are second to none.”
These are issues Australians increasingly recognise. Commercialised local food production, say, proponents, can play a huge role in tackling the obesity epidemic and spiralling public health costs from related diseases like Type 2 diabetes.

Implications for Australia

Food security - set against a backdrop of climate change, resource depletion, soil erosion, population growth and urban sprawl - is also a concern. With nine in 10 Australians living in a city or town and the populations of Sydney and Melbourne forecast to top six million by 2030, the focus is sharpening on questions around Australia’s future food supply.

Rose will discuss issues like these at a one-day workshop on ‘democratising the food system’ at the William Angliss Institute in Melbourne on October 19. It’s part of the AFSA’s Fair Food Week.

“The workshop will be a multi-stakeholder exploration of some of the challenges and pathways ahead, and I’d certainly encourage architects and people in development to come and participate,” he says.

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