Urban landscapes are most often designed within a limited range of expectations. Visually interesting, sometimes providing important ecosystem services, designed landscape environments should include other, richer possibilities.
There are urban farms. There are community, rooftop and kitchen gardens. There are growing numbers of people interested in reducing the carbon and energy footprint of our foods. Even more dedicated people are actively engaged in efforts to provide sustainable local foods and healthier eating choices.
Groups and individuals are mobilizing to locate suitable land, organize communities and figure out ways to bring food and the process closer where people live in urban areas. These admirable efforts often focus on locating suitable, often under-utilized land, volunteer labor or people ready to support the vision, subscribe to the effort (CSA’s), provide opportunities for weekend-warrior gardeners (community gardens) or other creative mechanisms to bring food into our urban settings. These endeavors also include myriad educational and sales efforts enlisting legions of backyard gardeners into the fray.
While all of these activities are great, perhaps we are not fully seeing the forest through the trees (or the orchard through the windrow). There are thousands upon thousands of acres of land, currently landscaped with often ample budgets for maintenance that could be converted or adapted to include food-producing components. These lands are in public and private ownership and will require creativity and design to introduce changes to these non-farm landscapes, overcoming conventional expectations and sometimes cost and aesthetic barriers as well.
Our cities include vast areas of suburban residential landscapes: in yards, streets, parks and buffer lands. Corporate and institutional campuses typically include significant areas of landscaped grounds for visual interest, recreation, visual buffering and other functional uses for employees and visitors. Maintenance budgets for these types of sites are often in the $.50-1.00 per square foot per year (significant amounts when compared to many types of traditional farming operations). Introducing employee gardens or other food-producing landscapes could simply divert a portion of the money already spent on these single-purpose landscapes could provide a diversity of additional benefits. Particularly for corporate, medical or educational campuses with cafeterias, the on-site gardens could supplement daily food needs: Organic, of course, no transport costs and fresh! Imagine the dramatic allees of trees that often grace our landscape plans, still flowering in spring, but producing fruit in summer and fall? What if the climbing vines produced fruit? What if the pears and olives were the fruiting varieties, not the sterile or male only varieties–same landscape sensibilty from a formalistic standpoint perhaps, but richer in production and utility? What if parks and streetscapes, in addition to underutilized road and utility rights of way actually produced food? Many difficult questions need to be addressed, of course. Who takes care of these landscapes? Who picks the fruit? Who is the market and how does it get from tree/plant to consumer? These are important operational and logistical questions, but forward thinking designers, farmers and commercial landscape maintenance companies are exploring these issues, particularly the diverting of traditional landscape maintenance monies into “urban farming” efforts. Give our broad-based approach to design, landscape architects are the on the forefront of these trends: understanding and accommodating the unique operational needs of productive landscapes; balancing ecological functions, and considering the aesthetic and experiential result of our designs—to the benefit of our cities and communities.