DESIGNING AGRITECTURE INTO CITIES: RESULTS FROM THE VANCOUVER AGRITECTURE WORKSHOP
by Scott Matus
Integrating agriculture with the built environment can bring a multitude of real and significant benefits to cities and their residents. But, at the same time, it also presents a series of unique challenges. If proper consideration isn't given to the surrounding community and environment, urban farms can become a nuisance for neighbors, and fail to meet the goals that they were built to achieve.
It is because of these many benefits, but also the unique challenges, that Agritecture hosts Agritecture Design Workshops in cities all over the world to bring interdisciplinary groups of individuals together to develop viable urban agriculture concepts for the host city.
Over the course of two days, teams are given a flash-course in urban farming basics and then set off to design "agritecture" concepts for a specific site, receiving guidance along the way. Out of the workshops, individuals gain first-hand experience of what it takes to integrate agriculture into cities, and the hosts receive detailed concepts that they can incorporate into future projects.
The selected site for the Vancouver workshop is an incredible canvas for agritecture to be incorporated: a large multi-use complex soon to be constructed. In the near future, the site will feature 4 mixed-use towers, as well as retail and amenity space. The design challenge for each of the 3 workshop teams was to incorporate agriculture throughout the complex that is not only aesthetically pleasing but is also feasible and brings value to the space and future residents.
The winning design out of the workshop was "Oasis" from team 3: a multidisciplinary team of business owners, entrepreneurs, architects, greenhouse consultants, and engineers, all of whom met for the first time at the workshop.
What set the Oasis design apart from the rest was the care that they took to integrate agriculture so seamlessly into the built environment of the entire future complex, while still making excellent use of the space to grow food and bring value to the area. Included in their design for the future complex are gardens for residents to grow their own crops, fruit trees that form a "food forest" next to the playground, and a stage area for nighttime and weekend performances.
As wonderful as those amenities would be for the area, the central focus of their design, however, was even more inventive. In the middle of the complex, in between the 4 mixed-use towers, team Oasis designed a multi-level structure for agriculture, education and retail to coexist, with a walkable terraced green roof on top of the building to make the structure appear from the outside as if it were a series of hills in the landscape.
Below the building is a parking lot, then directly above are two floors of mixed-use retail and commercial space for businesses and visitors to enjoy. Above those two floors is an area dedicated to all things agriculture: a 30,000 square foot greenhouse to be operated by a local company, demo space for companies to showcase their latest innovations in urban agriculture, and an office space for agriculture-based workshops and education programs.
Energy efficiency and resource conservation are also priorities of the structure. Glass wall are designed into the terraced green roof to allow natural light to enter the greenhouse, demonstration and office areas. And excess heat from the retail and commercial floors below are used to warm the greenhouse in the colder months. The team even recommended using an anaerobic digester to compost organic residential waste from the surrounding 4 towers that would then be used as fertilizer for the landscape.
In designing the space, "there were so many different ideas and creative minds," explains winning Oasis team member Alexa Camargo. "Some team members wanted education to come first, some wanted to push production more as an effective way of feeding cities, and others felt we should do an experience around connecting people with nature in an urban context." For her, their final design is a testament to how well all of these ideas can be combined into a successful space.
Alexa is the co-founder of Albor Pacific, a team of consultants who specialize in creating environmental and agricultural-based education programs and installations for schools. "I really love sharing ideas and the idea making process," says Alexa, and "during the workshop I learned a lot from my teammates that will be very valuable to me in my work."
Alexa's teammate Mark Pero shares similar sentiments to her experience. "My favorite aspect of the whole workshop was being able to network with such a wide mix of professionals, all connected by their shared interest for urban agriculture," Mark explains. "It was also great to meet the Agritecture team, and felt very encouraging to be hosted by such a major developer and designer."
Like Alexa, Mark is also active in urban agriculture outside of the workshop. He lives in San Francisco, where he is works in Plenty's headquarters on HVAC and thermal systems for their high-tech farms.
"I've always been interested in not only the hydroponic space," Mark says, "but also the design aesthetic of seamlessly integrating agriculture and plants into the built environment." One of the aspects that made the workshop so meaningful to him, Mark explained, was how it allowed him to at times take off his engineering hat and think about the project from different points of view.
Like any workshop, teams faced certain challenges due to the time constraints. "I found it challenging in the sense that at first we didn't know each other's strengths and personalities," explains Alexa, "but once we figured out where everybody should focus it was great and we were able to work as a group and everyone had a clear purpose."
"Not only was there a challenge pulling a design together in one day,"says Mark, "but also achieving consensus on all the different aspects of this project and aligning everybody's ideas." Despite the challenges, the designs ended up coming together quickly, "and really well in my opinion," says Mark.
As everybody has experienced in today's day-and-age, most parts of everyday work-life are broken down into silos for the sake of efficiency and specialization, often on multiple levels. Companies, organizations and institutions focus on specific fields, and individuals focus on different priorities within those fields. As a result, cross-disciplinary knowledge and idea sharing often seldom takes place. But for urban agriculture to succeed, it is precisely this cross-pollination that must take place.
Bringing together multidisciplinary teams is the key idea behind Agritecture Design Workshops, and the benefits resonate with participants as soon as the workshops are over.
"The opportunity to work with so many people from different backgrounds is really rich and rewarding," Alexa says, reflecting on her experience. "It's really good to get out of our silos and have conversations with people from different backgrounds."
Working and connecting with people outside of our specific areas of expertise can also lead to great opportunities down the line. "Maybe I'll work with some of them later," Alexa says of her fellow workshop participants, thinking about future projects that Albor Pacific is considering. "Maybe they'll bring value to my company, or to my concepts."
Want to co-host an Agritecture Workshop in your city? Contact us, we're always looking for new locations.