Interview with April Philips, FASLA
Spring seems like a good time to visit the subject of landscape architects and urban agriculture, and April Philips, FASLA, has put her time and passion to work in this rapidly emerging field that supports the creation of more sustainable cities and communities. In addition to her practice, April has written a book on the subject titled: Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance, and Management of Edible Landscapes, published by John Wiley & Sons. After reading her interview in The Huffington Post last July—“The Urban Jungle: April Philips Has a Concrete Plan for Tasty City Landscapes”— I thought that SDD members would appreciate some follow up.
–Lisa Cowan, ASLA, SDD PPN Co-Chair
From the research for your book, Designing Urban Agriculture, and your on-going work in designing and facilitating urban agriculture projects, have you learned anything that surprised or challenged you as a landscape architect?
Simply put, food can become a platform from which we address other important elements of community, ecology, and livability, including the physical, social, economic, cultural, and environmental health of the city. Food is the gateway to the stakeholder conversations between city, community, and project developer or funder. It is also surprising how many edible projects and ideas are out there to learn from so there is still tremendous interest in delving deeper into this complex subject.
On the challenging side, successful urban agricultural landscapes benefit greatly from a systems thinking approach and an integrated design process; but since systems can transcend a property boundary sometimes, they are hard to connect in a dynamic way and most processes for permits and approvals are linear rather than cyclic or holistic in nature. We need more evolution in how these landscapes are processed and built. There are still many places where zoning and ordinances are stopping edible projects from happening or limiting their ability to transform the cityscape in a bigger and more meaningful way.
Although this was not covered in your book, a recent LAM article (“The Food Diamond: Baseball Goes Salad Green,” by Tim Newcomb, October 2013) featured the first edible garden located within a Major League Baseball stadium—the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park. Talk about non-conventional! We would like to hear your thoughts on that project and other projects that you know of that pushed the envelope.
Great project! And what a great way to get major educational outreach in a fun setting on the benefits of this type of garden to both people who come to the ballpark and as a school learning garden in the down season.
Another urban agricultural event I recently participated in was an “Eat Your Sidewalk Showdown” held in San Francisco. The day-long event was broken into three parts: Forage, Cook, and Discuss. Led by Iain Kerr of Spurse, the group of foragers were tasked with finding ingredients in the surrounding city neighborhood to add to the fresh ingredients for the cook-off challenge later in the day. Spurse calls this the “MacGyver the World” mentality of taking nothing at face value. The experience was definitely enlightening and what at first seemed almost impossible—how could anything other than dandelions be found?—turned into a unique change of perspective on how a person could actually live off the land even in an urban forest when you discover that nature is urban. The simple act of looking for food in the city makes you look at the city differently and feel like you are a natural part of the city’s systems just like the food you find on your journey. It was a mind blowing, visceral experience to feel like I was actually a part of the ecosystem of the city. The city is indeed a complex ecosystem.
Another project that is pushing the envelope is the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, which is a permaculture-based community project on seven acres of land that combines aspects of native habitat rehabilitation with edible forest gardening.
Do you have any advice for emerging professionals interested in working on urban agriculture projects?
First, you have to be able to know what you are talking about, so start small and plant an herb garden or edible patch that you can eat from to explore how to grow and eat your own food. This provides personal perspective when working with communities. Volunteer at a local community garden. Help a local school grow a food garden or a community start up a food share garden. Find out if there are local farm to table events nearby and network like crazy to see what is out there or if there are “idea seeds” to help sow. Plant edibles in your next streetscape design or in your own front yard. Try to use food as the platform to address design issues in your next urban project. Begin to utilize a systems thinking approach in all your work but especially in designing urban agricultural landscapes and you will be adding to the momentum towards a new, more integrative city model. Decide that you too can invite food back into your own city or town and forge a path towards creating healthier communities and a healthier environment. Think creatively and outside the box about cultivating this intersection of ecology, design, and community. And don’t forget to take time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
April Philips, FASLA, is a landscape architect, artist, lecturer, and author. She is founder of April Philips Design Works, an award winning landscape architecture and planning firm whose work focuses on a fusion of nature, art, and technology. With deep roots in sustainability and a regenerative landscape ideology, the APDW studio is a strong proponent of systems thinking and an integrated design approach. Through her New Orleans heritage and passion for all things spicy, April lectures nationally while writing articles on promoting a more sustainable planet and the link between sustainable development and climate change.
April was one of the founder’s within ASLA of The Sustainable Sites Initiative and provided key input to ASLA’s Designing Our Future’s Sustainable Landscapes animation series for The Edible City. Her book Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance and Management of Edible Landscapes was recently published by John Wiley & Sons. She serves as Trustee of the Northern California Chapter of ASLA and was the founder of the Sustainable Design & Development PPN.
For those looking for an educational opportunity for this summer, April will be a guest speaker for Urban Agriculture and the Form of the City, a 2014 Summer Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.