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Expert Q&A: Dr. Mark Gorgolewski

This architect, one of the key forces behind the Carrot City initiative and book, discusses the role design can play in urban food production.

By Amy Nelson

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Dr. Mark Gorgolewski directs the graduate program in the building science of sustainable design at Ryerson University in Toronto. His research includes sustainable housing, reuse of resources, urban agriculture and the design of cities.

Dr. Gorgolewski has worked for many years as an architect, researcher and environmental consultant to the construction industry in the UK and Canada. He has published many books, articles and papers on issues of sustainable design, including most recently Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture. The book came out of the Carrot City research initiative, which examines how design at all scales can enable the production of food in the city. The initiative, which Dr. Gorgolewski launched along with other Ryerson faculty and students, explores the relationship of design and urban food systems as well as the impact that agricultural issues have on the creation of urban spaces and buildings as society addresses the issues of a more sustainable pattern of living.

A former Chair of the Association for Environment Conscious Building in the UK, Dr. Gorgolewski is currently Director of the Canada Green Building Council. We were thrilled to chat with him and learn more about Carrot City.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the Carrot City initiative? 

The initiative came from students here at Ryerson University. About five or six years ago, some fourth year undergraduate students were doing thesis projects on issues of food and how it affects urban building design. We formed a group consisting of a couple of professors and experts we knew. (It just so happened that the husband of one of the professors had written a book on food policy issues.) That group supported these students as they did their thesis projects throughout that year.

After that first year, we had more students who were interested, and we decided to host a food and design symposium. We brought together various contacts we had made, some of which came from projects students had identified while doing their research projects. We had about 150 participants here to talk about the issues of food and the city, and how food can affect the design of buildings in the city.

From that symposium came the idea of an exhibition, which we organized at the Design Exchange in Toronto in 2009. We named the exhibit Carrot City. The Carrot City exhibition has evolved and is now traveling the world. It is just about to open in Paris. It was recently in Stuttgart and in Birmingham in the UK. Following the exhibition, we were approached by some publishers. The book expanded on the contents of the exhibition, and provided more details.

What has the reaction been to the exhibit and book?

There certainly seems to be a lot of interest, all around the world. In recent years, the topic of food in the city has been generating more and more interest. There was a lot of concern about food security, and the fact that some people don’t have access to healthy, culturally-appropriate food. There were also increasing concerns about obesity and about the way we grow our food (for health or climate change reasons). All of these issues circle around the food we consume and how we produce it. So we started to think about the role that food could have in the way we design cities.

One review of the book noted that “The physical and cultural connection of food and cities has been a largely bottom up process to which the design world is now responding.” In the introduction to the book, you write “The emerging and often grass roots alternative food movement has barely engaged with the possible contributions the design and planning professions are capable of making.” You also write that “Architects as a group have been slow to bestow the importance of food production spaces in design.” Why has there been this gap? Is it narrowing?

The gap has emerged because following the industrial revolution, food became something that happened outside of the city, so it wasn’t something that really concerned the thinkers about the city. In the early part of the 20th century, some leading planners and thinkers did still consider food to be important in the [design of the] city. But that moved off of the discussion table in the second half of the 20th century. By then, architects and planners were focusing on other aspects, not on food. This was also part of the movement, during the 20th century, of specialization of land use. Land use became very much focused on having specific housing areas, industrial areas, recreation areas, etc.  Food production was something that happened in rural areas. It didn’t happen in an urban context very much. Planners and architects were educated to think that way. They didn’t engage in issues of food because they weren’t asked to.

This is gradually changing. It’s not changing as fast as some of us would like it to, but more and more, there are initiatives which are bringing the discussion around food back into the city. Therefore, urban planners and architects are now increasingly being asked to consider food issues.

When we interviewed author Novella Carpenter, she cited lack of government support as a key challenge to urban agriculture. You write in Carrot City that “appropriate municipal support is crucial to the wider adoption and success of urban agriculture.” If urban food production is, as you write, “a viable, sustainable alternative to shipping food from a distance,” and if food-related initiatives have been proven to reduce the heat island effect, lower water treatment costs, and positively impact issues like food security and health, why does policy seem to lag behind?

Part of the reason why it lags behind is what I just talked about. Food was just not seen as something that people in the city needed to think about. It was seen as a rural issue. It was as though bringing food into the city would mean treading on the rural community. This can still be a concern because some rural communities fear that their economic viability will be undermined [by urban agriculture]. Actually, I think the future is not just about bringing food directly into the city, but also about urban and rural communities developing closer links and working together to supply relatively local food in the peri-urban areas directly adjacent to urban areas.

The issue of food cuts across many different areas of policy. Policies tend to be pigeonholed into different offices, [such as] a Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Health, etc. Food, particularly urban food, doesn’t directly fit into any one of those. Therefore there isn’t an obvious champion to really push food issues in an urban context. We need, perhaps, a “Ministry of Food” that would focus on food and food systems. That would include thinking about food as an urban issue, prevention for health problems, etc.

You write that “Government and other agencies are beginning to support small-scale, community based initiatives.” In your travels and in your experience reviewing case studies for the exhibit and book, have there been any standout examples of large scales initiatives of urban agriculture?

As part of the upcoming London Olympics, the government funded a whole series of small projects all around London which encourage food production within the urban context and education around food production in the urban environment.  So there is not one large project, but lots of small projects coordinated around one activity-the London Olympics.

Another example is in Vancouver. As part of the development of the Vancouver Olympic Village, the False Creek area did a number of studies to look into the integration of food. They developed various policy initiatives around how food could be integrated into that community. In the end, many ideas were not implemented because there were financial issues with getting the Olympic Village built, but some of the ongoing development that is happening in that area is going to include more food-related initiatives. The policy work and guiding strategic work they did there is informing other developments and generally informing the way that the Vancouver City municipality is looking at further development. Sometimes these things start as small initiatives and grow into big ones.

There are now some developments in Europe where the developers are being asked by the municipalities to include food-related opportunities. In Scandinavia, for example, the winning entry to the Low2No competition in Helsinki by Sauerbruch Hutton Architects integrated a whole range of opportunities for food growing within a large, mixed-used, but mainly residential development because of the desire of the municipality.

The book has some truly amazing examples of urban agriculture. Was there one project that really inspired you?

I wouldn’t want to single out any one project. There are lots of projects, and lots of different aspects to those projects, in the book that I find inspiring.  I am drawn to some of the visionary, big picture ideas, but I also like some of the very small scale projects, which are getting things happening.

I’m interested in the idea of “tactical urbanism,” making small scale things happen to really demonstrate potential. From small scale initiatives, people begin to realize potential. Some of the small scale initiatives that happen, even when they are temporary, are quite inspiring.

From an architectural point of view, I like things like Public Farm 1 in New York because it has a very architectural feel to it. It has a very interesting design approach, a creative way of using materials, and an innovative way of using space to create a sculptural element.

I also like the Leadenhall Street City Farm in London. Although it didn’t happen, the potential it offers for use of waste spaces in the city has lots of potential.

We have so many spaces in the city that are expected to have development, but there may be five or ten years before anything will happen with them. There is potential for building temporary urban farm installations into some of these sites with minimal cost and infrastructure. This creates real value, and hte installations can move on to a different empty site later when the development happens on that particular site.

In the chapter “Imagining the Productive City,” rehabilitating wasted spaces is one of several approaches to urban agriculture presented. Vertical farming, farm subdivisions, and creating connected networks of productive spaces were also presented. Do you think any one of these approaches is most promising?

I have some hesitation about some of the vertical farm proposals. When we chose the projects to put into the book, we purposely decided to include a range of projects and not filter out those that we weren’t completely convinced of.

We did include some vertical farm ideas, but I find them not entirely convincing. The infrastructure needed to make them happen is considerable, and I’m not sure that is something that is realistic to build. I also worry about the amount of energy needed to run those farms. I have seen figures which suggest that the amount of energy needed to run vertical farm would dwarf the supply we have at the moment.

I’m more drawn to the tactical, smaller scale networks of interventions that could happen around different small places in cities. I’m quite drawn to projects that look at existing infrastructure, like Ravine City. Although it’s a fairly big intervention, it’s using and building upon existing green infrastructure in the city of Toronto.

Speaking of scale, is there an ideal scale for urban agriculture? Are there scales that just don’t work?

From my limited knowledge of agriculture, I think there isn’t one ideal scale or solution. Some are very big interventions that would need to work at a large scale, while others can function very happily at a smaller scale.  However, I would say that to be successful, most [urban agriculture initiatives] must be closely linked to the community. They need to be at the local community scale, they need to have support and buy in from the community around them, and they need to provide for the community. So those relatively small scale community initiatives, which could then be linked into a network of cooperating initiatives, are probably the scale where success is most likely to happen.

Do you think there is a potential disconnect between the way the fields of architecture, planning and landscape architecture are practiced today and the very intimate, place-based knowledge it takes to understand the agricultural needs of a place, as well as details like soils, microclimates, etc.?

There are still a lot of people out there who know a lot about growing food in the urban environment or are developing that expertise, so I think it’s a matter of tapping into that expertise and using that. We have to make sure that expertise doesn’t die.

I’m in my early 50s, and my generation is probably the generation that knows the least about growing food. Our parents and older generations probably knew much more and practiced it much more. But I think there is a lot of interest in reestablishing that knowledge and making sure future generations have it.

How integrated is urban agriculture, generally speaking, in the education of tomorrow’s planners and designers?

Not very much. There are a few [institutions] like [Ryerson University] that are interested in urban agriculture and therefore run a few courses in it, but this specific subject is not widely taught.

There is interest among some students through projects, some of which are in our book and others are being publicized in the architectural press and elsewhere. Students who do get inspired by this subject will explore it on their own, sometimes with some support from their schools of architecture. But [urban agriculture] is not well supported at the moment in architecture and planning schools, and needs to be linked to a pedagogy which is more ecologically based.

That is one of the reasons why we published the Carrot City book. We wanted to provide a resource for those students and professors who want to explore this further.

Have you seen many examples of the integration of urban agriculture with water reuse (rainwater harvesting, treated grey water used to irrigate fruit trees, etc.)?

There are some projects which collect rainwater. There are a few in the book that do that. Some make it more overt while with others, it may just be a barrel in the back collecting water off of a shed. The one that is probably most overt is the Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson Community Gardenin New York City, which has blue funnel structures which capture rainwater and store it in a tank. They have an old fashioned pump to move the water out for use in the garden. It’s something that a lot of projects consider.

And it’s not just water. There are opportunities for urban agriculture to be coordinated with other resources available in cities. Waste heat that occurs from buildings, for example, could be used to heat greenhouses which would help with growing plants. Some of the biomass that is collected in the city could be composted and used for soil in urban agriculture. One of our interests is to follow up and look for ways to connect with the free or available resources that occur in the city.

In the introduction to the Carrot City book, you mention a civic initiative in Rotterdam to develop a food strategy which focuses on three requirements for urban agriculture to be effectively integrated into conurbation: 1) economically viable 2) spatially integrated into the city and 3) can be woven into the social fabric. Can you have one of these requirements without the others and still be successful? Which requirement do you think is hardest to achieve?

Individual initiatives can address only certain aspects, but a wider-scale strategy really does need to coordinate economic viability with spatial integration and social aspects.

Each project in the book addresses these three requirements in different ways. In some of the design-driven projects, the emphasis may be more on the spatial integration in the city. Other projects which are trying to provide resources to a particular group or disadvantaged community may be more focused on integration into the social fabric. Realistically, for urban agriculture to be more widely accepted within the urban community, it needs to address all of these in an integrated way.

What potential do you think urban agriculture has to affect social and environmental justice?

The whole issue of food security and the ability for people to have access to readily available, culturally appropriate, nutritious food they can afford is a key aspect of social justice. Urban agriculture is one way people can have access to the fresh, healthy food they want and need to be consuming. I don’t want to force urban agriculture down people’s throats. and say that everybody has to be growing food, but there are many people who want to have the opportunity to do this type of activity, and there are people who feel that this is the way they can get the food they want to consume. Therefore, I think it’s important that we create opportunities for them.

From an environmental justice point of view, my concerns are about the environmental impacts of our modern way of living, and food is central to that. The way that we provide a lot of our food is at the cost of our environment for many communities. This is true in the Western world and in developing countries. We need to be aware of the environmental damage that our food is causing in very many parts of the world and take responsibility for that.

One of the important questions Carrot City asks about the contributions design professionals can make to strengthen links between urban design and food supply is: “What is the place of food production in the city?” How would you answer that question?

That’s what the book tries to answer, so read the book! I don’t think there’s a simple, one-sentence answer. There are many roles that food can have in a city, but there is an opportunity for food to actually start impacting the types of spaces and places we create in the city. This will happen in a range of different ways, from small-scale interventions in the way we use planters around buildings to the types of systems we develop in our city for providing our infrastructure. It goes right through from thinking about how we deal with our water and our sewage and how that could be integrated into food producing systems, to very small scale efforts of individuals growing food in boxes on balconies. The role of food is across the board and needs to be thought through at the various scales.

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