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Productive Cities, by Design: A conversation with June Komisar and Joe Nasr

The May 2008 symposium “The Role of Food and Agriculture in the Design and Planning of Buildings and Cities,” held at Ryerson University in Toronto, is considered to be the first symposium to explore the connections between urban planning and design and urban agriculture. IMAGE/ June Komisar/Joe Nasr

BIOS/

ERIC GORDON, OALA, IS A GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER AND PRINCIPAL AT OPTIMICITY, A TORONTO-BASED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN DESIGN PRACTICE THAT MAINTAINS A DIVERSE PROJECT PORTFOLIO REFLECTING AN EFFORT TO SOLVE URBAN AND LANDSCAPE PROBLEMS OF ALL SORTS.

JUNE KOMISAR IS PROFESSOR AND AN ASSOCIATE CHAIR IN THE DEPARTMENT OF ARCHITECTURAL SCIENCE AT RYERSON UNIVERSITY, WHERE SHE TEACHES DESIGN, THEORY, AND HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURE COURSES. SHE HOLDS AN M.ARCH FROM YALE UNIVERSITY AND A DOCTORATE IN ARCHITECTURE, SPECIALIZING IN HISTORY AND THEORY, FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, FOCUSING ON 18TH-CENTURY BRAZILIAN ARCHITECTURE. FOR THE PAST DECADE, SHE HAS BEEN INTRODUCING URBAN AGRICULTURE ISSUES INTO THE ARCHITECTURAL CURRICULUM WITH COURSES SUCH AS “DESIGNING THE PRODUCTIVE CITY: ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN AGRICULTURE.”

JOE NASR IS AN INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR, LECTURER, AND CONSULTANT BASED IN TORONTO, WITH A DOCTORATE IN URBAN AND REGIONAL PLANNING FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA. HE HAS BEEN EXPLORING URBAN AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SECURITY ISSUES FOR MORE THAN 25 YEARS. JOE HAS TAUGHT AT A NUMBER OF UNIVERSITIES IN SEVERAL COUNTRIES AND RECEIVED SEVERAL POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIPS; HE IS A LECTURER AND ASSOCIATE AT THE CENTRE FOR STUDIES IN FOOD SECURITY AT RYERSON UNIVERSITY. HE IS CO-AUTHOR OR CO-EDITOR OF FOUR BOOKS AND DOZENS OF ARTICLES, INCLUDING THE SEMINAL BOOK URBAN AGRICULTURE (PUBLISHED BY THE UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME), AND HE CO-EDITS THE SPRINGER URBAN AGRICULTURE BOOK SERIES.

Plan for Edible Allan Gardens. IMAGE/ Edible Allan Gardens design team, led by Ashley Adams

Joe Nasr and June Komisar have been driving forces behind a number of seminal urban agriculture-related events and initiatives in Ontario for more than a decade. In May of 2008, they co-organized, with Mark Gorgolewski, what is considered to be the first symposium to explore the connections between urban planning and design and urban agriculture, “The Role of Food and Agriculture in the Design and Planning of Buildings and Cities,” which was held at Ryerson University in Toronto. Building on the 2008 symposium, an exhibition, titled Carrot City, was conceived by students and faculty at Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science, and was held in early 2009 at the Design Exchange in Toronto. Since then, Carrot City has expanded into a travelling exhibit that has been shown at a number of venues in North America, Europe, and Africa. A book by Joe Nasr, June Komisar, and Mark Gorgolewski, based on the exhibit, was published by Monacelli Press in September of 2011. The Carrot City initiative, now housed at the comprehensive website www.carrotcity.org, aims to disseminate ideas and knowledge about best practices in urban agriculture.

The exhibition Carrot City. IMAGE/ June Komisar/Joe Nasr

Eric Gordon (EG): Has there been a shift from the design of urban agriculture projects towards a more holistic food systems design at a city level? Do you envision design professionals in the built environment, such as landscape architects, engaging with urban agriculture and issues around it in the future?

Joe Nasr (JN): Urban agriculture has inspired imaginative ways to produce food in the city, and this was the focus early on in the urban agriculture movement, and there’s still interest in this aspect, but it has also leveraged wider interest in the food system as a whole (including the relationship to food production near the city, not just in it)—from production to processing and distribution and marketing. The question is, how to design for all of that?

A couple of years ago, June and I were asked to edit an issue of the journal Urban Design International, and, initially, we were asked to focus on urban design and urban agriculture. We suggested to the journal editors that the more interesting and more relevant approach would be to make it about urban design for food systems. It’s a much larger perspective on the issues.

EG: Is the term “urban agriculture” generally perceived to be about food production rather than about food networks and connectivity?

June Komisar (JK): That’s an interesting question because people are always saying, “Well, if you can’t feed a whole city with urban agriculture, then you’re not at the scale we need at the moment.” But there are a lot of other benefits to urban agriculture, and this is something that is increasingly being understood: that urban agriculture is also for community building, and it helps teach people about where their food comes from, and, in general, skills building for children… There are a lot of benefits to urban agriculture besides simply growing food.

The main site of Ryerson Urban Farm is a quarter-acre rooftop farm located on the Andrew and Valerie Pringle Environmental Green Roof above the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto. The farm is designed in the market garden tradition, with more than 50 crops and more than 100 cultivars, along with three rooftop bee hives. IMAGE/ June Komisar/Joe Nasr

JN: I’ve been working on urban agriculture issues for close to thirty years, and I co-authored a book on urban agriculture that the UN Development Programme published in the early 1990s (www.jacsmit.com/book.html). Back then, most people in general just didn’t understand what urban agriculture was, or they thought the term was something contradictory. Now, the term is used much more commonly, but there is still some confusion. It’s important to transition to a broader understanding of the many connectivities and many functions of urban agriculture beyond the narrow definition.

EG: And now, of course, there are things like hydroponics and aquaponics, and large-scale food production in warehouses and indoor spaces.

JN: Part of the expansion that has happened includes the emergence of many different forms of agriculture. And parallel to this is much greater demand for community gardens and school gardens, and so on.

JK: One thing I’ve started to see as a trend is that supermarkets are growing their own greens, on the rooftop, putting up greenhouses… A number of supermarkets are experimenting with this.

JN: It’s an interesting trend because it’s not just about access to a reliable supply of greens for the supermarket, it’s also related to stormwater management. The rooftop urban agriculture project Brooklyn Grange, in New York City, was able to expand their productive green roof in part with funding from the State related to reduced stormwater runoff.

This relates to larger systems thinking and the multi-functional dimensions of urban agriculture. These are all very much design issues, technical issues. If you don’t do it right, the project can fail and cause problems. So, there’s a need for experienced professionals to know how to deal with this.

When we first exhibited Carrot City, in Toronto, more than half of the content consisted of conceptual ideas—either projects planned and in the works or just purely conceptual ideas. More recently, the second version in Toronto consisted entirely of real-life, on-the-ground Canadian projects.

Joe Nasr and June Komisar with the Carrot City exhibition on view in Parc de Bercy, Paris, 2012IMAGE/ Eric Verdeil

But there’s an irony related to the fast growth and expansion of urban agriculture. As these projects actually start to happen, they’re hitting the reality of institutional challenges and regulatory challenges and financial challenges and so on.

EG: Do you see political-level changes happening, or policy-level changes being adopted?

JK: I’m seeing that some bylaws are changing, to help facilitate urban agriculture. It seems like a lot of municipalities are embracing it.

JN: But, at the same time, urban agriculture has not been embedded in the practices of local planners in terms of reviewing development proposals, nor has the embracing of urban agriculture yet led to changes to specific regulations, whether in terms of zoning or building code, and so on. There are still many obstacles.

Some cities have explicit urban agriculture zoning, some have tax incentives for urban agriculture, and that’s good news. The not-so-good news is that these measures haven’t always been effective, or they’ve raised other issues.

JK: Institutions and corporations are starting to embrace urban agriculture. For example, Ryerson University has an urban farm on one of its building’s rooftops (www.ryerson.ca/university-business-services/urban-farm/), and it took the university quite a while to understand the importance of it. They supported it financially and were very proud of it as part of their sustainability initiative, but their recent support has increased tremendously.

I think they are beginning to see it as a tremendous asset to the university. So, embracing this sort of thing just takes a while.

JN: An example of a corporation pushing for change is with the Regent Park development in Toronto and the role of the Daniels Corporation in terms of embedding urban agriculture and urban food projects in that neighbourhood. It’s coming not just from the established local non-profits but also from the Daniels Corporation, which is helping to push through a change of attitude at the City level.

EG: The work of landscape architects has many overlaps with urban agriculture.

JK: I’d like to see landscape architects get more involved with rooftop garden design, helping to make them productive but also like urban oases.

EG: I’ve witnessed a bit of an uptick in that field, but I don’t know how many green roof projects go the route of an architect or engineer and bypass the landscape architect altogether.

JN: In general, planning professionals have been the initial leaders of urban agriculture policy, but other design professionals have the opportunity to step forward and carve out a lot of work in these projects.

JK: One thing that’s very important is to design for flexibility. Be prepared for things to evolve—often in unexpected ways.

There’s also a real lesson in cooperation in the example I mentioned earlier, the productive rooftop at Ryerson University. At first, the commitment from the university was small, but enthusiastic. Now, on a new building they have a purpose-built urban agriculture space with a greenhouse and composting area and water collection and perimeter barriers that enable people to visit the garden without any safety issues. It’s really interesting to see the increasing level of commitment that an institution can have. There was a large group of people, from many different departments and disciplines, meeting over several months to make this space optimal for teaching and learning and growing, which required a lot of cooperation.

Food grown at Ryerson University is sold at a farmers’ market on campus.IMAGE/ June Komisar/Joe Nasr

JN: Another example of the need and complexity of cooperation is a project we’re involved with at Allan Gardens in Toronto. For a number of years, we’ve been working, slowly, with a few groups to try to bring the community growing of edible and medicinal plants into the park. It started with conversations with the parks department, and we managed to start a little garden that we called Edible Allan Gardens (www.facebook.com/edibleallangardens/). It took a long time to build trust and develop relationships. But there are now plans for transformation into something much larger and more ambitious as part of a larger re-visioning and transformation of Allan Gardens. So, what started out as a tiny initiative will become one of the key transformations in the bigger project.

The May 2008 symposium on food and urban design and planning included tours of projects that provided on-the-ground inspiration about the transformative power of growing food as a force for social change. IMAGE/ June Komisar/Joe Nasr

JK: There’s a parallel with something I’ve noticed with my architecture students. They are now, as a matter of course, always incorporating urban agriculture into their design projects — for example, if they’re doing housing or a school. The urban agriculture component isn’t necessarily the focus. It’s just considered part of the sustainability agenda for the building. It’s just accepted as part of the sustainability strategy. And that is progress.

The Edible Allan Gardens project demonstrates how food growing can be incorporated into public parks. More than a dozen diverse local groups are involved in this project in a well-loved, historic Toronto park. IMAGE/ Lorraine Johnson