The UK is in two minds about large supermarkets.
There’s nothing romantic about what’s replaced it either
although some attempt faux-countryside or equally faux architectural-media stylings. Here’s an eco-friendly, sustainable supermarket designed by the CHQ Partnership. It didn’t stop the rot.
And nor did smaller stores in central London, partly because the limited range of goods on offer didn’t satisfy any nutritional need other than a fast lunch. From this photo, you can’t even tell the store sells food.
Urban farmers’ markets are often given as a virtuous alternative to large supermarkets – and a fun day out too! – but have a reputation for being expensive, selling niche produce and not being open all the time.
This is Chapel Market, near Angel Islington, London.
It’s been selling vegetables, fish and other useful food since about 1880.
This traditional typology had all but disappeared in London. It was only Chapel Market’s merger with the more expensive and upmarket farmer’s markets that made people realise it’s not such a bad way to shop after all (unless it’s a Monday, or a Thursday or Sunday afternoon).
The US has its Walmarts and its Ralphs, but its history of food retail typologies has been less tumultuous for New Yorkers, or at least for those living Upper West Side.
The traditional grocer typology has adapted well, although these stores aren’t small or all independent anymore. The range of products behind their fruity frontages is enormous. They’re 24-hour and have free delivery. Their aisles may be narrow, but they are truly convenient. It looks like they sell food.
With the superstore typology, sellers ask consumers to bear the cost of collecting their food from the point of purchase. With the New York model, it’s irrelevant. It’s true that, in NY, the point of purchase may be closer to the point of consumption but how far the goods have actually travelled to get there is another matter. It’s the distance between the point of production of food and the point of consumption that’s the problem with food miles, not where it’s paid for. Even on the basis that food and shelter are both primary human requirements, it makes sense to bring food production closer to where it is consumed. The good arguments for this have been made elsewhere by people other than me.
• • •
It’s what Tyler Caine is suggesting when he writes on intercongreen.com, that vertical farms need a residential piggyback. In another post describing a recent vertical farm proposal, Caine makes the reasonable point that not all vertical farming proposals have to be for Manhattan. Most cities don’t have Manhattan’s density or the land values that generates it but, the mindset goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
The problem is that the reasons Manhattan is dense are the same reasons land values are high. And vice-versa. Any non-residential use has to compete for land with residential. This is how the law of the jungle works in cities.
Now IF the growing of fruit and vegetables is to be actually integrated with, and presumably add some sort of value to, residential space, then the options are:
- near where people live (like an remote allotment) and/or
- within the living space itself, and/or
- adjacent to the living space itself, and/or
- on top of the living space itself.
I’ll think about this in some later post. First of all though what do we plant? And how much of it do we need to plant? Lebbeus Woods and several generations of architecture students since, have visually prepared us for any manner of post-apocalyptic architectural scenarios but, seriously, WHAT’S FOR DINNER? What’s the point of looking forward to living in a monochromatic dystopian future if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from? These things need thinking about too.
We’ll be fine for wheatgrass and strawberries it seems, but, if we’re going to get serious about feeding ourselves, we’d be better off considering the problem of food from the other direction and first determining how much of what we’re going to need to eat and then going about trying to ensure we’ll be able to grow it. The following is a chart showing the elements humans need to survive. Traditionally, we get these from food. It’s a good system that works.
These elements have to be provided as a certain number of calories. Here’s a list. Let’s assume each of us needs 2,000 (k)cals per day even though this will be too much for some and insufficient for others.
There’s disagreement of course as to how those calories should be provided.
The popular smartphone app MyFitnessPal suggests 55% carbs, 30% fat, 15% protein but the Mayo Clinic suggests 45-65% carbs, 20-35% fat and 10-35% protein. In order to outline a way of thinking as well as for ease of calculation, I’ll use 50% carbs, 25% fat and 25% protein. This means that each day, to maintain weight, our average person needs a minimum amount of those necessary elements provided as
1000 calories from carbs, 500 calories from fats, and 500 calories from protein.
Next, we take this on board per gram of each.
250g of carbs from natural, nutrient-dense carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains.
125g of proteins from mainly plant sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, soy products and unsalted nuts, or seafood, lean or low-fat meat, poultry and dairy.
56g of unsaturated fats from healthier sources, such as lean poultry, fish and healthy oils, such as olive, canola and nut oils.
The thing is, we know our minimal nutrient requirements. They’re not a problem. What we don’t yet know is what plants and how much of them can satisfy those minimal nutrient requirements in ways that are economically and spatially viable for urban farming, vertical or otherwise. We need to know this before we rush ahead and start designing vertical farms. If we don’t, then all we’ll end up with is symbols for vertical farm architecture, instead of vertical farm architecture that achieves it. It’ll all go tits up the same way green roofs did.
If this seems familiar, it should. Remember what Radical Functionalism tried to do for housing? Personally, I don’t see what’s so radical about
- Determining what the minimum standards are.
- Satisfying them.
- Trying to do it better.
Well, let’s try it again and see what we can do for food. I’m not saying everyone should eat the minimum and no more. Or denying a place in the world for food as performance art or decadent pleasure. All I’m suggesting is that we should determine a baseline for minimum performance so that strategies to achieve that minimum can be devised, compared and refined.
Okay? Good. Let’s now plan a menu and, on the basis of that, a harvesting list so we know what we need to go out and get. To make things easier, we’ll eat the same things every day. We need 250g of carbs, 56g of fats, and 125g of proteins from the things we grow.
100g carrot = 10g carbs and 40 calories
Now, your average carrot is 75g and 30 calories. One carrot plant doesn’t take up much space, but if I need five carrots every four days then I have to plant five carrots for the four days I eat one. The amount of time it takes them to reach maturity will determine the size of my carrot patch.
A carrot takes twelve weeks to grow to maturity. I can plant carrot seedlings 5cm apart.
To get 10g of carbs in 40 calories per day from carrots alone, I need to plant 12 (weeks) x 7 days = 84 days, x 1.25 carrots/day = 105 carrots, @ 5cm x 5cm = √105 (= 10.24) x (5cm x 5cm) ≈ 0.25 sq.m. Just for me. Of course, I’d plant and harvest all the carrots at the same time and store them to use as I needed but the point is that, at full yield and constant cultivation, that 0.25 sq.m (2.6 sq. ft) of space is only providing me with 15% of my daily calories. This is where spatial footprint and efficiency of cultivation enter the equation.
This is the reason why things get grown in out-of-town places and foreign countries. This is why fertilisers and pesticides are used. This is why much production is mechanised. This is why farms are large. Urban agriculture will have to have a superior cost efficiency if it is to ever supplant conventional farming practices.
I’ll explore this more in my next post but, for now, I’ll just say that we need to view fancy architectural proposals for urban and/or vertical farms in terms of some standardised index of nutritional efficiency. Even a metric as simple as calories per cubic metre per month would enable us to meaningfully compare proposals like this
against what we have now. Sometime in the the future, we might have to decide between architecture or sustenance.