From Urban Design

Future cities will be farming cities, but how will that look?

This is just a bit of a fun post but we hope it gets you thinking.

Chicago Map

A map of early Chicago. The Chicago River, prominent in this early drawing, was reversed in order to make it more feasible for shipping.

The author William Cronen in his epic and highly enjoyable book Nature’s Metropolis, a geographical and economic history of Chicago, shows how America’s “second city” rose to prominence not so much because of where it was located but how it was situated between the populous eastern seaboard and resource plentiful west. Food played a central role in Chicago’s rise as advances in rail shipping (and the creation of rail infrastructure in general) transformed Chicago’s food economy into a mass producing, agglomerating, and processing centre.

To this day the stock exchanges in Chicago are a powerful financial center of the industrial food system. The Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (now merged under CME group) influence prices for commodities and ownership of food system assets and have done so for decades. These exchanges trade more than grains and meat, they also trade in minerals, currencies, treasury bonds and other things, and their role in North America’s food system, if not globally, cannot be understated. But they began as farmers and financiers seeking clarity in trading rules, pricing, and opportunities to expand their ventures. Growing from such early bodies as the Chicago Butter and Egg Board. Yes, the mighty Butter and Egg Board!

Sheep arriving for slaughter at the Chicago Stock Exchange late 19th or early 20th century

Sheep arriving for slaughter at the Chicago Stock Exchange late 19th or early 20th century

The role between Chicago and America’s food system, and how Vancouver or other cities relate or integrate with their broader food systems, has fascinated me ever since reading Cronen’s book, which was published about 20 years ago now. As has the relationship between site and situation, which Cronen captures nicely in his study of Chicago. Site being where something is and situation being where it is in relation to other things around it. Urban Stream’s first site for our Micro-Farm is Luke’s Corner Bar and Kitchen on Granville and 14th for example.

Every city has a relationship with the “hinterland” around it where our food mostly comes from. This is a situational relationship. We transport it in, sometimes process it, usually prepare it, consume it, and then disregard what isn’t consumed there to be taken back out to landfills and composting facilities. Though everything might seem fine for the most part, stores with cookies, bread and lettuce on their shelves, this system is massively wasteful, energy intensive, inefficient and unsustainable. One of the many things that inspired Urban Stream to form our company! Chicago was transformed by its relationship to the hinterland and the broader food system that grew up around it between centres of production and centres of consumption. As cities increasingly densify and increasingly grow more food locally what does that mean more broadly for urban design and planning?

Dickson Despommier a professor at Columbia University has written about this and encouraged students and designers to put forward innovative concepts to try and answer that question a few years ago, and the submissions are pretty fascinating. He pretty much coined the term Vertical Farming and has put forward a list of benefits to growing food vertically to mirror our increasingly vertical settlement patterns as we become more urban and more densely packed together in our cities. These are essentially food-centric visions of technological utopian city planning. But how realistic are they today? The amount of capital required to make these things happen, the technology, the financing, the business models, are all pretty daunting. But they are not impossible, and we may be seeing the first steps towards making these kinds of urban agricultural mega-projects happening right here in Vancouver.

I’m fascinated by the dichotomy created by these types of “technological utopian” visions of urban farming in relation to the more pastoral reclamations of urban areas that we commonly see in Vancouver and other cities (Detroit, Havana, Chicago, New York) where lawn conversions have turned front or back yards into lettuce and cabbage rows and rooftops are populated with tomatoes and herbs. What is urban farming? How is it done? The Vancouver Urban Farming Society has done some good work as of late to identify practices in what is a pretty diverse collection of approaches.

Urban Stream, more technological and less pastoral in nature, is perhaps more in line with Despommier’s Vertical Farm concepts. Local Garden (Verticrop) is another urban farming concept that is perhaps more in line with this utopian urban vision. Both of them here in Vancouver, see some images below.

In any case, I firmly believe that our future cities will be farming cities. Much like Chicago we will all discover how intimately and profoundly intertwined our urban matrix is with the food system that flows through and within it. It’s just difficult to envision what shape that will take, what combination of pastoral reclamation of brown fields, front lawns, and what kinds and scales of utopian technological architecture will these cities incorporate. Or will some cities opt for one way over the other? Will it come down to which cities or groups of people in cities can mobilize the finances to create these kinds of projects? Will that further create inequality in our food system? Will it mean control of urban food systems by the same folks who control the finances? Will the more pastoral forms of farming be transforming middle-class neighbourhoods away from the English Lawn syndrome that has plagued us for a century? And if so will we see this reflected in food playing a more powerful roll in the social or cultural experience of our neighbourhoods? I put it forward all of this for your consideration. Below are some photos that I feel capture both visions. Many of them are from here in Vancouver.

Vertical Farm Despommier










Vertical Farm 2







ICFKristiyardphoto 4(2)

Inner City Farms – Vancouver









farmers on 57 pastoral

Farmers on 57th – Vancouver









Vertical Farm 3








SOLEfood’s Pacific Avenue plots in Vancouver









Rooftop aquaponics







An early shot of the inside of Urban Stream’s Micro-Farm concept










Mayor Gregor Robertson at the unveiling of Local Garden (Verticrop technology) in Vancouver

Mayor Gregor Robertson at the unveiling of Local Garden (Verticrop technology) in Vancouver