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A guide to edible urban landscapes

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Designing Urban Agriculture by April Phillips


April Phillips isn't just out to help you put together your community garden, she's out to save the planet... Or at least, our food system.

In Designing Urban Agriculture A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance and Management of Edible Landscapes (2013; Wiley; 288 pp.; $75), Phillips says that simply looking at a single site's edible productive potential is a missed opportunity towards fixing what she sees as a broken and unsustainable food system. Our current model is unhealthy, unjust, and won't be able to continue as it is past the point of peak oil. She wants designers to be change agents, advocating and working towards systemic change in the production of food.

A landscape architect by trade, Phillips decided to start a small garden at her home as a thrift measure at the onset of our current recession. That act opened up a whole new world for her, one that opened her eyes to both the positive and negative sides of contemporary food production. In fact, she goes so far as to declare that our food system is "broken" for a number of reasons including the extensive use if chemicals and the failure rate of family farms.

To remedy what she sees as a dire need for change, she goes to great lengths to conceptualize how our urban food system can be realigned for the better. The book takes into account not only the food production operations, but everything related to it, from infrastructure, distribution and processing facilities to permitting and policies that affect the type, location, and scale of urban agriculture.

Phillips has a somewhat Eckbo-sequel belief in the power (and responsibility) of the designer as an agent of change. And she maintains that the reason more local, small-scale, and sustainable operations are often less economically viable than their industrial farm counterparts is because the latter is propped up by the current subsidy system. Without subsidies (or perhaps with equal subsidies), these smaller operations may be more competitive in the community and the marketplace.

Strangely, however, someone buying the book with the intent of starting a small urban farm or community garden might not have all of the information they need to do so. While it will likely open their eyes to larger issues (for example, prohibitive zoning codes) they may have never considered, and it contains solid advice on topics like financing and long-term operations, it doesn't necessarily provide much guidance on digging in and actually cultivating crops, raising animals, or even selecting crops that are well-suited to your location.

That doesn't necessarily detract from the book's importance as a visionary text. In fact, it would probably be beyond the scope of the book to provide comprehensive information on, say, all potential crops for all local conditions across the country. What it does is give a big-picture framework of how your local operation might plug into larger systems and find ways of sustaining itself, while leaving the details for you to discover as you embark upon the processes Phillips proposes.