Sunday, 22 September 2013

Tastefully green

By now my readers would be used to my predilection for puns.  Admittedly, this post title is worse than usual, as I refer to the continuing efforts to introduce into the densest urban fabric of our cities some meaningful local food production.  The issue was brought to mind by a tasteful photo spread in Inhabitat, headlined Shanghai Shopping Mall Sprouts a Flourishing Urban Farm!

The K11 mall is spruiked as an ‘Art Mall’, and as Inhabitat explains, seeks to break the mold of the average consumer shopping experience in China.  Its urban farm is one of its most unusual and inviting aspects.
Located in the middle of the mall, the farm uses soil-free cultivation methods and it provides a bit of green respite for urban visitors.  The mini-farm is currently producing tomatoes, eggplants and hot peppers, but with autumn on the way they will soon be switching to different seasonal produce. The vegetables are grown using automatic irrigation systems, and LED lighting supplements the daylight that floods in through the mall’s windows.
Indeed, the farm is tastefully displayed, much of it behind glass and branded like much else in China was the potent combination of high-end information technology references in English.  I sound like I'm cynical, but I am trying not to be.  It is actually hard to give credit where it is due, for an effort which is about raising consciousness of the possibility of urban food production, while questioning whether it distracts from the realities of how that might be brought about.
There are many attempts at quantitative treatment of the true proportion of our total resource expenditure that is conventionally dedicated to feeding the city.  But for some reason, it is very rarely highlighted.  For popular consumption, the outcomes of such analysis are usually buried in the metaphor of the 'ecological footprint'.  While useful as a scary headline, that tends to mask the sobering detail.
To see, for instance, a simple graph of the embodied energy of feeding ourselves, as a proportion of recurring energy consumption by a typical, developed world household, conveys a subtly different message.  Who would like to confront the suggestion that we might be using five times as much energy for our food to get to our door, as for otherwise running the dwelling?
Exactly how the fabric of the city might be modified to achieve a meaningful impact on the status quo, has also been the topic of thought and experiment.  But it would be fair to say that most often when food is introduced into discussions of urban sustainability, the conversation relies heavily on the romance of residents growing nominal amounts, either individually or as communal activity.  It kind of sneaks in under the social banner of a triple bottom line framework.

Meanwhile, rare is the city in the world that is not gobbling up its surrounding agricultural land, pushing out even the market gardens that traditionally were able tuck themselves into pockets of flood prone land between suburbs.  It will be interesting to see what intimations of catastrophe eventually force us to confront this issue. What I would like to see are the prototypes of urban agriculture that are actually capable of producing commercial quantities; the diversity and complexity of ecosystems that supply a greater proportion of our needs. Urban forestry, vertical fields, professional farmers able to make a living, rather than mere cute spectacle. 

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