Ideas for Urban Agriculture and Smart Cities

by Orion Ashmore

Agritecture is actively planning the 2018 AgLanta Conference on March 27th & 28th. Do not expect the same conference as last year (that isn't the Agritecture way)! The main topic of the gathering will center around how an urban food system can contribute to a "Smart City". Smart is a curious word, and I am interested to hear the voices and opinions being brought into the conversation. Smart can be analog. Smart can be digital. Smart can be slow, grassroots, justice-focused. Smart can be fast, iterative, stakeholder-based. Smart to one can be nonsense to another. Smart can be keeping your mouth shut (Orion!). I'm excited to learn more about how controlled-environment and agtech-oriented urban agriculture can embrace many different perspectives of what smart means.

That said, I have some thoughts on urban agriculture and smart cities I wanted to put out there. I've been using the idea of public interest agriculture as an analog for talking about agroecology with the technologically-focused. Through this lens, I view (urban ag + smart cities) as focusing on distribution, land stewardship, nutrition, farmer-to-consumer, and participatory models for improved food access and sovereignty. Understanding we don’t have a production issue in the US, how can we 1) equitably mitigate food coming into the city from entering the waste stream, and 2) ensure new production within the city is focused on/rewards quality above quantity and distribution to the commons.


I've got 3 ideas off the top of my head:

1. Basic human needs are something, shelter, security, water. I assume a smart city would consider these things as the universal foundation. The barest minimum. We have plenty of houses, police/laws, and potable water in cities, but food is obviously not in the landscape. Understanding the majority of food production will continue to remain in peri-urban or rural areas, how could cities make produce transportation more efficient? Dedicated pathways/truck lanes for produce being delivered to a city. And then distribution nodes connected to these dedicated lanes. The nodes are responsible for spreading food out to different markets within specified neighborhoods. Community boards/local organizations help consolidate the most basic staple needs of the neighborhood into general purchasing orders. That purchase order doesn’t have to be fancy, but might give better approximations of consumption in each neighborhood. This data could be shared with rural farmers to gauge what harvest might look like year to year. And this strategy could provide a neighborhood with sovereignty of choice and access through a participatory model. We already have most of the infrastructure in place for this form of distribution -- how can technologists streamline what's already been created into a new vessel of improved transportation and communication?

2. A first step for getting young urban farmers off the ground could be to guarantee price points and distribution outlets using cooperatives. For example, 3 urban commercial farms would work as a cooperative to satisfy quotas (X squashes a week, Y onions bulbs a week). Crop selection and quota thresholds would be determined through an evidence-based approach that focuses on nutritional diversity and quality before calorie density and quantity. Land is lent at a low rent cost by the city, and the farmers are free from development pressure as long as quotas are met. The farmer can determine the use case of any land not required for the quotas — meaning they can grow to sell to farmers markets, host educational programs, create community venues, seed save(!) etc. The cooperatives then sell their quota crops at direct-to-consumer markets 3-4x per week. No middle men. And different people within the cooperative can swap in/out to represent all the farms — reducing the individual farm labor of harvesting, taking to market, breaking down from market, etc. Having enough cooperatives and enough guaranteed quotas could achieve the economies of scale that lower price points on food without lowering the value or profit the farmer receives for their produce. Ideally cooperatives would create their own initiatives to distribute food not sold day-of to food pantries etc, or the govt could provide tax deductions for donated crops. A farmer can stay locked into that cooperative, or has the choice of graduating to a solo-operator farm. They pay an increase in land lease cost, but will likely be seeking higher-end markets at this point -- ie restaurants or specialty grocery stores.  This idea is based off the very cool and inspiring 'campesino-a-campesino' movement throughout Latin America. 

3. Not exactly sure how this works, but I also think it would be neat if cities figured out some way of incentivizing profits made by middle men (wholesale distributors, Walmart, Whole Foods) to be more evenly distributed between farmers and consumers -- so that farmers see more profit per crop and consumers see less $/lb for the good stuff. 

4. Avoid looking to human creations as the first solution for a smart city. Disciplines like biomimicry observe the ways in which the rest of the world organizes itself. Could new government legislation be based off the way tree communities compliment each other - like the druids observed with Brehon Law? Are there biological examples of up-cycling the resources of the commons for the benefit of commons? Biochemical processes in our bodies are definintely 'smart' on a macro scale. Could the manufacturing within the cities that are our bodies have applications in the cities that are our homes?

That said, I'm definitely not the brightest light in the LED box. I'd love to hear your opinions on my opinions, and learn about others' experiences of what the world is like! Won't you come to #AgLanta and hash it out with me. Contact Jeffrey Landau if you want to learn more, or become more intimately involved. See ya there!