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Farming Towards the Sky in LA’s Skid Row

October 22, 2008

By Anya Kaplan-Seem

If cities are the way of the future—and they seem to be: the United Nations recently announced that by the end of 2008, more people will be living in urban areas than rural ones—then urban agriculture must also be the way of the future. But proponents of city growing face a recurrent problem: farming is generally a land-intensive activity, but cities are usually land-strapped places. The most common solution to this conundrum is to look for marginal plots—medians, vacant lots, forgotten parks, disused playground. But even these are not in endless supply, and in the search for a lasting solution to the land problem, advocates like Taja Sevelle of Urban Farming are setting their sights on a different kind of real estate: walls.

When Sevelle, who as the executive director of Urban Farming works to create gardens and produce food in cities around the country, first approached Robin Elmslie Osler of Elmslie Osler Architecture with her vertical farming idea, Osler tolder her “Look, you don’t really need an architect to grow food on walls.” Osler had worked with Green Living Technologies to build one of the largest green walls in the country for an Anthropologie store in Huntington, Alabama, so she offered to put Sevelle directly in touch. But “then I thought about this,” Osler remembered, “and I realized that this was such a great opportuity for architecture and design to make a far more compelling project.”

The project that has developed out of the collaboration between Urban Farming, Elmslie Osler Architects, and Green Living Technologies is called Urban Farming Food Chain. Its pilot project is now in operation in the Skid Area of Los Angeles. Attached to the sides of four neighborhood buildings, the walls are thirty feet long by six feet high. Each uses stainless steel panels with dirt-filled cells and drip irrigation to grow around 4,000 plants—plants that will provide produce to the residents of the building that host them, and to the homeless and underserved of the neighborhood.

Growing walls aren’t all there is to Urban Farming Food Chain. In Osler’s plan, the project would ultimately consist of three parts: providers (the walls), containers (to store produce and provide gathering spaces), and “the heart”—a series of education centers cum storefront kitchens.

Besides passion, and many hours of pro bono labor, what Osler brought to the project was an architect’s ability to envision and create “spaces and places that are unique and thoroughly considered from the materials aspect to the idea of light or sound or touch or views.” Instead of developing a single food-growing wall, or even a plan for a single city, Osler developed a master plan for what she calls, “a complete urban intervention.” Based on Frederick Law Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace system of parks in Boston, Osler explained, “it would be a system of sustainable living surfaces capable of providing food for the nutritionally underserved.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jaime permalink
    October 23, 2008 4:00 am

    I think one of the most important parts of a structure like this is the “core” that was mentioned — education about food in the presence of food is much more useful than any food-related rants.

    Also, to feed a population even near the size of LA, they’d need a whole lot of these structures — would that even be possible?

    It calls to mind really interesting possible images of “the city of the future”…

  2. Lauri permalink
    October 23, 2008 2:21 pm

    So lets move the discussion to the next level. Elmslie Osler Architects should provide a cost estimate for building the structure and Urban Farming should estimate the cost of growing operations (labor, utilities, water), and estimate the income they can generate from the produce they grow. Perhaps someone can help us inderstand the cost of land in this market.


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