Urban Agriculture: A Case Study In Small-Scale Thinking

In 2019, AW’s Emily Whitbeck was part of an academic team from MIT's School of Architecture and Planning that designed and implemented an urban agriculture research project in Athens, Greece. Here she shares that experience and the impact of urban agriculture.

As the world struggles to cope with a second, or in some cases third wave in the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy (and understandable) to forget that we are still facing another global crisis: climate change. In many ways, these crises are similar- they are infinitely complex, immense in scale, and require the kind of unified global response that doesn’t happen overnight. It is therefore increasingly important to find small solutions to these big problems. In this, architecture is at a particular advantage. It exists at a unique intersection of scales, producing many relatively small things (buildings) through vast global networks of materials, labor and transportation. This position allows architects to leverage local programs to address planetary issues like climate change.

Urban agriculture is a great example of a program through which architecture can create spaces that deal with universal issues in local ways. It is especially exciting, because it is a program that impacts and overlaps with so many aspects of its surroundings. Aside from the immediate environmental benefits, like mitigating storm water runoff and heat island effect, it also provides a social infrastructure for community building and youth development, as well as economic benefits to the neighborhood. For architects, urban agriculture programs provide opportunities to experiment with a vast range of issues within a single project.

A series of projects proposed for Athens, Greece, examines architectural interventions that deploy urban agriculture at multiple scales. The smallest scale focuses on a single building that is the shared residence of ten young adults. The project takes advantage of the building’s underutilized rooftop to provide much-needed common space for the residents, and implements a garden structure that provides shade, privacy and a guardrail on the rooftop. Several of the residents work as chefs, and plan to use some of the food to cook meals for the household and will bring the remaining vegetables to the local farmers market to sell for a small profit. While the immediate benefits of this scale of urban agriculture are very much limited to the residents, there are ways in which these impacts start to branch out to neighbors, who now have a much more pleasant roof to look down onto and whose property values have likely increased.

One of the larger scale proposals explores the impact of a network of urban agriculture sites throughout Athens. The city is still in the middle of what has been a difficult and agonizingly slow recovery from the 2007-08 economic crisis. Rampant property abandonment caused by the collapse has now become a major hindrance to Athens’ recovery, contributing to diminishing property values and crime. Many of these abandoned properties are in a unique state of half-preservation. As the majority have been deemed historically significant, the city has stepped in to install supports and protection for their facades but has allowed their interiors to crumble and collapse. These hollow shells are scattered throughout the city and present a huge opportunity for architectural interventions that could affect not just the surrounding neighborhoods, but Athens as a whole. What if these structures, which are currently uninhabitable and cost the city enormous sums of money, could support large communal gardens that pay for themselves and reconnect the surrounding communities through a new type of social network?

Urban agriculture’s effects are highly localized; even the largest garden will not provide all of the food needed by a single family, let alone feed an entire city. It certainly will not solve climate change on its own, or significantly impact larger issues of the food supply chain (transportation, waste, etc.). In fact, the food itself may be the least important thing urban agriculture produces. Its impacts, as with architecture, are far-reaching and multi-faceted: creating agency, fostering community, and establishing a sense of place.

- Emily

Projects designed by members of the MIT Arrival Studio 2019, led by Professor Marc Simmons in collaboration with The Home Project.