Jul 13, 2021
Remodeling A Multistory Carpark Into A Future City Food Hub In Ireland
Editor’s note: The following information is derived from an interview Agritecture conducted with Chris Jones of Feeding Cities, as part of Agritecture Studios. This first virtual cohort supported architects with deep interest in urban agriculture who lacked the technical background necessary to confidently move forward with their concepts. Learn more about Agritecture Studios’ first cohort here!
What will our cities look like in the next 10 or 15 years?
Will these urban spaces be able to grow sufficient amounts of fresh nutritious food? Will they have a resilient food system in place that won’t be as heavily disrupted by the next pandemic? And, will they meet the food needs of all urbanites, regardless of race or income level?
This is the challenge landscape architect and urban designer Chris Jones took on when he decided to participate in Agritecture Studios to design solutions for urban food access and resilience. According to him, “a Future City Food Hub is an essential part of the modern, responsible, and resilient food system. It is a physical element that may be found in urban, peri-urban and rural areas but more importantly, it is a design, planning and mindset approach to identifying and connecting production and consumption synergies throughout the food chain.”
Envisioning A Food Hub In Cork, Ireland
In aiming to create a space that could do exactly this, Jones and his project partner Brian McCarthy decided to take learnings from Cork Rooftop Farm, an urban farm run by McCarthy in Cork, Ireland, and apply these to their present challenge of creating a feasible food production hub. They share that “in recent years, food consumption, production, and purchasing has been dominated by large-scale industrial and commercial practices. These have often been extremely efficient but not always equitable or responsible in terms of their social and environmental impact.”
Given McCarthy’s success in establishing a thriving locally-grown food enterprise in Cork, Jones believes “this city to be a good testing-ground for such food system innovations.” He adds that “there is a strong sense of local identity, local pride, and support for local initiatives. There is a healthy connection between urban, peri-urban, and rural areas both physically and emotionally.”
As a result, working off of Cork Rooftop Farm’s designs, the duo decided to imagine the conversion of a multistory downtown carpark in Cork into a food hub. They designed what they call “a best-case future composition” for the site featuring a city-center production, processing and distribution hub that is supported by a regenerative, no-dig market garden located 22 miles away.
The City Centre location includes various elements of zero-waste grocery retail, food preparation facilities, zero-waste packaging, and distribution possibilities to create what Jones calls “a mini-production hub for highly perishable and high-value fresh ingredients” such as herbs and salad greens.
As most urban rooftops remain underutilized, Jones comments that “the creative use of rooftops and the relationships with the market garden can offer the greatest potential.” According to him, “the ability to offer year-round variety, quality, and the addition of this indoor growing facility” is fundamental to the success of any Future City Food Hub. Additionally, there are numerous benefits of having a hub like this in such close proximity to urbanites, including a wider customer base that would count both private and commercial customers.
Diversifying The Model For Economic Resilience
The team decided to address the need for a hub by employing numerous design elements. The rooftop farm(s) will produce salad greens, hardy herbs, tomatoes, and peppers in both raised beds and grow towers. Meanwhile, the indoor farm will produce microgreens, herbs, and specialty edible flowers in stacked vertical farming systems.
To contribute to this, the market garden will use a grow-to-order model to produce eggs, flowering vegetables, and fruits, offering the potential for a subscription service for private and commercial customers. And, as a crucial piece, the Future City Food Hub will add processing, storage, distribution, and sales capacity through spatial features such as cold storage, shared kitchen/processing space, and a zero-waste grocery retail.
Through this model, the hub supports both in-house food production and small-to-medium sized growers outside the city. Jones adds that this variety helps “optimize various types of spaces and growing possibilities to create opportunities to supply great quality local food throughout the year.” Plus, “facilities can ensure minimal food waste as fresh food can be harvested and sold directly once ready, and anything that is not sold can be processed whilst fresh and given an extended shelf-life.”
Looking At The Numbers Behind The Model
While the concept itself sounds enticing, Jones realized he needed data to back up this idea and prove its financial viability. With Agritecture Designer, he was able to do exactly this. Designer was able to determine which crops would be most practical to grow in vertical farms versus greenhouses versus raised beds, producing a total annual yield of more than 100,000 pounds on-site.
These various urban agricultural elements have the potential to generate 3-9 jobs with varying payback periods of less than 2 years for vertically-farmed microgreens to around 8 years for leafy greens. At such a small scale, the greenhouses had a lengthy payback of 15+ years when looked at in isolation. This means that Jones may want to consider reducing certain operating costs, such as labor, by sharing farmworkers with the vertical farm or raised bed operations. He could also consider a more specialized and energy-efficient greenhouse, such as those offered by Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, one of the top-tier equipment providers in Agritecture’s Partner Network. This would likely result in an increased capital expense, but reduced annual energy costs.
Jones adds that “the power of the Future City Food Hub is in the all-round package and its consideration of the broader food system. Many of the ingredients are being produced to reinforce the total offer. The final financial picture will consider what is produced at the urban locations, the peri-urban / rural location and how the ingredients work together alongside other local food streams to add value to high-quality, local food.”
In sum, Designer estimated that Jones’ vision would have a capital expense (CapEx) of ~$850,000, annual operating expenses (OpEx) of ~$574,000, and an impressive annual potential revenue of just under $1 million.