There is a distinctly strange approach to food when it comes to urban planning and urban landscape design, mainly, the outcomes very rarely include standing sources of edible produce.  We see all manner of native and exotic trees, but few of them bear fruit or nuts or edible leaves.

There remains an intransigent business-as-usual approach where the growing of food as a normal part of the urban environment is confined to very small and discrete elements, rather than integrated within the whole-of-landscape thinking. This is of course contrary to how natural landscapes work in any environment – and is mostly a Western notion, as in many more egalitarian societies free food growing in public places has been traditional for countless generations.

It is a good reminder too that the concepts of “urban greening” and “nature” aren’t always the same thing. Nature is abundant and nourishes every part of the interconnected web of living things within a location. Urban greening is often a fringe element of leafy things that are chosen more for aesthetic benefits than physical nourishment.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC), with its emphasis on a nature-informed approach to design and development embraces the concept of the productive generous landscape. One of the imperatives for the LBC is a certain proportion of the site must be allocated to productive gardens. This can also include fruit trees and in some cases, Australian projects have incorporated Indigenous (‘bush tucker’) food plants.

Another LBC requirement is providing social value for the public, and accessible food trees and produce would do this very well. In fact, the rating scheme rewards making produce accessible by reducing the percentage of site footprint that must be dedicated to productive gardens or orchards.

There are some social value dimensions to this. For example, if the occupants of the building are unlikely to be using all of the food, there are options for providing space for community groups to be involved in the garden or donating product to food banks or other charities.

Upkeep is often a concern from the developer (or building owner) perspective but consider the social cohesion and occupant wellbeing benefits of tenants having breaks in the garden and engaging in an activity that is physically and mentally beneficial, and supports belonging and engagement. If we want to get people back to office-based workplaces, these kind of humanising, friendship-fostering activities are extremely beneficial. Or there are schools, retirement homes, youth training programs and other organisations that appreciate being able to access and contribute to communal food gardens, which is a significant win for an asset owner from the ESG (environment, social, governance) perspective.


The broader environmental win

Any edible landscape serves not only the human nutrition aspect, but also delivers general benefits including the heat modulation associated with green space, carbon sequestration in growing trees and shrubs, opportunities for improving soil fertility and soil carbon through the use of on-site compost (and corresponding reductions in organic waste to landfill) and improved stormwater regulation through soil infiltration during heavy rain events.

On a carbon abatement level there are also the benefits of reducing food miles, reducing food packaging and reducing food waste – plus the economic benefit of helping people’s household budgets stretch further, and presumably they’ll spend that saved money on other economic goods and services.

There are also examples of enterprises combining nature-based food production with their business model. In New York, the Javits Centre hosts an acre of green roof developed by Brooklyn Grange Farms that includes seasonal vegetables, Indigenous produce, a glasshouse, an orchard and a food forest that supplies the Centre’s catering and restaurant with all its produce to create a bespoke seasonal menu.

We have also worked on projects in Australia where rooftop gardens have included beehives and chicken coops.

When I was studying architecture, one of our practical assignments was to design a development for a group that had reached out to the university for help. The design, for a boarding school near Esperance, engaged with Indigenous approaches to develop a six seasons bush tucker garden of produce endemic to the area.

This is worth considering for any project or urban landscaping plan, as endemic plants are well-adapted to specific local climate conditions – think saltbush in hot, saline, arid environments; tasty geebung in the temperate southern states inland; nourishing wattleseed in depleted soils (they thrive without the need of adding nitrogen or phosphorus); or the generosity of Atherton raspberry in the tropics.

The latest versions of the Green Star rating tool from the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) are promoting the use of native plants – it is simply the next logical step to incorporate the food that always grew in an area up until 1788.


Putting the food back!

This doesn’t have to be a major and difficult undertaking – here are some simple initiatives to consider:

For developers: To achieve the best outcomes, have discussions with local Aboriginal Elders early in planning to understand the local seasons and edible native plants and incorporate the overall sustainability approach early in the planning and design process. This not only flows through into better outcomes – it is also more cost-effective than trying to shoehorn options in further down the track.

Architects: Don’t just design a green wall, specify a food wall! Do some research so you can work in locally appropriate plants and planting practices. If you look beyond the conventional to adopt regenerative and socially-constructive design for botanical elements, you can deliver layers of benefit as well as an aesthetic win. The keynote is being functional as well as beautiful.

Builders: If you consider the utilisation of a site prior to the drawings becoming a building, there is an opportunity to work with nurseries to grow things in-situ and use the space. This means the plants that will be installed are site adapted, and some really clever thinking can also incorporate this into the site erosion controls, stormwater management (including rainwater tank installation) and long-term green infrastructure. From a budget perspective, young plants are generally lower cost than mature ones, so there is also a budget benefit including less transport costs for large plants. It’s all about optimising the staging.

Tenants: Think of on-site gardening as the social club that organises itself and attracts people to come into the workplace. On-site food production can also be a wonderful team-building strategy, be incorporated into workplace wellbeing, mental health and fitness programs and provide ingredients for office events and celebrations. Also remember you’ll potentially save on energy bills if the productive gardens are also providing greening for urban heat island mitigation.

Overall, whether we consider edible urban greening from the nutrition aspect, the carbon sequestration and microclimate cooling dimension, or the social bonding and mental health positives, growing freely available produce in the public realm helps plant seeds for flourishing, more liveable cities.


By Stefan Hill, Sustainability Consultant at Cundall


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