Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The Institute for Public Architecture challenged architects to envision hybrid spaces that promote density, but not displacement.
Emily Arden Wells and Zachary Stevens envision an urban landscape in which small-batch bakers roll out of bed and clamber to the roof to pick fresh blueberries, or where cucumbers can go from the vine to a brine bath in a matter of minutes. Then, the muffins and pickles could head down a few flights of stairs to a street-level café, or be packed into trucks and schlepped to markets.
In response to a challenge from the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA), Wells and Stevens, the team behind Move Matter Architecture, crafted a speculative design that weaves together living quarters and areas zoned for light manufacturing.
The IPA selected 11 fellows from an open call for proposals in response to New York City’s plan to carve out 200,000 units of affordable housing. For six weeks this summer, that cohort researched and prototyped ideas for affordable live/work arrangements that could be folded into dense neighborhoods without displacing current residents. One team proposed making use of oddly shaped parcels; another advocated for small-business incubators peppered around NYCHA campuses.
For their contribution, Wells and Stevens zeroed in on the food sector—the city’s only industry to record an upturn over the last decade. The city is already investing in the industry as an economic driver. The Brooklyn Army Terminal Annex, a 55,000-square-foot behemoth in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, saw a $15 million overhaul last winter; the Economic Development Corporation installed the first tenant—a salad dressing startup—in the new food hub space earlier this month. The building will offer commercial-grade kitchens and cater to small-batch producers, DNAinfo reported.
Still, food-sector workers often earn low wages, which are stretched particularly thin if they’re trying to launch their own businesses. In Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, the food justice scholar and activist Saru Jayaraman noted that food-industry employees are more than twice as likely than other workers to use food stamps.
Live/work spaces could alleviate some of the struggles that entrepreneurs face getting set up in the city, Wells and Stevens say. Easy and constant access to freight elevators and loading docks, storage facilities, and truck parking would help producers connect to the arteries of distribution, Wells says. Collaboration could rise around sharing amenities and swapping ideas. Communal kitchens would decrease the time that appliances sit unused. Since a small-batch baker might only need her ovens a few hours a day, “someone else could come in at different hours and run a totally different business,” Wells says. Shipping pallets that one company uses to import goods could also be enlisted to stage packaged wares heading out for distributing. And a social ecosystem could spring up around swapping tips and expertise.
Plus, Wells says, the push towards density collides with an eco-minded agenda.
Consumers still ascribe a dreamy, back-to-the-dirt quality to farms dotting the outskirts of cities, Wells says—but the locavore movement could get even more local if food production was folded in to the urban fabric. Wells says hybrid spaces can also erode the problem of food waste, since the food “isn’t immediately rotting when you bring it home.”
Much of the food consumed in cities travels a vast distance and fades en route. A share of basil consumed in the U.S., for instance, journeys from Israel—a trek of 5,700 miles. Growing and harvesting close to the site of consumption extends the food’s shelf life. “Instead of sitting on a truck for a week, it’s sitting in your fridge, and it’s not going bad,” Wells says.
The team's stacked design—in which housing is sandwiched between a commercial zone and production spaces—would create a bit of a buffer between sleeping quarters and loading docks. Plus, concrete construction and efficient HVAC systems could do a lot to mitigate any unsavory by-products of the production process, Stevens says.
Making use of the building’s outdoor areas would also alleviates the energy burden sometimes associated with indoor growing conditions. A rooftop space and multi-story setup in the central core would thrive on natural light. In contrast, complicated LED-based and aquaponic systems can suck up a lot of energy—sometimes, enough to push a business under. A report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future noted that hydroponic and aquaponic farms in Buffalo and Baltimore were forced to shut down when mounting utility bills outpaced revenue.
Wells and Stevens found inspiration in Tokyo’s Pasona Urban Farm, a 50-year-old office building retrofit with 3,995 sqaure meters of green space. More than 200 species of fruits, vegetables, and grains inhabit the space imagined by Kono Designs. Tomato vines trail from the ceiling and broccoli plants sprout in the reception area, Dezeen reported; to make space for the sprawling fauna, the building’s pipes, vents, and other guts were rerouted.
To estimate the possible yield from their growing spaces, Wells and Stevens crunched data from a rooftop farm in New York City and a vertical growing operation in Newark. Tallying up those numbers led them to a total figure of 353,990 pounds per year.
For their proposal, Wells and Stevens imagined scraping existing construction and starting fresh. But some structures could, in theory, be fortified to bear the extra weight per square foot that this kind of project would require. On hardy stock in Industry City, Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, or Chelsea, Stevens says, these operations wouldn’t be out of the question.
Architects are in a unique positive to creatively grapple with policy issues, says the IPA’s executive director, Nadine Maleh—and she hopes the city will agree. Throughout the fellowship, the architects consulted with city agencies; now, Maleh says, the IPA is looking to deepen conversations with the EDC and Department of Housing Preservation and Development. That might include continuing outreach, or analysis of prospective sites for projects like Wells’ and Stevens’. “All the city agencies that should be at the table, we want them at the table. We want to be talking to them,” Maleh says. “We want to create something implementable.”