By Vanessa Quirk
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Earlier this month, The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman tackled a common narrative in the architecture and urban planning community. It goes like this: once upon a time, in the 1990s, Medellín, Colombia, was the “murder of the capital of the world.” Then thoughtful architectural planning connected the slums to the city. Crime rates plummeted and, against the odds, the city was transformed.
Well, yes and no.
What happened in Medellín is often called “Urban Acupuncture,” a way of planning that pinpoints vulnerable sectors of a city and re-energizes them through design intervention. But Kimmelman reports that while the city has made considerable strides in its commitment to long-term, urban renewal, it has prioritized huge, infrastructural change over smaller solutions that could truly address community needs.
Urban Acupuncture needn’t be expensive, wieldy, or time-consuming. But it does require a detailed understanding of the city – its points of vulnerability, ‘deserts’ of services, potential connection points – and a keen sensitivity to the community it serves.
So what does this have to do with food? Our food system presents seemingly unsurmountable difficulties. In Part II, I suggested that design could, at the very least, better our alienated relationship with food. But what if we used the principles of Urban Acupuncture to bring Agriculture to the fore of urban planning? What if we used pinpointed, productive landscapes to revitalize abandoned communities and help them access healthy foods? What if we design our cities as points of Urban “Agripuncture”?
What would our cities look like with Urban Agripuncture?
The Food Desert Mirage
What has happened in the United States today is a hierarchization of health, where low-income citizens struggle to afford healthy foods and settle for the cheapest alternatives, leaving them susceptible to obesity, diabetes, and an array of other health problems. As Michael Pollan puts it, rather bluntly, “we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.”
Many have suggested that the lack of healthy produce available in low-income neighborhoods has produced “Food Deserts,” areas inundated with fast food but miles from the nearest supermarket, leading to our current health epidemic. But recent studies suggest that these “Deserts” are merely mirages concealing the true problem. According to The Economist,
“neither USDA nor the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has been able to establish a causal link between food deserts and dietary health. In fact, both agree that merely improving access to healthy food does not change consumer behaviour. [...] some Americans simply do not care to eat a balanced diet, while others, increasingly, cannot afford to. Over the last four years, the price of the healthiest foods has increased at around twice the rate of energy-dense junk food. That is the whole problem, in an organic nutshell.”
If we consider that, rather than the convenience of location, price (and then taste) are the greatest determiners of what foods people buy, then knowing where there is a lack of supermarkets is not enough. It involves a far more nuanced understanding of community dynamics, a far more sophisticated collection of data – and a darn good map.
The rise of increasingly sophisticated mapping tools, such as GIS (Geographical Information Systems), has allowed Urban planners to view cities according to a particular intention – to find vacant lots (or “remnant parcels” in the words of Nicholas de Marchaux), to visualize zoning laws, or even gain a better understanding of city topology.
But what if you started mapping the city, using food as the metric? Some have already begun – from plotting farms, to food deserts, to crop location. But imagine if we changed the focus from location, to the joint issues of inequality and inefficiency?
Our food system brings millions of tons of food to the city a day, wastes about a third of it, and yet still leaves millions hungry – what if we could identify which communities are most affected by hunger? Where most food is being thrown away? Where there are community gardens? Farmers markets? High rates of obesity and diabetes? A lack of green, public space? A lack of nutritional education?
From data collection, to integration, to mapping, to analysis – it would be far from an easy task. But by integrating this data into an interactive map, and making it tell a story of the health of the city, you could then determine those spots most in need of Agricultural intervention.
But once you know the where, the next question would be: what?
Against a ‘Geography of Nowhere’
In the late 1990s, Magic Johnson and his business partner Kenneth Lombard decided they were going to use their influence to bring high-quality retail ventures to underserved inner-city/suburban communities with high concentrations of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. By 2004, the pair had introduced 5 Loews Movie Theatres, 57 Starbucks, 2 TGIFs, and 15 home loan centers.
Like in Medellín, the initiative helped legitimize these communities, in the eyes of corporations and the local citizens themselves. But, while it did utilize community outreach, the project also introduced businesses with no real connection to the character of the communities themselves, essentially gentrifying them with a fragile “monoculture,” a “geography of nowhere.”
This is where targeted, community-oriented design comes in. The task of the Urban Acupuncturist, despite his cartographer’s “God’s-eye-view” of a city, is not to impose a design solution, but to come to one through an interactive dialogue with the community.
When designing points of Agripuncture, the form will vary according to the need – perhaps a small-scale Market Makeover, a Bright Farms-style Supermarket, an Edible Schoolyard – but the key will always be designs that directly benefit and integrate into the community. Because while Urban Agripuncture can’t force the individual prioritization of health, it can encourage community participation in the production of healthy, affordable foods.
Towards an Urban Agripuncture
Urban Acupuncture’s aim is to revitalize and legitimize the parts of a city often neglected, abandoned, in some cases even demolished – and revitalize the city as a whole. Filtered through the efficiency-tuned, data-informed eyes of the Architect, city “problems” become the sites of community-oriented solutions – and using productive landscapes as the “needles” has tremendous potential.
In a nation where our cities have become segregated by a “hierarchy of health,” “Urban Agri-puncture” could not only begin “designing out the distance” between us and food, particularly where the breach is most glaring, it could help revitalize those communities slowly dying for want of healthy, affordable food.
As Architects, we just need to start by letting food be our guide.