THE BLOG
10/26/2011 10:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Urban Agriculture: Green on a Human Scale

How do you turn a garden on its side and grow it up a wall? And why would you want to?

Going sideways with your greenery might be a way to provide healthy food in densely-populated urban areas. According to a recent study conducted by the University of North Carolina, there are five fast food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States. You're five times a likely to encounter a chicken mc-something than you would a vegetable. Transforming that rude encounter with a mysterious animal part into something more nourishing has engaged the hearts and minds of gardeners, activists, architects, and designers.

In San Francisco, you have a project called Little City Gardens. It's an experiment in local control of the food system. In Alameda, a group is exploring repurposing a military base to transform it into an urban farm.

Then there's that sideways thing. The Food Chain is an architectural and planning intervention which aims to eradicate hunger in urban areas. One thing they're doing is taking a garden and turning it on its side so that it can grow on a building. That way you get to use existing structures, save space, and put food gardens where they can feed people.

Robin Osler, an architect in New York who does high-end retail architecture and beautiful homes, started exploring urban farming at the urging of a singer named Taja Sevelle, and it's an interesting story. Here's a short video about it.

Architecture sometimes has the reputation of being an elitist profession. The average person might ask, 'Hey, would would an architect do for me?' Robin's answer to that is that architects should be involved at the grassroots level of society. "I think that's where we can do the most good. It's certainly personally satisfying to us," she says.  After she installed the vertical farm she heard a story of a kid who had never seen a tomato, outside of that red circle atop a McDonald's hamburger.  He reached up and grabbed one from the vertical farm, bit into it, and had a revelation. Here's the story in Robin's own words.

Robin has traveled the small- and medium-sized cities of America for her architectural projects, and she has seen how the design of cities lose their human scale when neither urban planners nor architects are involved in that design.

"Architects understand scale," Robin says. "But the public has to be educated, the developers have to be educated, the city has to be educated. Because everybody thinks if they build it bigger, it will be better."

The bigger-better formulation comes from the idea that bigger means more revenue and jobs. But big is not always sustainable when you consider water, power, sewage, population density, and bigger is not always human scale. Which brings us back to growing produce in cities. Green spaces vitalize cities. Even in a city a densely-packed as New York, public, green space enhances the value of the land. Think about the land around Central Park. Worth quite a bit. Robin has started Grow Studio to nurture urban agriculture projects from the ground up so that developers and municipalities can integrate urban agriculture into their communities.

To find out more about Robin's projects, including a plan to create vertical farming walls and a teaching kitchen for a public high school, go to EOA/Grow Studio.

To see what's going on in the world of urban farming and to find out how you can get involved, become part of the Urban Farming Global Food Chain.