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Urban garden, Biospheric Foundation, Salford

Turn Up the Volume: Food and the City

Event: Food and the City
Venue: Biospheric Foundation, Irwell House, East Philip Street, Salford
Date: Wednesday 14th July 2013
Organisers: Manchester International Festival and the Biospheric Foundation

The term agriculture or farming is often associated with large-scale industrialised systems of food production, based in rural areas and supplying food to people who live and work in cities.  In "Food and the City", Andre Viljoen, Marco Clausen and Greg Keefe presented a more nuanced view of agriculture and its relationship with cities.  They talked about urban agriculture, urban farms, urban gardens, allotments and innovative experiments in closed-loop urban food systems.  They explained the complexities of the modern system of production and distribution, its failure to address a range of economic, social and environmental problems and suggested a number of alternative pathways for agriculture, for cities and for society.

Drawing on his experience as an urban architect, Andre Viljoen showed how urban agriculture could be integrated into the physical infrastructure of cities at various levels (city, neighbourhood, street, building) to create a "Continuous Productive Urban Landscape (CPUL), optimising the use of available resources.  This would require, he said, a combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives, visualisation, inventories of urban capacity (people, spaces, markets) and research. [1]  

Marco Clausen focussed on one  initiative, Prinzesinnegarten; a small-scale urban gardening project that he co-founded with his partner in the heart of Berlin.  He explained how it got started, its social and cultural priorities and how the community has played a central role in its development and its survival, helping to overcome economic and political challenges to its existence.   In so doing, he suggested that if cities want to develop socially and culturally sustainable pathways, they need to leave spaces and/or opportunities in their systems for communities to be creative. [2]

"Does urban agriculture complement or compensate for the dominant system of food production?  Or is it a substitute, sowing seeds for a systemic transformation?"

Finally, Greg Keefe explained how the Biospheric Project and similar initiatives could reinvigorate local communities and help to transform the relationship between cities and the environment.  Greg's main points were that the current system of food production and distribution is inherently unsustainable - unable or unwilling to address the big issues, such as food poverty. He argued that we can take action by reducing our consumption of meat, milk, McDonald's and Starbucks -- the system's big hitters in terms of land use and carbon emissions - and by experimenting with more self-sufficient ways of producing and distributing food. [3]

It was all food for thought, or should that be thought for food.  It explained the complexities of food production and distribution, highlighted the different functions of urban agriculture (economic, social, cultural and environmental) and suggested alternative pathways for agriculture, for cites and for society.  A few questions emerged: does urban agriculture complement or compensate for the dominant system of food production?  Or is it a substitute, sowing seeds for a systemic transformation? What approach should city planners take? How can and should they foster space for new and creative contributions?  And what role should local communities play in that process?  A crucial question concerns the extent to which cities are aware of, able to and willing to exploit the potential that urban agriculture offers in the search for more sustainable pathways.

[1] Andre Viljoen is a partner in Bohn and Viljoen Architects, Principal Lecturer in Architecture at University of Brighton, and the editor/co-author of Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes: Designing Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Cities. 
[2] Marco Clausen is the co-founder (with Robert Shaw) of the non-profit organization "Nomadisch Grün" (Nomadic Green), which aims to transform abandoned urban spaces into social and ecological gardens, and the co-founder of Prinzessinnengarten, an urban garden in Berlin. 
[3] Greg Keeffe is Professor of Architecture and Director of Research at Queens University, Belfast, and a designer, working closely with architects and planners to re-invigorate cities through innovative sustainable interventions.  He is also one of two Directors of the Biospheric Project, with Vincent Walsh.

Find out more:

Manchester International Festival

Biospheric Foundation

"Turn Up the Volume" is a learning log of debates and events around Greater Manchester. It forms part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform’s aspiration to raise the visibility of alternative forms of sustainable urbanism, see Turn Up the Volume.

Photo of Biospheric Project taken by Alex Wharton