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Agritecture: Bridging the design gap between city and farm

April 30, 2019

Urban agriculture presents a design challenge, but a multidisciplinary approach offers a solution

Integrating urban agriculture (or “urban ag”) into our communities has gained popularity among developers and city officials in recent years, and with good reason. The benefits of growing food closer to where people live are well documented. Access to local produce improves health and well-being, cuts pollution and transportation congestion, builds community, and provides education and economic development opportunities.

Despite these benefits, growing food in an urban setting has its challenges, one of which is design. Architects, while well-intentioned, will often create designs that don’t reflect the realities of urban farming. Agriculturalists, for their part, will miss important design and community development considerations.

Enter agritecture—the idea of combining these disciplines to develop solutions for city planners and developers.

The Oasis team design concept integrates a multilevel public garden concealing a greenhouse below while providing banked amphitheater seating for the public to enjoy performances on the stage.

A city ripe for farming

Developing innovative solutions for existing problems that integrate different perspectives, disciplines, trends, and technology is always on our mind. That’s why we invited New York-based Agritecture Consulting to co-host a design workshop in our Vancouver office. Agritecture uses an interdisciplinary team to work closely with partners and clients to bridge the gap between agricultural planning and architectural design. Their collaborative approach brings best practices from different fields to bear on a project’s design.

Integrating agriculture with the built environment yields a multitude of benefits for cities and their residents.

Over two days, we explored ways to incorporate a high-profile urban ag program into our master plan for redeveloping a 15-acre site in a regional town center in metro Vancouver.

We chose to focus on the site for its high visibility. It sits in a dense, mixed-use development with good access to multimodal transit and proximity to one of Canada’s largest indoor shopping malls. These conditions provide a captive audience for showcasing urban ag and educating the public about it. 

Vancouver is an exciting place to try this, as it’s long been at the forefront of urban ag activity. The city has allowed urban ag since at least the early 20th century. The ongoing and increasing interest in local food production springs from enthusiasm for creating green jobs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, teaching lower-income residents how to prepare nutritious meals on a budget, and pursuing social and environmental justice.

Farmers markets, hand-crafted food, and microbreweries are obvious outcomes of this movement, but interest has grown so strong that park and city plans have begun including community gardens and even urban farms. In Vancouver, those include both for-profit and social-enterprise sites that employ a variety of farming models. They include:

  • Institutional (school/hospital) gardens
  • Rooftop greenhouses
  • Open-air rooftop farms
  • Community gardens
  • Vertical farms (“sky farming”)
  • Backyard gardens
  • Edible walls
  • Indoor farming
  • Aquaponics (a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture)

City and community planners now also recognize the community-building role that community farms/gardens can play and the importance of adjusting city policy to foster them.

The Metroponics design includes a commercial-scale growing operation focused on high-quality, niche herbs and greens, with food-safe facilities and minimal environmental impact.

The Oasis: Agritecture applied

The workshop began with a flash course that gave participants a common understanding of elements that make urban gardens and farms successful. We then organized three teams of Stantec sustainability planners, architects, and landscape architects working alongside local business owners, entrepreneurs, greenhouse consultants, and engineers. Each team developed multiple concepts for the site, then presented them for scoring by a panel of urban ag experts.

The winning design, “Oasis,” integrates agriculture seamlessly into the redevelopment plan to balance quality-of-life features for residents—community gardens, a “food forest” of fruit trees, and an outdoor performance stage—with a sophisticated center for commercial food production. It sets a 30,000-square-foot urban ag facility in the center of the complex’s four mixed-use towers.

The facility accommodates food production in a two-level greenhouse, education and retail space, and a walkable green roof with a profile that resembles a range of spiky hills. Beyond its substantial food-producing capacity, the building advances sustainability in three ways:

  1. The large jutting windows that create the craggy roofline usher sunlight into the interior greenhouses.
  2. Waste heat from the development’s towers helps regulate temperatures in the greenhouse.
  3. An anaerobic composter turns waste from the residential floors of the towers into fertilizer for use on the green roof.

The diversity of backgrounds and expertise on each team brought together a wealth of knowledge from all aspects of urban agriculture. This ranged from the detailed technical requirements for engineering/designing an efficient aquaponic/greenhouse production facility to developing an educational program to assembling a successful business model. We had a room full of engineers, architects, landscape architects, urban planners, business owners, and teachers all sharing their expertise to come up with a design concept that would function in a real-world setting.

Overall, each team arrived at concepts and themes that will inform not just this particular master plan but also future projects throughout the region. We expect interest in urban farming to keep growing as more people learn the economic, environmental, and health and well-being benefits of producing food locally.  

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