Designing Capacity for Future Food Networks

Designing Capacity for Future Food Networks

Résumé en français

L'agriculture urbaine, sous ses multiples formes, est largement mise en œuvre dans nos villes. En tant que forme intégrée d'utilisation du sol qui entremêle les programmes, les résidents, les modes de consommation et les flux de ressources,l'agriculture urbaine offre des possibilités de modes plus durables defabrication de la ville et d'utilisation de l'espace public. Pourtant, malgré toutes ces bonnes intentions, l'agriculture urbaine n'a pas réussi à obtenir un soutien significatif pour promouvoir efficacement des sources d'alimentation alternatives durables, des formes d'espace public et des entreprises économiquement viables. Bien qu'il existe des arguments selon lesquels des interventions ‘’conçues“ permettront de résoudre ce problème, cet article soutient que l'accent nedoit pas être mis sur le produit final, à savoir la ferme urbaine, mais plutôtsur l'adaptation de la capacité et du potentiel de mise en œuvre del'agriculture urbaine.

Urban agriculture in its multiple forms is implemented widely throughout our cities. As an integrative land-use form that intertwines programmes, residents, consumption patterns and resource flows, urban agriculture presents opportunities for more sustainable modes of city-making and public space use. Yet, for all its good intentions, urban agriculture has failed to garner significant support to promote alternative sustainable food sources, public space forms and economically viable enterprises. While there are arguments that 'designed' interventions will address this problem, this paper argues that the focus must not be on the end product, the urban farm, but rather on accommodating the capability and potential to implement urban agriculture.

Introduction: the changing nature of urban agriculture

Urban agriculture and its associated intertwining of users, roles, and resource flows is by its very nature an integrative land-use form often contrasting our existing perception of the city and its processes. While the modern functionalist city separates productive and consumptive activities (Trancik 1986), the original development of cities is closely linked with the availability and production of food (Diamond 1999). In its various forms,urban agriculture provides us with an opportunity to return to more sustainable city forms with its overlapping and integrated practices and processes.

Urban agriculture is not a modern phenomenon, with subsistence farming integral to historic city-making. In the South African context, the earliest towns we re-planned along with food production by including water-provision infrastructure,development rights and space for practising agriculture within the urban confines (Holm 1998).

Furthermore, early models such as the Garden Cities proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 and Broad Acre City (Wright 1935; Howe et al. 2005) present intentional urban forms reflecting the need for autonomous and integrated food production. More recent work by Andre Viljoen (Viljoen 2005) explores productive spaces as structuring devices to integrate planned public space with local food networks.

As the drivers and resultant forms of urban agriculture shifted over the years, so did the role of urban agriculture. Unfortunately, while the Industrial Revolution successfully separated the modes of production and consumption, during the Second World War, a resurgence of urban agriculture (as an integrative model) prompted the development of victory gardens as patriotic acts in Britain and USA (Howe et al. 2005). While the stability of the post-war era and the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s dampened the success of urban food production, the oil crisis of the 1980s highlighted our vulnerability as an integrated world and prompted many to reconsider local, sustainable food production (Todd& Todd 1994; Howe et al. 2005).Subsequently, in the 1990s, urban agriculture was widely promoted as a development strategy to uplift the urban poor (May & Rogerson 1995), effectively building on the triple bottom line of sustainable development (Elkington 1998). Recently, several studies have questioned whether Urban Agriculture has the potential to promote climate change mitigation and adaptation measures improving local climate change resilience (De Zeeuw 2011). While the arguments for integrating urban agriculture are not new, the reasoning and ideals driving the development of this land-use form continually shift. These underlying drivers also promote changes in the technology and spatial parameters of urban agriculture.

While the formal discourse reveals specific trends and foci in the application of urban agriculture, in practice, we see urban agriculture being widely practised(everyone has a garden patch). The land-use forms are diverse, ranging from simple ground-based gardens to autonomous indoor food factories (Goldstein et al., 2016). We also see urban agriculture and productive spaces included in the built environment industry when promoting sustainability as an image or symbol (Krikser et al., 2016). Yet, the widespread application of this land-use form and inclusion of urban agriculture in design proposals and subsequent built environment developments has not prompted a shift in our food system or consumption patterns. In response to an ever-changing and growing industry, this article considers the application and form of selected farms documented in South Africa, the Netherlands, Belgium and Singapore and argues for an alternative approach to conceptualise, prepare or develop these farms. The findings in this article are derived from a research project which undertook a spatial and material analysis of a selection of urban farms and interviews with the farmers managing them. These farms are in South Africa,Belgium, Singapore, the Netherlands, and the focus was on their spatial layout,material and technology-use of them. The farms were documented from 2018 to 2019 and represent a selection of farms ranging from micro-scale experimental to more significant commercial initiatives. The research project was delimited to publicly accessible farms and excluded any vegetable gardens developed on private property.

This article highlights specific spatial characteristics documented in the selected farms and calls on built environment practitioners to design for capability and the potential for future food production rather than the final product.

Discussion of specific spatial characteristics

The review of the selected farms reveals specific characteristics about their spatial quality. The aspects under consideration highlight a particular scalar quality of the interventions, their diverse application, and these farms'incremental growth.

a.    Diverse associated programmes and locations

Wiskerke (2001 in vd Ploeg & Roep 2003) argues that urban agriculture is not differentiated from industrial farming due to its location in the city but rather its value-adding role by providing additional services, functions, and products to its patrons. Resultantly, multi-functional programming is a defining characteristic of urban farms.

The analysis identified farms ranging from multi to mono-functional, with several farms in Singapore, the Netherlands, and Belgium using additional programmes as alternative revenue streams (Figure 1). These programmes include tours,restaurants, food production, event spaces and therapy spaces. While the drivers for these programmes are often financially driven, this is not always the case. Several community gardens include other programmes such as BMX tracks, gyms, and meeting spaces (Figure 2). Ultimately these farms can fulfil additional social roles. As Battersby & Marshak (2013) noted, community gardens often play critical roles in social cohesion and mental well-being.These other roles are all dependent on the integration of multiple and diverse programmes with the main agriculture programme.

Figure 1: Example of farms that provide space for alternative programmes (Author, 2018)

Figure 2: The schematic layout of a community garden in Rotterdam, which includes multiple programmes (Author, 2021)
In keeping with the theme of diversity, the research revealed farms being implemented in the most unexpected places.

These locations ranged from farms on old bowling fields, next to stormwater channels, on top of historic abattoirs,to indoor farms in storage cupboards (Figure 3). The diversity in farm locations reveals two critical factors of the urban agriculture industry. Firstly, the development of growing technologies, including hydroponic systems, artificial lighting systems, and automated growing systems (Figure 4), enables farms to be less hindered by poor microclimatic and natural resource availability. Secondly, urban farmers effectively identify the latent spaces available within our cities and often successfully exploit their hidden nature to extract value that is otherwise deemed worthless.

Figure 3: Innovative use of latent spaces for food production (Author, 2018)
Figure 4: Technologically advanced food production technologies limit the need for optimal microclimates (Author, 2018).

b.    Scale and urban integration of farms.

While the diversity in farm locations drives their integration within the urban environment, the spatial scale of these farms is critical in enabling this. The documented farms are anthropomorphically scaled, therefore as a Belgian urban farmer argued:

"[It] is a nice thing that you don't work with big machinery like a farmer. You do not have big tractors… there is no big machinery…" (Respondent A, 26/04/2018).

As a result, the scale at which these farms are developed easily integrates with the urban environment enabling cohesive applications (Figure 5). In addition, the scale is more inclusive by allowing minority groups, such as physically and mentally disabled individuals, to contribute to these farms' day-to-day running. This was explicitly noted in several Singaporean farms where employee diversity is actively promoted.

Figure 5: Examples of anthropomorphically scaled urban farms (Author, 2018)

Discussions with multiple urban farmers revealed that they are aware of the need to integrate urban farms within the urban environment. As noted by Napawan (2016), while urban farms have the potential to play essential roles in public space provision, this is not always the case. In this research project, I identified a range of farms shifting from community gardens that are fully integrated with the larger public space networks to farms that actively isolate themselves from the public sphere (Figure 6). While food production safety is often cited as a reason for spatial isolation, the security of produce and equipment is similarly important. This was noted in impoverished neighbourhoods (Figure 7). Therefore, the integration and potential alternative public space types reveal both concerns and opportunities to be addressed.

Fig 6: Range of integration and access to urban farms (accessible on the left and completely isolated on the right) (Author, 2018)
Figure 7: Additional security fence added to secure the produce and equipment (Author, 2020)

c.    Modular spatial layouts and space-use tactics

From the range of space-use tactics the farmers use to ensure sustainability and economic viability, spatial and temporal flexibility remain the principal approach. As a result, farmers often opt for temporal and adjustable solutions which allow them to easily relocate when needed (Figure 8). While the farms do not always legally operate, this land-use form is often used as a tactical urbanism approach to initiate the urban transformation (Hashim 2015). As noted by a South African urban farmer:

"I did not receive permission per se to use the property. I am not renting it. I do use the property with the municipality's knowledge,and I am sure that they approve of me using the space" (Respondent B,11/05/2018).

Consequently, these farms also shift as the spatial conditions or land-use needs change.

Figure 8: Farms using multiple tactics to ensure that the farm equipment is flexible and movable. This limits the risk for the farmers (Author, 2018)

In terms of spatial flexibility, low tech farms revealed a high level of organic development and reported multiple changes as the farmers learned or adjusted their practices (Figure 9). One of the farmers noted: "We are trying out a few systems as well. We have stabilised two of them now. That will keep us going, but we will be building more systems out there" (Respondent 1, 15/01/2019).Therefore, the farms' layouts and technology often change and adapt to optimise output or resource consumption. As the farms start using more technologically sophisticated systems, a high level of modularity is employed. These sophisticated farms often use a kit of parts that allow them to grow as needed (Figure 10). On the other hand, less sophisticated farms still quickly develop and adjust using adaptable technologies providing functional modularity.

Figure 9: Low tech, flexible farming technology (Author, 2018)
Figure 10: Sophisticated modular farming technologies and equipment (Author, 2018)

Harnessing these spatial conditions for long term success

While this article cannot give a complete list of urban agriculture's spatial characteristics, the chosen elements present spatial conditions documented through the various farm typologies (low tech to highly sophisticated farms). Firstly, it reveals an independent, emergent, and widely practised land-use practice. Its spatial flexibility and modularity allow this land-use form to emerge in the most unexpected places, revealing latent spatial opportunities which otherwise would go unnoticed. Its ability to integrate with the existing context and enable multiple programmes to co-exist demonstrates a land-use form with the capacity to transform and enhance our urban environments. Successful transformative initiatives such as the Victoria Yards project in Johannesburg(see or the BIGH farm in Brussels (see this land-use form's potential (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Surrounding context and soil-based roof garden section as part of the BIGH farm in Brussels,Belgium (Author 2018)

The flexible emergent quality of these farms often improves their feasibility because they are not predetermined and fully designed. They retain flexibility,and the more successful farms allow for quick feedback loops and rapid adjustments. By their very nature and not being fully designed enables their long-term success. Yet, considering the limited success of urban agriculture in contributing meaningfully, or disrupting, the food network, one should question why such a seemingly sustainable and responsive land-use form often fails. Scholars and practitioners often cite the lack of design when discussing urban agriculture and its limited uptake. Rightfully so, design thinking provides us with the opportunity to simulate, test, and explore options that otherwise would not be revealed or deemed feasible.

Yet built environment practitioners must consider the means and ends of designing urban agriculture as a sustainable landform. Its very nature calls for open-ended,undefined spatial articulation and encourages designers to assess the potential of spaces as productive initiatives and not as the product itself. Urban farmers often cite economic feasibility, market access, and limited scale as critical barriers to success. Therefore, we must be cognisant that food systems' economics and public perception also change over time. If built environment practitioners are to make tangible differences, we must enable the future development, access and establishment of productive spaces in our cities.

As noted by Napawan (2016), promoting food production in cities involves the provision of space for urban agriculture and requires planning and allocating support infrastructure to enable urban agriculture. This calls for designers to optimise the capability of neighbourhoods, landscapes, and buildings to enable urban agriculture by providing access to resources and infrastructure, such as water, electricity,local markets, collective storage facilities, and distribution networks. While there is undoubtedly a need for urban-level integration of these farms, architects can assist by optimising microclimates and solar access, limiting overshadowing, ensuring easy service access to latent spaces and accommodating the potential retrofitting of roof spaces, facades, basements or backyards.Ultimately, integrating these spatial conditions with innovative local networks(such as IoT or digital networks can leverage the efficacy and reach of these productive networks in the future.


In response to the significant growth in the urban agriculture industry yet limited tangible transformation of the various global food networks, this article argues for an alternative approach to conceptualising productive spaces in our cities. As noted earlier, the drivers and feasibility of urban agriculture are not only dependent on the land-use form itself but also relate to larger collective paradigms, international crises, and resource availability.

It is imperative not to design the end product but rather integrate the capacity for rapid and successful transformation towards productive cities as the need arises.

Ultimately, prompting built environment practitioners to introduce and develop the foundations of our future sustainable cities that will successfully integrate and balance consumption and production.


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