AECOM’s Brisbane studio recently hosted the first of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) ‘Come back to my place’ events, as part of the inaugural Forecast Festival of Landscape Architecture. The event was called ‘Edible Infrastructure: Taking small bites out of big places’ and was conceived as a way to start a bigger conversation about the potential of urban food production, aptly coinciding with World Food Day. We wanted to share our experiences and use those as a platform to hear from others, capture a national snapshot and consider what should happen next.
We opened our doors to 60 international conference delegates, including a wide range of landscape architects, students, policy makers, clients, and those from other disciplines and allied areas of practice. We also welcomed a glass box full of bees! Morning tea consisted of fresh and organic locally-sourced food, fresh bread and – thanks to local collective ‘Bee One Third’ – honey from hives placed on a rooftop across the street from our office.
We are passionate about urban food and particularly the compelling co-benefits not only for food security, but also for health and well-being, community participation and future economic diversity.
The title of the event was chosen carefully. The infrastructure reference captures the value of understanding a bigger picture and connected systems. ‘Small bites’ represent the many small-scale changes and evolutionary steps already being taken all over the place – to make clear the collaborative nature of urban food. ‘Big places’ remind us of the potential, and of the transformative potential of big picture thinking. We were interested in scale and particularly the scale-ability of collaborative urban food production.
The first thing that struck us as we prepared for the event was the huge value in drawing together different AECOM activity related to food. For the first time we assembled a passionate international group of people working around the edges of these themes to foster a dialogue, understand synergies and imagine potential. This process yielded the framework for the first half of the session.
We set the scene with some big picture headlines. These all provide compelling motivation to address some very real and pressing challenges.
We then gave a concise overview of a number of AECOM projects, conference papers, activities and emerging initiatives. These included an understanding of the significant value (economically and socially) of small-scale urban food production, the emerging policy context through Gold Coast Local Food Feasibility and Redlands Rural Futures strategies and physical input into urban food production in Brooklyn, New York and Christchurch, New Zealand. To bring this back to a local context, Brisbane City Council provided a snapshot of community gardens within the city.
We explored concepts of the near-future, such as the Urban Food Jungle, the integrated potential flowing from a strategic infrastructure approach to climate adaptation (Townsville example) and the power of statistics relating to land area, productive potential, water consumption and employment creation (Jeddah Plan Food Strategy). We demonstrated the simple steps required to turn existing places into productive urban places.
The second session began with morning tea and was an informal and energetic honey-fuelled discussion about ideas, innovations, priorities and opinions related to ‘what next’? We captured the different views and have committed to producing a paper to explore the role of the profession in defining a step change in urban food production, in what will be a tangible step towards creating a transformative moment.
The collaboration has yielded great potential. We now need to hold ourselves to account for taking the next steps. The carrot? That has to be the truly compelling and tangible benefits to be harvested from big picture edible infrastructure within our towns and cities.
My simple conclusion from this is that urban food production just requires intentional steps, but these need to influence the process at different stages, through a determined approach. Most of our cities adopt a strategic, finely-tuned and well-funded approach to transport infrastructure. We largely take for granted the benefits and value of good transportation. Our provocative question for our audience: using the example of transport, why don’t we create a ministry of urban food infrastructure as the next step towards harvesting the benefits of local food production?
Alastair Leighton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate director with AECOM’s Design + Planning practice in Queensland.