John C. Jones, MPA, PhD

Category: Adaptive Reuse

Finding Space for Urban Agriculture

In recent months, I have come across a few popular media articles detailing disparate urban agriculture programs. What stood out to me in each of these articles is the combination of innovation in both a) the use of these emerging technologies in unusual spaces, and b) the use of technology to achieve production yields necessary for economic viability in those usual spaces. The spaces used for these production practices might be considered “found” or “created” spaces, as without recent innovations these spaces could not be used for food production (see Rivlin (2006) Found Space. in Franck and Stevens (2006) Loose Space: Possibility and diversity in urban life. for more details on found spaces).

The Township of Robbinsville, New Jersey purchased a Leafy Green Machine, a 340 square foot shipping container commercially converted into a hydroponic growing space. The township placed the container on municipally owned land, adjacent to the town’s senior center. Harvested vegetables supplement the senior center’s cafeteria and Meals on Wheels program. Under the mayor’s direction, the township hired a farm manager under the Parks Department to utilize the space. I randomly encountered the Robbinsville mayor back in 2018 and we discussed this space briefly. At the time, he indicated the growing operating was developing according to plan. Sadly, I never got the chance to conduct a site visit during my time in Jersey. (Article Link)

Urby, a residential development on the eastern side of Staten Island, maintains a 5000 square foot urban farm on its campus. A farm-in-residence actively farms the site. Produce is sold at the on-site bodega. Residents appear to have access to recreational spaces near the farm space, but cannot access space at the farm to grow for themselves. The article also indicates the presence of an on-campus beehive, but I did not see evidence in any picture. (Article Link)

Growing Underground is a 7000 square foot hydroponic growing operating roughly 100 feet below the surface of London in a former World War 2 air-raid shelter designed to accommodate 8000 people. According to the article, the farm grows a variety of vegetables, including: “pea shoots, rocket, red mustard, pink stem radish, garlic chives, fennel and coriander”. Growing Underground’s founder gave a TedTalk about this adaptation of space. (Article Link)

Square Roots, a hydroponic farming company that operates a farm composed of a number of converted shipping crates in Brooklyn recently partnered with Gordon Food Services (GFS) to develop a similar production site co-located at the GFS Headquarters in Wyoming, Michigan. Produce grow at the roughly two-acre facility is then added to the GFS produce distribution pipeline. This pilot partnership tests the potential to co-locate similar production sites adjacent to other GFS distribution facilities across the country. Given the challenges of distribution reported to me by surface-level urban farmers, this pilot program seems to have some potential to connect micro-scale, local production into broader distribution channels. (Article Link)

Finally, Studio NAB, an architecture firm, published designs for a six-story building that would be constructed over water. The structure’s design scheme would allow for the integrated use of a number of intensive food production techniques including, “open soil and soilless cropping techniques, seaweed, insects, fish from aquaponics, berries, honey from hives”. To my knowledge, a building similar to this has yet to be constructed, but the idea of placing such a structure on a body of water is another example of found space. (Article Link)

New article on adaptive reuse

I received final word about the publication of my article appearing in Urban Design International that examines the adaptive reuse of industrial and commercial spaces by urban food entrepreneurs. Cases of note include the titular brewery in a former foundry and winery in a strip mall, along with two urban farms, one on a rooftop and the other inside a former industrial building. In this work I use urban design and architectural lenses. The read-only final version is available here at Springer’s website. I’m happy to provide an author manuscript copy for interested inquirers.

Enterprise Profile: Farming a Former Football Field

The We Over Me Farm in Dallas, Texas may be the most innovate use of space in urban farming I’ve yet seen. The 2-acre organic farm is located on the former football field of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college (HBCU). In addition to in-ground and hoophouse vegetable production, the farm also raises chickens, bees, and tilapia. According to their website, farmers have grown over 55,000 pounds of vegetables since their inception in March of 2010. The school closed its football program and launched the farm in 2010 as one way to respond to the food swamp plaguing the community surrounding the Paul Quinn campus. (Click here to listen to Paul Quinn’s president speak about the history of the farm’s development.) The non-profit farm both sells produce to local restaurants but also donates food to local charitable organizations. Student-employees form the farm’s workforce and professors have incorporate learning at the farm in several courses.

I have not visited this farm nor contacted its staff, however I can speculate about several unusual characteristics to farming on such a site. First, the site presumably already possessed both the water and electrical infrastructure, both of which are key characteristics in determining potential success in urban farming. Additionally, it is likely that site contains one or more unused buildings that could be used for storage of materials and harvested produce, as well as washing and packing. I could not find any written or pictorial documentation of this on the web. Finally, an important characteristic of any football field is parking and access to major roads. These characteristics are also important characteristics for successful urban farms. Satellite imaging from Google Maps indicates the farm has ample parking and road access (pan slightly right/East).

Follow this link to a USDA produced video that shows some elements of the farm’s built environment, including extant goal posts, scoreboard, and lighting rigs. (More pictures are available through this USDA profile.)

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