How to ensure food security with sustainable design

Article By:

Practice Leader—complete communities | Associate urban designer

Our pursuit of a healthy lifestyle becomes more and more challenging as the world’s population increases and our cities become denser. As far as planning goes, we are moving away from suburban sprawl (which discourages exercise) and towards transit-oriented development.

Compact cities, walkability index, pedestrian-centric, and mixed-use communities partially, if not already, influence the way we live, commute and eat. As an urban designer and advocate of good health, one question often comes to mind: How can we make more informed design decisions that promote healthier lifestyles at home and in our communities?

Designers often refer to the popular concept New Urbanism—a movement united around the belief that our physical environment has a direct impact on our chances for happy, prosperous lives—to create walkable neighbourhoods that contain a wide range of housing, jobs and public amenities.

Due to the magnitude of the planned area and economy of scale, one of the most significant issues (despite our relative wealth) is food security. According to the 1996 World Food Summit, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” A large suburb often faces the economic challenge in providing its growing community with convenient access to healthy food sources, resulting in food deserts or food mirages, the latter of which is when people who live near a grocery store can’t afford any nutritious food inside due to high levels of poverty. Sometimes they are more likely to be exposed to less nutritious, fast food options, which can cause health risks. A University of Winnipeg study revealed more than 120,000 residents live without proper access to food in our city. So, what can we do to prioritize food security and healthy eating in the planning of our cities?

A joint effort between the Heart Foundation in Australia and the University of Melbourne’s Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab came up with a Food-Sensitive Planning and Urban Design Framework. I believe this is a fantastic resource for anyone involved in land use planning, urban design and community development who want to create places where people can easily access healthy and sustainable food. Furthermore, as an integrated approach, it provides a matrix tool and set of principles that cover a range of issues and opportunities. I find that three ideas distinctively stand out from the framework: First, we want to work as a community in shared urban spaces to help ensure equitable access to appropriate food sources. Second, we want to foster community interaction that includes current environmental issues and innovative food technologies. And third, we want to create a fundamental change in how we approach food security by moving towards a more resilient food system that empowers people to meet their own food needs in the future.

Many small to medium-sized cities see successes with community food-planning initiatives and participation. I find urban farming advocates and community gardens provide a more accessible, organic and manageable solution. In land-scarce countries, such as Singapore and Tokyo, where high-rise living is the norm, residents are becoming more aware of their food sources, finding satisfaction with harvesting their vegetables and aspiring to become urban farmers. Even without a backyard or reliable sunlight, urban farmers have successfully sought out under-utilized spaces on rooftops, sidewalks and atriums to create urban gardens and harvest food. As a result, these common spaces add vibrancy for residents, turning steel and concrete structures into healthy environments for our bodies.

Another example lies just outside of Amsterdam where a relatively new eco-village grows its food, generates its power and takes care of its waste. Known as the ReGen Village, this Dutch town adopted the most advanced methods in producing food, like aeroponics, aquaponics, permaculture, food forests, and organic farming. Also, this suburb has the potential to be more productive than a traditional farm of the same size, providing people with the opportunity to learn where their food grows, work less and spend more time reconnecting with families.

Dr Tan Loke Mun, a Malaysian architect, spoke about the eco-friendly house he designed for himself at a Green Building Conference. He called it the S11 House and created it to be green every step of the way. He even ensured personal food security, incorporating environmentally sustainable green strategies, based on the permaculture approach and the forest garden concept, which provided food for his family and community. Some of his ground crops like cassava and papaya are capable of producing most of the necessary sustenance for future generations.

As a collective, we should empower every household to achieve personal food security that supports creating a more sustainable, resilient neighbourhood and healthier micro-economy.

However, the road towards a food-centric community is not without its challenges either. I recently read that in some cities across the United States, homeowners faced legal actions for farming on their front yards and had to square off against city officials enforcing local laws that ban front yard food gardens. Often there is a need to protect property values, which means that a consistent pedicured lawn usually triumphs over an edible garden. Fortunately in Winnipeg, planting fruits or vegetables is generally allowed on your front yard, as long as it is off the public boulevard and satisfies the Neighbourhood Livability by-law. Homeowners can also turn to urban farming advocates like Urban Eatin’ Gardeners Worker Co-op for advice.

As the public becomes more aware of the issues, it will positively affect our access to better eating and healthier living. I believe we will see better food planning in our cities and more households transitioning to eating organic food on their own land. Perhaps someday we will reach a tipping point for front yard food gardens to become a neighbourhood norm. 

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