about concepts

Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

At FoodPlaces, we are taking an innovative approach by integrating and extending various exiting fields of practice, such as urban planning, urban agriculture, landscape architecture, permaculture, economic development and placemaking. With this type of approach, new concepts and terms are inevitably created. We have provided a full glossary. Here are a few key ones:

A foodscape is a new approach to land use in underutilized public and civic spaces. Foodscapes offer the opportunity to create beautiful, functional, and productive spaces with an assembly of plants, that produces food, fuel, fiber, feed (forage/fodder), and/or “farmaceuticals” (plant-based medicines).

Foodscapes are primarily composed of perennial plants (trees, palms, vines, shrubs, grasses, and herbs) chosen for the appropriateness in a particular context and for their ability to provide multiple functions (see below) for each other. We accomplish this by assembling plants in groupings referred to as polycultures (see below) that mimic natural ecosystems.

In other words, by mimicking natural ecosystems in our design approach, we are lessening the need for human intervention while optimizing yields. This is one of the fundamental principles in permaculture.

A perennial polyculture is an arrangement of three or more species of plants – that live more than one season, often many – growing together. They are selected for maximum cooperation for mutual benefit.

Perennial food plants are high in proteins, fats and carbohydrates, are not destroyed by harvest, yield for multiple years and require no tilling. They provide many ecosystem services, including sequestration of carbon, stabilization of slopes, regeneration of soils; resistance to extreme weather, and resilience.

Perennial crops are long lived and require little maintenance. Indeed, no one waters, prunes, mows, weeds or fertilizes a forest. Ecosystems self-organize to provide these and other functions necessary for the entire community to thrive.

Natural forests are composed of multiple layers that are stacked vertically to allow for optimal forest functioning. These layers include: canopy trees, lower tree, shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground cover, and below ground plants. Other layers may include clumbers (grasses and sedges), climbers (vines, lianas and other creepers) and in warmer climates, several layers of palms. When a diversity of complimentary species are present, there is a greater potential for relationships between species, allowing for greater complexity, and hence, resiliency. In our cultivated ecosystems, we mimic this forest structure to achieve maximum benefit from our foodscapes.

When people speak of urban forests, they often refer to street or canopy trees. Yet, a healthy understory – plants that inhabits the space below the canopy – is essential to achieving maximum benefits from any foodscape. Benefits include:

  • building soil,
  • provide habitat for urban wildlife,
  • retaining moisture,
  • preventing erosion,
  • weed control,
  • mitigation of leaves or fruit fall,
  • increased carbon sequestration,
  • opportunities for further beautification and food production.

Indeed, research now shows that understory plantings significantly increase the survivability of trees in our urban forests. A healthy understory of plants builds living soil, retains soil moisture, feeds plants and minimizes opportunities for unwanted species (weeds) to overtake otherwise exposed ground. This of course minimizes maintenance costs and eliminates need for the use of costly inputs, such as damaging fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Appropriately assembled foodscapes function like a forest. But they do not necessarily have to look like forests, so long as we set the stage so that relationships form. Two concepts in particular are helpful in understanding foodscape assembly: multifunctionality and relative placement (see below).

Multifunctionality refers to the ability for a foodscape to address multiple ecosocial functions allowing for a more efficient use of space. Primary ecological functions include:

  • production of mulch (carbon);
  • regeneration of nutrients (nitrogen);
  • water retention; natural weed suppression;
  • natural pest control;
  • attraction of beneficial creatures (provision of food, water source, habitat);
  • mineral accumulation;
  • and a yield of food and useful materials.

In the design of polycultures there are two main principles related to multifunctionality that apply: (1) that each element performs more than one function so that multiple needs are addressed simultaneously, such as reducing erosion by stabilizing a slope and the production of food; and (2) redundancy, so that each important function is supported by more than one element; for example, a critical function such as erosion or flood control should be supported by two or more elements such as perennial buffers and stabilizing groundcovers.

Relative placement is the idea that design is not only about what is included in the foodscape but how it is placed in order to achieve maximum ecosystem functionality. Each element should have a positive and efficient interaction with the other, for instance a nitrogen fixing groundcover (i.e. clover) which also benefits from partial shade can be placed under a tree (i.e. apple) with a spreading canopy that requires significant nitrogen. Or, a grass that produces large amounts of biomass, is set near a young tree that needs that biomass in its early stages of growth.

Foodscapes serve multiple ecosocial functions in our urban ecology:

  • increase community resilience, by emphasizing primary production locally and regionally;
  • stimulate economic revitalization, by
    • creating opportunities for meaningful livelihoods (not just jobs) and
    • regenerative enterprise;
  • provides increased food/material security for residents;
  • sequester more carbon below ground and in plants than natural forests; and
  • inspiring healthy living, connect people with their food, and revive cultural practices around growing and preparing food.

Foodscapes can be a key piece to rebuilding resilient communities that are responsive to the basic needs of their inhabitants.