Designing cities and factories with urban agriculture in mind

The Netherlands offers inspiration for designers looking to create environments that harvest water, energy and nutrients

by William McDonough
Published April 23, 2014 in the Guardian

Urban farms are transforming inner city spaces – rooftops, infrastructure, streetscapes, building skin – into generative ecologies that support the lives of people, and pollinators too. They are bringing into cities, and into plain view, the natural systems that sustain urban life.

That is not new, but it is good news. Sowing seeds used to be a sign of civilization, and ancient cities were intensely agricultural. City farms fed densely populated settlements, while agricultural knowledge and custom—the domestication of seeds; mathematics, engineering, and ethics; the preparation and sharing of food—nourished urban culture.

In 20th century cities, the bond between nature and culture, food production and daily life was severed by a food system and way of building cities that devalued the essences of each. While industrial agriculture parched the land and decimated the world’s topsoil, urban planners seemed to forget that the city, and indeed each one of its inhabitants, was part of nature.

The renewal of urban agriculture offers hope for a more positive, regenerative relationship between natural systems and human communities. From a design perspective, integrating agriculture into urbanism dramatically improves the generative capacity of buildings, landscapes, infrastructure and cities. Planning to grow urban food places leads to essential questions about soil, water, terrain, and climate. How does nature work here? What will enhance the health of the soil? How might the built environment become productive and photosynthetic, harvesting more water, energy and nutrients than it consumes?

That’s what we strived to achieve in India, with the design of a 62,000 square metre Garden Factory for a major manufacturer. Our leading design question was: what if a factory could be a garden of health and productivity?

We found that it can. With a solar array, vegetated air-purification wall, rooftop greenhouses, daylighting and ductless air delivery, the factory will generate or harvest nearly all of its needs: food, oxygen and fresh air for people; carbon dioxide for plants; irrigation water and hot water; electricity and cooling; and both factory and food production jobs. Farm follows function. The building is not simply “a machine in the garden” nor a “garden in the machine”. It’s alive; the machine is a garden.

Park 20|20, a large-scale Cradle to Cradle-inspired mixed-use urban development, in Haarlemmermeer, the Netherlands, takes the Garden Factory to landscape-scale. Designed as a dynamic environmental system, the 28-acre development is a network of integrated buildings, landscapes and technical systems that establishes a metabolism of viable size and density to serve as urban infrastructure.

A network of gardens, landscapes and green roofs connects the site to a regional system of parks, wetlands, and canals. Each building is located in the path of the sun to maximise exposure during the winter and shade during summer. Photosynthetic surfaces – photovoltaic arrays and green roofs – are the system’s leaves and roots, harvesting clean renewable energy, absorbing and filtering water, producing food and providing habitat for other living things. These and other generative ecologies support a community food system and a vibrant, sustainable business community, home to Bosch Siemens Hausgerate, Fox Vakanties and FIFPro, among others.

Urban agriculture is making a new kind of city, a city of generative ecologies that amplify energy flows, nourish social networks and hum with productive enterprises. In New York City, for example, food production is booming and the agricultural network is rooted and strong. There are commercial farms and farms focused on community engagement; farms that practice intensive, open air, soil-based cultivation and those devoted to greenhouse hydroponics. There are 700 food-producing gardens and 50 schools that incorporate student-grown food in school lunches. The network includes commercial apiaries, composters, seed banks, farmers markets, restaurants, soil doctors and farm design services, and lots of butterflies.

Food has a future – we have a future – when we design our cities from the soil up.

William McDonough is an adviser, designer, thought leader and co-author of books including Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. Follow William McDonough on Twitter.