The time has come to reconsider our design approach in light of the looming threats that face energy, population, and the economy.
Urban design is dominated by ornamental plants, both exotic and native. Edible species are used to a lesser extent.
As we approach a possible crisis in food production, it is now more important than ever that we rethink our design practices.
Fossil fuels have been a major factor in the unprecedented growth of population over the past century (four billion people since 1950). The extra calories from synthetic nitrogen – a natural gas by-product that has the unwelcome side effect of acidifying soil – are enough to sustain half of the global population.
According to economist Fatih Bilo, the peak oil production was in 2006.
A climate that is unpredictable and unstable can be a disaster for an agricultural system that relies on predictable and stable weather patterns to maximize yields eff, efficiency, and return on investment.
Australia’s population is concentrated in cities, but our agriculture occurs in rural areas – even though some of the most fertile land in Australia can be found in the town itself (the Melbourne and Adelaide Plains and the Sydney Basin are three examples).
In an infertile country like Australia, the increased urban sprawl drives food production to less productive land. This “urban disconnect” also isolates the consumer from food practices.
The Murray Darling Basin is responsible for the production of 40 percent of Australia’s current food. The basin is currently under immense pressure because of water scarcity and political mismanagement.
Our current industrial food production relies heavily upon chemical pesticides and fertilizers under the pressure of economic growth. Produce that does not meet the retailer’s cosmetic standards is wasted.
In 2004, Australia wasted $5.3 billion in food. Today, 25-50% of fresh produce is thrown away because it does not meet the requirements of supply chains for size, weight, or cosmetics.
The resilience of the Australian food industry to environmental challenges has been severely compromised by the duopoly, which controls 80% of retail markets. This is not to mention the reduced quality of food due to practices like irradiation and cold storage.
Repositioning agriculture in the urban sphere allows us to not only reconnect with food production but also create beautiful, uplifting spaces that benefit the health of our community.
Urban agriculture has already seen significant developments, including community gardening, kitchen and school gardens, permaculture, and guerrilla farming.
They are often relegated to neglected or private areas. These spaces are not visible to the public and remain at the edges of public space.
A significant portion of the urban public realm remains barren and unactivated.
Urban designers and landscape architects who incorporate edible species in their design paradigms can transform formalized public space into a center of productive growth.
Designers can combine the aesthetic skills they have with productive species like fruit and nut trees, vines, climbers, and vegetables and herbs to create magical spaces that are both beautiful and delicious.
If successfully implemented, edible landscapes could have a positive impact on the environment, economy, health, and social aspects of a community. The community is also involved in the process.
There are challenges with every change in practice. There are questions about plant knowledge, maintenance, soil and air contamination, and public liability.
All design practices come with their risks and maintenance requirements. Exotic species require, for instance, more watering and feeding, as well as more mowing, leaf collection, and pruning. Native species require specific techniques, such as fire dispersal and pruning, to promote regrowth.
We know a great deal about maintaining urban plants. It’s easy to learn about the different edible plant regimens, such as dusting, feeding, pruning, and harvesting. The public is likely to be opportunistic and take care of the fruit yields. This will reduce the risk of fruit falling and slipping.
In the past, edible species have been used in public places. Adelaide’s Victoria Square was designed in 1854 with almond and olive trees. Energy Architecture’s Aldinga Arts Ecovillage incorporates edible species. McGregor Coxall’s Atlas Apartments, located in Victoria Park in Sydney, have orange trees and aloe.
VicUrban has begun construction of a street tree orchard project in Dandenong South. Fifth Creek Studio is building “edible rooftop and vertical gardens” in the GP Plus Health Care Centre, Marion, in Adelaide.
At the masterplan stage are Taylor Cullity Lethlean’s Victoria Square/Tarndanyangga, McGregor Coxall’s Callan Park, HASSELL’s Bowden Urban Village, WAX Design’s Jacob’s Creek Visitor Centre, and Oxigen’s Weston Park.
It is a good sign that edible landscapes will soon be a part of the design palette for the public realm. This is a positive sign that a new era of edible public spaces will be active and responsive.