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Assemble the ingredients

Illustrations by Kyle Nelson/Stoltze Design.

 
From neighborhood restaurants to rooftop apiaries, food is changing the way we plan and use urban spaces. Here, we present a smorgasbord of new ideas in land use, equity, and community development through food.


Plotting an urban revolution

by Glynn Lloyd

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We live among many design flaws. The one about to affect us most is our dysfunctional and dangerously fragile food system.

Most of our food comes from large mono-crop agribusinesses that rely on cheap labor and fossil fuels. Fresh water and soil are two of the most critical natural resources for our species, and their depletion threatens the ability of our next generation to comfortably survive. It is no longer sustainable or practical to have less than 2 percent of the US population directly involved in its own food production.

Across the globe we see examples of a reimagined, wiser food system, in which the distance between food producer and consumer is radically shortened. Ten years ago, a few women sitting around a kitchen table in Todmorden, England, started organizing to transform the town’s public spaces into farms filled with edible herbs and vegetables, free for the taking. The “Incredible Edible Todmorden” movement has spawned 100 similar programs throughout England. In Chicago, Sweet Water Foundation is reclaiming abandoned land and property and putting art, innovation, and food at the center of its repurposing, leveraging the existing local culture of a historically African American community.

We have a unique opportunity here in Boston to build on these inspiring ideas. Greater Boston has a strong local food community that has built deep relationships over the past decades. An important participant is Roxbury-based Urban Farming Institute. Over the past five years, UFI has trained dozens of master growers specializing in small-plot intensive production, reconnecting thousands of individuals to their food supply through conferences, workshops, and farmers markets. It was instrumental in passing Article 89, the change in Boston’s zoning laws that allows urban farming as a right.

Last year, in partnership with Historic Boston, UFI broke ground on the restoration of one of Mattapan’s oldest buildings, an 18th-century farmhouse and barn that will open this summer as Boston’s urban-farming cultural center. Just recently, UFI created the Urban Farm Community Land Trust as a vehicle to preserve open space and protect land for food production. One example is the Garrison-Trotter urban farm in a former vacant lot on Harold Street in Roxbury, which will be transferred to a land trust to help ensure its tenure against development pressures in the community.

The ingredients above signify a cultural shift. Imagine a not-so-distant future in which each household on your block has a market-sized garden and numerous fruit trees abound. A few of your neighbors have taken up farming chickens or rabbits. The smart app the kids are talking about is the one that monitors their custom-designed, residential aquaponics system. Common spaces—sidewalk medians, vacant lots, and unused parts of parks—are beginning to overflow with food production.

The practitioners, food activists, and community leaders working on this vision continue to be important navigators in steering our current food system away from the iceberg. Increasing the numbers of those who have influence on the design process—architects, landscapers, developers, those willing and able to reimagine a wiser design—can play an important role in accelerating the possible. ■


Eat, drink, and create community

by David Nagahrio AIA

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In part thanks to placemaking guru Jesse Baerkahn, a new urban planning phenomenon has surfaced in Boston. In a city of communities, neighborhoods are being defined for the first time not by geographies, institutions, or ethnicities, but by food.

A decade ago, local developers asked Baerkahn and his colleague David Downing to bring a “retail and restaurant vibe” to Kendall Square’s barren and lifeless streets. Today, the neighborhood is the thriving home of local cuisine, French pastry shops, sushi bars, and more. Baerkahn is the founder of the sought-after urban-placemaking firm Graffito SP (Special Projects). The secret to his success? Food.

Baerkahn has toppled conventional retail thinking by building community through taste buds and shared food experiences. “I think that there’s a community within every restaurant, and a community that surrounds each restaurant,” he said during a recent conversation at Fat Baby, South Boston’s newest sushi bar. A passionate advocate for food and community, Baerkahn has an intuitive sense of what makes a place interesting and authentic. He uses food to both celebrate and define neighborhoods.

In an era when restaurants are replacing retail at an almost startling rate, Baerkahn is a resounding proponent for the creation of food communities. According to Baerkahn, the key to picking the right restaurant for a neighborhood—new or old—is finding an entrepreneur or restaurateur who understands and wants to work with the local community. The cuisine and restaurant design, he says, can follow. “I think those restaurants that are doing really well are those that understand their communities.”

Equally, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are looking for landlords who want to be involved in the food communities they are creating. The more revenue a restaurant can make, the more rent they are willing to pay; if landlords and developers believe in building a better neighborhood, Baerkahn says, “they become engaged in [restaurant deals] in a way that’s really meaningful because they’re trying their best to set somebody up for success.”

This in turn sets the neighborhood up for success. Baerkahn says activating a neighborhood means creating a human scale and a walkable, enlivened street edge. “There are few things that do that better than a café or a restaurant.” Restaurants also bring light and life into a neighborhood after dark.

“There’s no doubt the desirability of neighborhoods has to do with their quality and quantity of food and beverage options,” he says.

So what’s next in Boston? Baerkahn cites urban food manufacturing: tap rooms combined with breweries, coffee roasters with cafés, and commissaries with bakeries.

This trend fits well with his observation that the modern diner wants to have a new, exciting food experience every week. He notes, though, that today’s social media madness makes this a hard mark for restaurants to meet: “The challenge is that we’re all seeing something first on social media and forming an impression before we walk in the door... . However, there is real power to being surprised and to experiencing real hospitality without preconceived notions.”

Such hospitality is exactly what Baerkahn and his team are working to inspire by placing small, local food businesses in interesting new homes throughout the city. Boston’s neighborhoods are collectively home to more than 2,900 food establishments today, so he worries this might be too much of a good thing. Still, done right, restaurants create food communities that help complete the placemaking puzzle. ■


Bee the change

by Elena Saporta ASLA and Tom Rudick

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Urban beekeeping is buzzing. In 2013, the City of Boston enacted Article 89, a zoning ordinance designed to encourage urban agriculture. Since then, honeybees have been appearing everywhere in the city. Hives are tucked away in the most unexpected places: backyard gardens, vacant lots, office building balconies. Several hotels, such as Taj Boston, the Intercontinental, and Fairmont Copley Plaza, have also gotten in on the action, featuring honey collected from their rooftop apiaries on their restaurant menus.

These important pollinators have turned previously unused urban spaces into places that benefit entire communities. Each day, thousands of honeybees will leave their hives and travel up to 3 miles to forage and pollinate plants in parks, gardens, backyards, and window boxes. Though it may seem counterintuitive, urban honeybees experience far better survival rates and produce more honey than their country cousins. The relative absence of pesticides and a greater diversity of plants put city bees at a significant advantage.

Honey is, of course, the primary output of honeybees. A single hive can produce more than 50 pounds of honey each year, a remarkable achievement given that each individual worker bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. With so many beehives spread out throughout the metropolitan area, it is possible to seek out hyperlocal honey, produced just blocks away from one’s home or place of work.

A miraculous substance whose properties humans have been incapable of synthesizing, honey functions both as a food source for the entire colony as well as an insulating material for the hive. Nectar, ingested by bees, is transformed into honey by stomach enzymes and injected into honeycomb cells. By flapping their wings, bees accelerate honey’s evaporation process. Once the moisture content in the honey reaches a level of approximately 17 percent, each cell is sealed off with a wax lid to prevent fermentation. Properly stored honey, with its high acidity levels, has a seemingly infinite shelf life: jars in their original state have been unearthed from ancient Egyptian tombs. Honeybees also produce bee pollen; propolis, a caulking material with medicinal and antiseptic properties; and beeswax, used in making candles and body lotions.

Unfortunately, honeybee populations have been on the decline since the early 2000s. Mites, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, disease, and habitat loss have taken a toll. This poses a direct threat to the agricultural economy, since approximately one-third of the food we consume is dependent on honeybee pollination. (The US Department of Agriculture values honeybees’ contribution to the national food economy at 15 billion dollars annually.)

Urban beekeepers have a crucial role to play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Consumers can create their own positive impact by choosing local honeys over commercial brands and planting bee-friendly plants, such as lindens, dandelions, hollies, mints, and native perennials favored by pollinators. Through education and outreach, strides can be taken to protect honeybees and support all they do for our local communities and food security. ■


Tapping in to the third space

by Anna Cawrse ASLA

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Let’s take a trip, back to 16th-century Germany, when regulations limited brewers to brewing only during the cool months of September through April. This law was passed to prevent fires from coals that were used to heat breweries and because cooler temperatures helped ferment purer beer. The government also encouraged breweries to increase the size of their existing beer cellars. To help cool these expansive spaces, brewers started planting broad-leafed chestnut trees above the cellars for shade. Eventually people started putting seating under the trees, and from these mandated constraints a new public space archetype was born: the biergarten. Five hundred years later, a renaissance of craft brewing has swept the nation and created the elusive outdoor and indoor “third space.” Boston is no exception.

Like most craft breweries across the country, Harpoon set up shop in what was once considered a forgotten neighborhood. In 1987, Harpoon opened its doors in an old warehouse and brought people into an area many Bostonians had never visited. This burgeoning neighborhood we now know as the South Boston Seaport still uses Harpoon to help transform underused spaces into a lively public realm. Multiple times a year, people enthusiastically march shoulder to shoulder past walls constructed of beer cans to emerge onto a transformed asphalt parking lot. The parking lot and streets come alive with music, food, people, and, of course, beer.

If Harpoon has helped transform South Boston, then a new food hall development, Bow Market, is about to do the same for Union Square in Somerville. Anchored by a brewery and located in the shell of an old storage building, the W-shaped development will house more than 30 small-scale storefronts and provide opportunities for local food vendors, retailers, and artists. Remnant Brewery will be the largest tenant of the market, augmented by two public spaces that serve as the vendors’ outdoor living room. This contemporary biergarten, currently under construction, promises to be the heart of “beer urbanism” in Somerville.

While larger craft breweries and food halls are revitalizing neighborhoods, smaller pop-up beer gardens are leveraging the energy they create to activate underused public spaces within the urban fabric. Sometimes all these spaces need is a little help with programming. Last summer, Trillium Brewery entered into a partnership with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and its 4,000-square-foot open-air beer garden drew an estimated 100,000 customers.

Then the brewers took this model to another Boston neighborhood, where the historic Roslindale Substation building hosted Trillium over the winter. The substation sat unoccupied for more than 40 years until 2017, when it welcomed the craft beer cellar on its lower level. According to the Trillium team, the Garden at the Substation is part of the brewery’s “growing initiative to cultivate temporary seasonal spaces in which to enjoy our beer.”

Just as the original biergarten created community through an unexpected design solution, the new craft brewery scene is bringing people together all across US cities. From a brewery that is now one of the largest in the country to pop-up beer gardens, the craft beer scene in Boston is injecting a new energy into forgotten neighborhoods and underused public spaces. ■


On the menu: A healthy future

by Savinien Caracostea

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Whereas early-20th-century Modernist architects promoted lifestyles of comfort and convenience through masterplans and manifestos that encouraged the domestication of nature, chefs of the early 21st century are reconnecting us with its wonders and benefits. It turns out the highly controlled atmospheres and assertive structures we have built for ourselves were just façades, and our actual environments are more fragile and necessary to our survival than we had believed. The sterile and abundantly stocked lanes of the supermarket, lined with foods grown and processed in distant factories, have steadily disconnected us from nature and the beauty of life itself. The industrial processes that were supposed to create inexpensive, healthy, and abundant foods have instead yielded increasing social disparity, food waste, obesity, and harm to our environment.

The agency that was once bestowed upon architects to tell us how to live, shop, work, travel, and lead happy and fulfilling lives now seems to have shifted toward chefs. As we look toward the future, new manifestos and masterplans drafted around food production and consumption are necessary, as societies will be based on a deeper understanding of the climates, patterns, and flavors of the world we live in. It is no surprise that the next generation of chefs has mobilized, sublimating traditions and championing causes—sustainability, healthy lifestyles, social equity—to fix the issues we are facing. Movements such as the “New Nordic Cuisine” herald a rediscovery of our roots through food, turning cooking into a powerful cultural, social, and political act—from soup kitchens to high-end restaurants.

Chefs advocating for local food consumption have spurred the proliferation of farmers markets and stimulated new economies and habits for city dwellers, from app-based food delivery services to urban farming. A new wave of young farmers and producers engage with the media, and with venture capitalists, and go on lecture tours in universities to discuss the future of the food industry. Fields once considered distant from any intellectual pursuit, such as cooking, are taking academia by storm, creating interdisciplinary and experimental research and activity. Restaurants and cookbooks have become the new vehicles for discovering cultures for locals and tourists alike. Simultaneously, the once rigid guidelines and hierarchical floor plans of the workplace are being replaced by more casual and informal interactions around eating, and the well-being of employees is valued as a foundation for their performance, creativity, and collaboration.

With the proliferation of digital technologies that challenge notions of place and time, we understand more than ever the ephemerality of a chance encounter, of a pastry eaten spontaneously one afternoon in the street, as being meaningful in our creative process and urban experience. Engaging with our senses, with our minds, and being confronted by unexpected flavors, textures, and ideas are essential to keeping us alive and connected—to each other and to our environment. It drives us toward a healthier, harmonious, and more diverse future. As such, the architectures one finds assembled on a plate, lasting but a moment, are more symbolic of our contemporary lifestyles, speaking to the challenges we face—transient and ever changing—than the rigid structures that surround us. ■