Foreword: Second Nature Urban Agriculture (2014)

Second Nature Urban Agriculture cover

“…we sow cereals and plant trees; we irrigate our lands to fertilize them. We fortify river-banks, and straighten or divert the courses of rivers. In short, by the work of our hands we strive to create a sort of second nature within the world of nature.”

Cicero, De Natura Deorum (The Nature of the Gods, ca. 45 BC)

Just across the East River from Manhattan, in industrial Queens, there’s a one-acre farm atop an old shipping warehouse that produces some of the most prized fruits and vegetables in New York City. On a mid-summer day, while the N train rumbles by a few blocks away and the Chrysler Building glitters in the sun, an astonishing variety of crops grow in dozens of orderly rows six stories above bustling Northern Boulevard. There are Red Mizuna Greens, Black Krim Tomatoes, Bull’s Blood Beets, Masai Bush Haricot Verts, Shisito Peppers, Thai Basil, and Purple Haze Carrots as well as numerous varieties of watermelon, cucumber, cantaloupe, and kale. Honeybees hum around stacked hives and egg-laying hens peck and preen and shuffle in their nests. Farm workers sell the morning’s harvest to a crowd of shoppers and pack boxes of tomatoes and greens for nearby restaurants. In every sense, this urban rooftop is a working farm: a cultivated, productive, socially vital landscape embedded in the natural world. Second nature.

Anomalous as it may seem today, urban agriculture was our second nature for thousands of years. Tilling soil and sowing seeds were the ur gestures of civilization, acts that inscribed human hopes on the land, entwined nature and culture, and transformed unsettled terrain into human places where we belonged. Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities were intensely agricultural, as were the Greek city-states and Cicero’s Rome. In each, tilling and irrigation constructed beneficent second natures within densely populated settlements, while agricultural knowledge and custom—the domestication of seeds; mathematics, engineering, and ethics; the preparation and sharing of food—nourished dynamic urban cultures. Cities and agriculture co-evolved. When I was growing up in Tokyo, farm and city were still engaged nearby neighbors; farmers led poop carts through the streets every night, picking up nutrients for the soil. The true anomaly is the perceived dualism between nature and culture, food production and city life.

Keenly aware of the history and generative potential of urban agriculture, Andre Viljoen and Katrin Bohn are devoted to making it commonplace. With Second Nature Urban Agriculture, they offer a thorough exploration of the field from an architectural and urban planning perspective, drawing on research, fieldwork and case studies to present a framework for integrating agriculture into cities. Like Cicero, they see second nature as a productive landscape embedded in the natural processes of “first nature” and recognize the interdependence of first and second natures as the foundation of robust, resilient food systems.

Fine essays on the theory and practice of Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes make the important case for agriculture as an essential element of urban infrastructure and economies, while an informative collection of project-oriented stories from Berlin, London, New York, and Detroit evokes the energy and creativity animating today’s leading food-growing cities. Together, Andre, Katrin, and their contributors have achieved the lofty goal of producing a full-bodied repository of ideas, principles and actions that support long-term, well-financed, ecologically intelligent, superbly designed spatial responses to the challenge and opportunity of feeding people that live in cities. They have taken a giant step toward renewing the civilizing legacy of urban agriculture.

That is very good news. The long separation of city life and natural systems was good for neither. “Nature, in the common sense,” Emerson said, “refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.” But surely we have changed them. We inherited a food system and a way of building cities that devalued the essences of each—soil, water, plants, people—making second nature an erasure of natural assets rather than a generative, supportive landscape for the wellbeing of living things. While industrial farming decimated the world’s topsoil, planners misread the relationship between nature cycles and urban form. Modernist planning – Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City – sought to reconcile urban and rural, but betrayed the stark divide between the city and the soil.

In the last twenty years, however, the parallel movements of organic agriculture and ecological design have been thoroughly re-imagining second nature, dramatically improving the generative capacity of buildings, landscapes, urban farms and city food systems.

A few design questions have been influential: How do we become native to our place? In other words, how does nature work right here and what does the land tell us about what thrives in this soil? If we recognize the laws of nature as a model for good design, and the health of the soil as a measure of productivity and wealth, how do we develop positive, supportive interactions between natural systems and human communities? And, from an urban design perspective: What if buildings, like trees, were soil-makers and photosynthetic actors, living organisms participating productively in their surroundings?

Those questions set the course for the upcycling of second nature. A building like a tree is designed to fit in an ecosystem, not overpower nature or limit human impact. Enmeshed in local energy flows, it harvests solar income, makes food from sunlight, filters water and creates a supportive habitat for people and other living things. Offices, factories, and schools with solar collectors, greenhouses, and water filtration systems, accrue energy and provide organic food, clean water and good jobs. They leave a beneficial ecological and social footprint.

Green roofs, like the rooftop farms profiled in these pages, take high-performance second nature to the landscape level. Not all green roofs grow food for people, but the ways in which they preserve soil nutrients, support plants and generate urban photosynthesis provide a bridge to large-scale urban farming. The living roof atop Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, a ten-acre urban garden, is only the most visible element of a living, landscape-scale stormwater filtration system, which includes porous paving and underground basins, as well as constructed wetlands, swales, and wooded meadows. A scientifically cultivated network, it dramatically reduces the flow of stormwater into the Rouge River while also absorbing carbon dioxide, making oxygen, purifying the soil and providing habitat for birds, butterflies and insects.

With insights from the evolution of green roofs and from the work of brilliant farmers developing permaculture, hydroponics, and rooftop soils, architecture and agriculture need no longer estranged. In Neemrana, India, when we designed a 62,500 square-meter “Garden Factory” for Hero MotoCorp, the nation’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles, our leading design question was: What if a factory could be a garden of health and productivity?

It can. With a solar array, vegetated air-purification wall, rooftop greenhouses, daylighting, and ductless air delivery, the factory will generate or harvest nearly all of its needs: food, oxygen and fresh air for people, carbon dioxide for plants, irrigation water and hot water, electricity, cooling, and both factory and food production jobs. Farm follows function. The building is not simply “a machine in the garden” nor “a garden in the machine.” It’s alive; the machine is a garden.

Can urban agriculture again become an embedded habit and cultural norm? Along with Andre Viljoen and Katrin Bohn, I believe it will. Reading their study, one begins to appreciate the energy and intelligence driving today’s urban farming enterprises. In New York City, for example, urban food production is booming and the agricultural network is rooted and strong. There are commercial farms and farms focused on community engagement; farms that practice intensive, open air, soil-based cultivation and those devoted to greenhouse hydroponics. There are rooftop, building-integrated, and land-based farms, as well as 700 food-producing gardens and 50 schools that incorporate student-grown food in school lunches. The network includes commercial apiaries, composters, seed banks, farmers markets, restaurants, soil doctors and farm design services, as well as, of course, those Mizuna Greens, Black Krim Tomatoes, and Masai Bush Haricot Verts.

Food has a future—we have a future—when cities build second nature from the soil up.

Foreword written by William McDonough for Second Nature Urban Agriculture: Designing Productive Cities (eds. Andre Vilijoen & Katrin Bohn, published by Routledge, 2014)

William McDonough is an adviser, designer, thought leader and co-author of books including Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. Follow William McDonough on Twitter.