A Contradictory Context: Current dominant paradigms of Urban Agriculture

Analysis 1 suggested that the concept of urban agriculture within architectural and urban has currently diverged in a multitude of approaches (analysis 1) as a result of complex and contradictory drivers. However in contradiction to increased interest in the concept of urban agriculture, over the last 20 years critics such as Steel (2009) argue that in the developed ‘north’ particularly the UK, the city has become increasingly distanced from food production. Similarly Nicholson Lord (1987) argues that the nature of contemporary land use and urban growth of the post industrial city of the developed north has denied city dwellers with contact with agriculture, as a result the ‘mythology’ of resource blindness creates a food chain “shrouded in ignorance”.[1]Appendix 2 shows how genetically modified technologies increased by 70%, the average distance travelled by food increased, and the number of UK imports more than quadroupled since the mid 1980s. In parallel with increased well intentioned architectural, political and social awareness regarding a move toward a more sustainable food system, at national scale careers/lifestyles and global tastes often supersede such ambitions[2]. We are still an increasingly ‘on demand culture’ with consumption and distribution driven by high speed logistics fuelled by the internet rather than ‘slow food’.[3] 

Analysis 1 indicates a widening range of directions and typologies within the current paradigm of urban agriculture in architecture over the last 15 years, less easy to classify. This chapter attempts to analyse from this confused field what current dominant approaches are within the contemporary paradigm and analyse the characteristics of these dominant theories of current theories in relation to the apparent contradictory contemporary context of the city in the developed ‘north’ in relation to food production, diverse drivers now motivating the concept and conflicting theories within the urban agriculture movement.

The Soil Association (2008) argue that current urban land use is shaped by what we consume.[4] Chapter 4 analyses the implications that consumption has had for contemporary cities, and attempts to analyse how the characteristics of dominant theories of urban agriculture relate to such resultant patterns of land use aiming to investigate if these continue 20th century architectural ambitions and questions if these conflict with the ambitions to the current 21st century city?


  1. What is the link between technology communication and current models
  2. Are current models motivated by re-invention of the city or intervention within existing cities
  3. Are current models motivated by localised independence similarly to early 20th century models or to be part of networked global economy.
  4. Is the ‘food element’ secondary in current examples of Urban Agriculture.
  5. Are current models more integrated than existing (food more connected to user/inhabitant).
  6. Are current proposals more focussed on re-connecting the city inhabitant to food production?

Identification of current dominant theories and models:

Analysis 2 copy

Analysis 3

Analysis 3 image 2




Forty-five projects from the last 15 years which propose both the production of food as an inherent component in the architectural, Urbanistic and design intent were selected for analysis. This selection was the result of literature review of projects proposed in exhibitions and publications advocating urban agriculture. This list is not entirely exhaustive within a paradigm which is rapidly increasing in its popularity in architecture, however aim to disseminate the concept as a key design consideration for cities of the future. These arguably represent the driving ambitions of the current paradigm and some potentially considered as future seminal works of the movement. All proposals originate from the developed North and by Architects, Urbanists and product designers. The majority of these proposals (Analysis 2), are proposed for a European context although include approaches from the US and China.

Graphical analysis 2 indicates an attempt by the author to categorise different models based on their characteristics. Although there are few overviews of the current movement, others have categorised current models by typology into 2 broad groups, Wiles (2009) identified these as ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ models, [5] Tomkins (2009) also provides a brief overview of the current movement in architecture to date.[6] King (2010) goes further to add a third group 3. mobile/temporary projects.[7]

However (Analysis 2) it was indicated that within these three categories contradictory characteristics also exist with profound implications for the city as a form of land use. Within Horizontal models; proposals were either forms of agrarian Urbanism, such as Viljoens Continuous productive landscapes or Andras Duanys agrarian townscapes, or more intensive commercially led ventures such as Front studios ‘Farmadelphia’. Each have distinct implications as either public or private spaces and contrasting ambitions either to increase food sovereignty or bring urban dwellers closer to the productive agricultural process. This supports the arguments in chapter 2 regarding the diversity of approaches currently due to multiple and contradictory drivers.

The three broad categories identified by others could arguably be sub-divided into 8 current approaches within current design discourse. Analysis of each was derived from the design intent proposed by each designer and through subjective analysis of the characteristics of each proposal by the author. These were then grouped and charted on analysis 3, allowing detailed analysis of their specific characteristics and compared to historical emerging approaches toward urban agriculture:[8]


  1. The self-sufficient allotment dwelling
  2. Agrarian urbanism
  3. Agribusiness urbanism
  4. Vertical subsistence farms
  5. Vertical agribusiness
  6. Living walls: – The aesthetic of food production
  7. Soft systems, product based intervention
  8. Critical practice, the temporary and provocative

Analysis of the characteristics related to the application of current dominant architectural and urban approaches of Urban Agriculture as a form of land use in cities within the developed ‘north’ against 9 criteria derived from current arguments regarding the role of design-led food production within the city.


In order to structure and focus analysis of architectural models against patterns of land use chart 3 aims to provide a graphical overview and detailed understanding of how current dominant models relate to 9 criteria formulated from literature review involving the relationship between food and the city identified from the arguments of key authors from literature review and the key characteristics of emergent 20th century examples of Urban agriculture within architecture and urban design.

Critical analysis was carried out for each proposal, and each plotted by the author as an attempt to determine the characteristics of each proposal against a scale of 1 to 10 between opposing arguments from key sources for nine criteria (figure 19) derived from literature review. Each project is numbered on analysis 3 and dominant groups shared the same colour (see analysis 2). Criteria for analysis aimed to determine how current dominant groups relate to the polarised arguments in the wider urban agriculture paradigm and if the current zeitgeist within design disciplines embodies the same contradictions as a result of the current contradictory drivers upon food and the city. Analysis 3 also aimed to determine if characteristics are shared or contradicted within groups, and visualise if tendencies seen from the early 20th century emergence persist today.

Are current dominant theories and models of Urban Agriculture in Architecture intended to be:

  1. Quantifiable infrastructural ‘fixes’ to the urban food problem or ‘Critical’ catalysts for the city?
  2. Creating Localised independent self sufficiency or Interconnected with supplementing, but reliant on global network of food supply?
  3. Public integration, participation between food production and the city dweller or a passive privatised process in the city but separate from the public?
  4. Motivated by less-quantifiable social benefits of reconnection of the city dweller to food production or more quantifiable reduction of carbon emissions or increased food security?
  5. Bottom-up grass roots planned and led frameworks or Top down planned and led strategies?
  6. Small scale interventions within the city or large scale reinvention of the city?
  7. Permanent additions to the city fabric or ephemeral interventions?
  8. A move back toward traditional ‘organic’ agrarian practices or forward toward technologically driven efficiency?
  9.  ‘Utopian’ proposals which require and advocate economic, societal change to function or ‘Realist’ proposals which aim to work within the constraints of the current economic and cultural context?


Summary of analysis of the identified characteristics of current dominant models of Urban agriculture in architecture.

Appendix 4 includes a detailed written analysis (4000 words) of graphical analysis 3, description of this essential analysis was removed from the body text to retain the word count limit of this document, however key findings from arguments will be referred to and summarised in this section. Appendix 4 includes detailed arguments using key sources to justify selection of each criteria by the author for analysis of the characteristics of current models, relating to their relevance to land use in the developed ‘north’, which will be analysed in full in the following chapter.


The apparent divergence and inconsistency of the key characteristics and motivations of current dominant architectural approaches towards urban agriculture is suggested by analysis 3 and appendix 4. This arguably re-affirms the hypothesis formulated in chapter 2 that the current paradigm of urban agriculture in architecture is driven by the current contradictory western relationship to food production, carbon reductions, desired independence but simultaneous dependence upon global agribusiness, fluctuating food prices and an increasingly mainstream green movement. In particular Analysis 3 indicated that the overall raison d’etre of the concept in architecture; i.e as food sovereignty or re-connection/integration of food is currently split. As discussed in appendix 4 many proposals arguably attempt to meet both objectives of the Urban Agriculture movement, integrating food production within the city and buildings to reconnect the urban dweller to the process of food production and attempt to create models of self sufficiency. Arguably as discussed both aspirations are contradictory in their nature and indeed incompatible, an aspect will be discussed in relation to land use in chapter 4.

Appendix 3 discussed how themes from the early emergence of the concept persist in current approaches, in particular the cleansing of the polluting industrial city through re-introduction of the more ‘cleaner’ agrarian many current proposals are arguably utopian in their nature. Analysis 3 suggests, ‘reconnection’ to food is the dominant driver within current architectural approaches to the concept. Currently arguably a false and idealised form of agriculture as a remedy such as the current economic downturn crisis such as the financial meltdown, with many proposals forming highly aesthetic interpretations of agriculture, a move away from the informality and functional honesty of the allotment.

The characteristic of moving toward individual or ‘localised’ self sufficiency in times of crisis seems persist similarly to Wrights notion of the Usonian man gaining individual independence and control in response to the perceived vulnerabilities of dependence on the capitalist city. Analysis 3 indicated that the majority off current proposals aimed toward this. As discussed in chapter 2 agriculture is becoming unrecognisable from the agrarian raising the question of its as a genuine form of land use in the modern city. In current proposals, it could be argued (appendix 4) that “Localism becomes the ‘end’ in itself rather than the ‘means’[9]visible in current architectural proposals which through technological means or designed systems of working and living aim toward local food production. Arguably to advance the concept of urban agriculture within architectural discourse, approaches should shift to redefine local not simply by physical distance but in terms of transportation and physical distribution efficiencies”[10]  allowing Urban agriculture to be part of a larger closed loop sustainable ecosystem rather than an agglomeration of separate smaller scale closed loops.

Analysis 3 and appendix 4 suggest how similarly to the wider debate surrounding urban agriculture, that current architectural approaches incorporating the concept are highly polarised in terms of their characteristics. Analysis of the characteristics suggest two current tendencies loosely follow the tendencies of historic emergent approaches to the concept; Proposals which embrace augment and aim to further the global city the ‘north’ through technological and modern those which aim to oppose it through conservatism, seeking reconnection with the earth and its processes. Analysis 3 also indicated a conflicting role within current architectural debate as to the role of incorporating farming as a form of land use within the city, regardless of vertically, horizontally or small scale typology, this split advocating a large scale vital infrastructure separate from public life verses public spaces which engage with food production, i.e as between functional problem solving or a form of urban critique.

Analysis 3 indicates that characteristics correlate between these groups, large scale top-down proposals with quantifiable objectives such as increased food reliance whereas self-led approaches focussed on the aspect of reconnection to food production and integration as ‘evolving’ matrices within the city fabric as green city-scaping interwoven with public functions. However in addition approaches were also indentified which arguably attempt to reconcile such dualities, although few proposals which embrace the concept of commercial or global agribusiness were identified. Analysis suggests further exploration is required within this ‘middle’ or grey area of the rhetoric of urban agriculture within architectural discourse.

Over the last fifteen years architectural and urban models have re-emerged which seek through design to incorporate food production in the city, arguably as an attempt to resolve the dislocation between food and the city or self reliance through their methodology but rather through design of resilient systems aiming instead to inspire, educate and provoke the urban dweller to reveal the relationship between food and the city. The role of ‘agriculture’ within architectural proposals would not just be an attempt to answer the quantifiable problem of urban food supply but allow holistic enquiry and scrutiny of the question itself by the urban dweller. Such approaches are arguably essential for the relationship between food and the city to be an ongoing and evolving symbiotic relationship, self reflective in nature ,rather than static and imposed. Analysis 3 identified Larger scale proposals which have recently emerged which at a theoretical level question the city and our relationship with food. As discussed in appendix 4 such proposals confront uncomfortable issues such as animal welfare and G.M technologies, provoking the notion that the solution to increased food sovereignty requires developed societies to reconsider and re-value other moral ideals inherent in the developed ‘north’.

As indicated graphically on Analysis 3 patterns of characteristics and approaches vary within each identified dominant approach.[11] In relation to the eight criteria formulated, this transcends and contradicts the dominant typological groupings, and those identified by Wiles (2009), after analysis against arguments by other authors involved in the subject area. Alternatively three main approaches are seen to diverge currently these are split in terms of their approach to urban agriculture within architectural discourse its role in the city and implications as a form of land use.

Although the role of technology in promoting the concept of urban agriculture originating from the 20th century celebration of infrastructure and technology arguably persists, as well as large scale utopian agricultural visions for the city (appendix 4 and chapter 2). In parallel there is a degree of breakaway grass roots led catalysts in the city, acts of resistance guerrilla –like in their nature.

The three common current patterns amongst current approaches of urban agriculture in design discourse were identified;

1. Spaces for engagement with food production: Proposals representing empowerment, catalysts for the urban dweller;

2. Infrastructural fixes: part of current food system.

3. Agrarian utopianism: Conflicting approaches of urban farms as green public spaces and urban farms as infrastructures for food security, carbon reductions. One approach tries to achieve both defined as ‘Agrarian utopianism’, the other two deal independently with each issue.


Infrastructural fixes

Analysis 3 suggests trends between proposed architectural and urban ‘infrastructural’ approaches to urban food production as forms of land use. These are segregated from the civic nature of the city, large scale, and top down ‘planned’ approaches to intervention in the contemporary city. Analysis 3 indicates such proposals raison d’etre is that of increased food resilience rather than physical reconnection between the urban dweller and the activity of growing or producing food as de Vries argues supporting the capitalist model of the city. The process of food production is celebrated in such projects through the architectural expression such as Despommier towers (Fig 28) or the sprawling wheatfields of Farmdelphia, proposing private processes arguably segregated from public engagement within the city. These are industrial involving technologically driven efficiency following current scientifically driven trends in agriculture[12].As highly engineered proposals these arguably are an extension of late 19th century emergent proposals such as the rationalistic land use diagrams of Hilberheimer or Genvilliers in Paris (figure 27).[13]

genvilliersvertical farming



Figure 27: Gennvillers Paris (Circa 1900)                             Figure 28: Vertical Farm Despommier



Many of the re-emerging proposals avoid the ‘utopian’ rhetoric and do not confront the current cultural contradictions discussed instead focussing on solutions. Koolhaas (2010) argues that cities should move from the “amalgamation of good intentions and branding” endemic of green utopianism and face the large scale with the infrastructures of politics and engineering.”[14]  However few of these ‘apparent ’infrastructures’ detail the whole system of supply and distribution of food to cities, arguably an inseparable part of the current urban food supply system.[15] However Questions remain about how such infrastructure should be incorporated within land use in the contemporary city, where should this be located, should it engage itself with the public realm and how.

Spaces for engagement with food production

Small scale interventions which are low tech and ‘critical’ in their approach to the city, as discussed form an important contribution to the city, addressing contradictory motivators currently in relation to food. The city’s integration with food production as a public, bottom up activity arguably an extension of 1970s approaches (analysis 2 appendix 2). Arguably new small scale ephemeral and resilient scale forms of urban agriculture supported by design are emerging aimed at re-connection and networked at a larger scale, as an ‘evolving’ framework towards integration within the city than a planned one. Mostafavi (2010) argues that these emerging proposals relate to the current “need to find design approaches enabling consideration of the large scale differently,” but involving the individual and at grass roots level rather than the individual isolation of Wrights proposal. In relation to the current complexity of the urban food system,[16] Mostafavi suggests a collective of smaller multidisciplinary systems rather than massive singular intervention interconnected at the large regional and city scale by less tangeable but large scale networked digital ‘architectures’. Analysis 3 indicates that many re-emerging theories have evolved away from the ‘permanent’ proposals of the 20th century. With large scale temporary interventions emerging as an alternative, proposals such as ‘Farmadelphia’ indicate that the temporary has moved from small scale to large scale urban agriculture with inherent flexibility. However many proposals involve highly aesthetic forms of reconnecting city to food, which still focus on a neo-‘picturesque’ notion of farming. Incorporating selective fruit and vegetables and avoidance of dirty processes such as urban land use and the reality of the relationship between food and the city.


Agrarian utopianism

Analysis 3 indicates that many involve a move towards a form of conservatism to ‘organic’ or ’slow food’ solutions, which also promote large scale re-connection with the public realm. These aims to propose bottom up publicly engaging proposals, but which could arguably be said to be top down, exemplified by the legal agreements examples such as Duany’s agrarian settlements, ensure each neighbour in the agrarian masterplan plays his or her part. These proposals advocate local independence, similarly to Wright and Howard through radical re-working of land use, arguably not solely for sustainability but as a form of conservatism and isolation from the modern world itself. Those which pursued this as a solution are arguably utopian in their nature. Such proposals advocate an alternative to the nature of the contemporary city rather than acknowledge or respond to its inherent contradictions through intervention. Such proposals propose a new way of living and relating to the food within cities. These propose a new way of imagining urban land being used to this effect but separate from the global food system. Similarly to the smaller scale proposals and food infrastructures these also involve a romantic image of the ideals of the agrarian and the agricultural and a connection with selective aspects of this.

Although proposals seek to reconnect the city with the honesty of food production as advocated by Steel[17] and Viljoen those architectural models which seek to bring back such processes into the city to foster an understanding of the current food system, do so in an idealised and romanticised fashion, a picturesque notion of farming.[18]

[1] Nicholson-Lord, David. Published:London ; New York : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, P18, PP2

[2] Steel argues that figures showing how UK ready made meals increased by 70% from 1994 to 2004.

[3] Steel- Quote

[4] Barling D, Sharpe R, Lang T, Rethinking Britains Food Security, Soil Association, November 2008, P34 PP3

[5] Icon Magazine June 2009, The EdibleCity, Down on the Urban Farm, Pages 70-73

[6] Tomkins M. Places for people, places for plants, evolving thoughts on the productive landscape. – http://www.mikeytomkins.co.uk/2010/07/joint-work/ – Last accessed 23/05/11

[8] This study acknowledges that other emerging theories and models may be in existence, the typologies identified take into account the criteria through which they are to be analysed in relation to Land use in the developed ‘north’. This study Acknowledges that the grouping of dominant models and analysis are a subjective analysis and that these could arguably be grouped or characterised differently in relation to other criteria.

[9] Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research Branden Born and Mark Purcell, Journal of Planning Education and Research 2006; 26; 195, P196, PP2

[10] Eco Urbanism – Rankin – Land scape urbanism reader ??

[11] (from the 3 types identified by authors)

[12] Indicated on figure 1

[13] Which formed a sewage treatment function for the city of Paris.

[14] Ecological Urbanism, Koolhaas, P70 PP7

[15] As productive surfaces these proposals are arguably motivated by the similar current drive towards renewable energy infrastructures and ‘green’ technologies and green city-scaping within the current drive toward ‘ecological urbanism’[15]

[16] Steel Complexity of food system

[17] Steel , HungryCity, P17 PP2

[18] Viljoen acknowledges the ‘ugly’  nature of urban farms in Havana.[18]


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