Smart Cities Are Forgetting Food

Smart Cities Are Forgetting Food

Smart cities use technology and data-driven solutions to make people’s lives better. But until recently, cities have failed to adopt this methodology for what is perhaps the most critical urban system: food. As urban agriculture builds momentum, now is the time for cities to embrace this young industry and foster urban food systems through a data-driven and “smart” approach.

Urban agriculture has the capacity to ameliorate many issues plaguing urban areas. It can contribute to green infrastructure efforts, create a food source that’s safeguarded against climate events and provide a variety of local jobs. But despite the potential of this nascent industry to improve the lives of city dwellers, urban agriculture is often left out of the Smart City discussions and policy decisions that have quickly gained popularity across the globe.

Nevertheless, the urban agriculture industry is growing rapidly as it tries to meet an ever-increasing demand for nutritious local produce. AgriFood Tech investment reached $10.1 billion in 2017, including $200 million in Series B funding for vertical farming company Plenty.

Let’s be clear: Urban agriculture is not the solution to our food system crisis. Other solutions are sorely needed as well, including ways of fostering stronger regional connections between farms and cities. Food waste is also a major issue that needs to be tackled. But urban agriculture is, and will continue to be, an essential component of how every country and city restructures its food system to make fresh food supplies more available, resilient and ecologically friendly.

Cities and Agriculture

Just like energy, transportation and internet access, the processes of food production and distribution are integral parts of the urban ecosystem. And like those other system components, agriculture should be supported through smart policies that are data-driven and context specific. The path forward for resilient cities and communities must include thoughtfully planned urban agriculture.

Some cities around the U.S. and abroad are beginning to implement policies to encourage the industry’s growth as a critical part of local and regional food systems.

In Atlanta, for example, a director of urban agriculture within the mayor’s Office of Resilience ensures that municipal support is consistently available to local farmers via the AgLanta digital resource hub, along with a wide range of other initiatives. Through the city’s “Grows-A-Lot” program, Atlanta residents and nonprofit organizations can secure renewable five-year leases to farm vacant city-owned property.

Many other cities have passed zoning ordinances and started programs to promote the expansion of urban agriculture. In Boston, Article 89 comprehensively addresses where different forms of urban farms should be permitted within the city. In Minneapolis, the Homegrown local food program brings municipal and community actors together to research and plan out future supportive policies. In Paris, a municipal initiative called ‘Parisculteurs’ aims to cover the city’s rooftops and walls with 100 hectares of green space by 2020, and to dedicate a third of that space towards food production. And in Singapore, developers are incentivized to include urban farms as part of green building requirements.

But these efforts are largely piecemeal. Few cities, if any, are using data-driven urban-agriculture planning and analysis to ensure future resilience in this burgeoning sector of municipal economies. By performing in-depth analysis on where the greatest vulnerabilities lie within their local food systems, cities can change what today is mostly a feel-good concept into a critical framework that can be scaled to transform local food production. Using data can help determine the best opportunities to bolster urban and peri-urban production to achieve goals such as food access or stormwater management.

The idea here is not to turn urban agriculture into a top-down model. The decentralized and diverse nature of urban farming models is a major contributing factor to the industry’s rapid pace of innovation and its ability to be a resilient source of food production. Rather, the idea is for cities and regions to understand where the greatest vulnerabilities and opportunities lie within their local food systems, and then to plan out and provide support to targeted areas of the food economy, perhaps through local food distribution hubs and farming incubators for entrepreneurs and startups.

Advances in urban agriculture planning are happening — slowly. Cities and communities are starting to work together across sectors and silos to recognize and promote agriculture’s role as an integral component of smart, resilient cities. But there is plenty of work to be done.

Taking the Next Step

Now, like passionate entrepreneurs first entering the food- system space, many cities have great intentions for urban agriculture. Unfortunately, many cities also lack the capacity and technical knowledge to understand where the local food system should be strengthened to most effectively make it smarter and more resilient against environmental, social and economic stressors.

For cities to become smart in this sector, they no longer need to recognize the many benefits of urban agriculture — that has already happened throughout mayoral administrations, academic halls and even more recently in Congress. The time for putting energy into persuasion is over.

For our part, at Agritecture we have designed a new service called Urban Agriculture Scenario Analysis to assist cities in analyzing and strengthening their local food capabilities. Using site-specific and scale-specific data and modeling, Scenario Analysis can transform a city’s piecemeal farming community into a diversified urban agriculture economy.

The good news: There is a wealth of burgeoning technology around urban and peri-urban food production and distribution. Many urban farms are already “smart,” using sensors and data to tailor everything from lighting to crop nutrition. This is true in large farms such as AeroFarms, which dominates an entire converted warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, and also in smaller farms like Farm.One, which takes advantage of underutilized basement space in Manhattan to cultivate rare specialty crops for the city’s restaurants.

But if cities are going to be successful in integrating advances in food system technology into their wider metropolitan planning efforts, they must apply a data-driven methodology similar to the approach that many urban farmers are taking to more effectively grow crops.

A Smart City revolution is currently sweeping the world. Although we remain in the early stages, this revolution will soon transform the way that cities support the most essential components of urban life. To ensure that food isn’t left out of the equation, cities must start supporting urban agriculture in targeted ways that work with the urban agriculture industry to reconstruct our food production and distribution systems into smarter, more localized and more resilient networks.

Market System: The Case of Early New York

Market System: The Case of Early New York

Petitioned in 1786 by prominent residents of New York City’s far-flung Catharine Street neighborhood, the city’s legislative body, known then as the Common Council, approved the building of Catharine Market.

As was customary, the interested parties furnished the grounds and construction costs. In subsequent decades, local and municipal funds were used to expand the facilities. This blend of local initiative and government response created a successful public market to serve as a community anchor and supply the provisioning needs of a working-class district.

By the late 1810s, Catharine Market — located in lower Manhattan, east of where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands — became one of New York’s most abundant fresh food emporia. Its 47 butchers, 25-plus fishmongers, more than 61 regular farmers and dozens of hucksters and informal vendors, as well as the many grocers who settled nearby, supplied an estimated 25,000 people. Depending on the season and day of the week, 2,000 to 5,000 shoppers visited each day.

Catharine Market was part of a tightly regulated system, which mandated that fresh food — meat in particular — could be sold only at municipally managed and owned marketplaces. As the population exploded from 30,000 to 160,000 between 1790 and 1825, the city responded by expanding the system from six to 11 neighborhood markets.

The market infrastructure of New York in the Early Republic was a smart system in spatial terms: Its facilities reached all areas, ensuring access to supplies for all residents. No matter where one lived a market could be found within a 10-minute walk. This was a critical factor in managing an effective food distribution system when New Yorkers, lacking refrigeration, had to shop as often as twice per week in the winter and up to six times per week in the abundant summer months.

Negotiations between vendors, customers and municipal officials ensured that the markets’ capacity and volume of trade closely corresponded with their neighborhoods’ population size, indicating a match between supply and demand. Overall, the Early Republican model of public markets responded to local demands about opening new markets or upgrading existing ones, and it cost little. Through its collection of fees — excise taxes at the beginning and rents later — the system largely paid for itself.


Between 1790 and 1825, as the population of Lower Manhattan grew, the public markets expanded — both in size and location — to meet the needs of New York residents. No matter where one lived a market could be found within a 10-minute walk, a critical factor in managing an effective food distribution system in the burgeoning urban center.

Critically, the market system provided the city’s main line of defense for food quality. It safeguarded the wholesomeness of supplies by penalizing those who sold decaying and spoiled provisions, while also instituting standards of cleanliness in the daily conditions and practice of food sales. For example, market clerks appointed by the city government enforced quality standards and fair trade practices at each location. Given their large assembly of independent vendors, public markets enabled customers to comparison-shop for price and quality. The vendors also exerted peer pressure, working with market clerks to punish violators of market laws and to uphold their market’s reputation. Moreover, the market butchers, the city’s most elite food purveyors, were artisan tradesmen who handled their vital, perishable goods with skill and care, ensuring high-quality products. Finally, given strict licensing policies and customers’ frequent purchases, neighborhood markets fostered repeated transactions and nurtured trust between buyers and sellers.

Beyond protecting public health, the system also set a baseline of equal access to food. Whether living in wealthier central districts or poorer outlying ones, New Yorkers provisioned their households under similar institutional settings. This continued even as the city grew. Developing a new neighborhood depended on extending this municipal service, funded in part from revenues earned at larger, centrally located markets.

The system was also efficient in not wasting supplies. Markets worked six days a week, from sunrise until early afternoon, except for Saturdays when they stayed open until late evening. On Sundays, only the fish stalls were open. Before refrigeration, the main constraint was perishability, so vendors — including butchers, hucksters and fishmongers who attended the markets daily, and regional farmers from rural New York and New Jersey who came less regularly — brought only as much merchandise as they expected to sell the same day.

Choice sales occurred early in the morning. By 10 a.m., the main business of the market was done. Then poor customers came to purchase cheaper, less desirable goods. At noon, secondary traders were allowed to join in, picking up market leftovers and peddling them at discounted prices after market hours and across the neighboring streets. Waste and byproducts from the key trade of butchering were recycled by an urban economy of noxious trades plied by tanneries and makers of soap, tallow and glue.

As with smart systems today, the success of the market system of early New York depended on the flow of information between key groups. The crux of the matter was the democratic process of petitioning and negotiation. All participants — residents, vendors, city officials — had to continuously (re)negotiate the location, size, layout, building material, basic rules and daily practice of the public markets. The process facilitated communication and coordination between neighborhood-based interests and citywide policies. Despite the messy politics (thanks to fragmented and competing interests), the system worked, because it was participatory, decentralized and coordinated to deliver workable compromises for everyone concerned.

For the model to continue to work, the Common Council had to adhere to its basic principles: that access to food was a public good, that fresh provisions should be sold at publicly managed markets instead of unregulated private shops, and that market facilities should be opened and expanded in response to local needs. Delays in infrastructural investments could undermine the welfare of customers and vendors, potentially jeopardizing the model’s integrity.

Indeed, from the 1830s, the system showed signs of malfunction. Demographic growth, a rising free-market ideology and weakened municipal commitment resulted in inadequate infrastructural expansion. First, unlicensed food sales outside of the municipal markets by street vendors and in private shops increased, chipping away from public market trade. As municipal spending priorities shifted, market construction came to a halt by 1837, leaving urbanizing northern districts without market facilities. In 1843, the city deregulated the food economy, allowing retailers to set up shops anywhere and without much regulatory oversight.

By mid-century, New York’s once-famous public markets were in tatters. Urbanization posed an enormous challenge — the population had skyrocketed to 500,000 by 1850. Yet instead of modernizing the market system, city officials turned to private enterprise to organize food access. Existing markets survived, but the earlier model of public market provisioning disintegrated.

In our own age of heightened debate about the role of government and private enterprise, it is worth recalling that American cities, New York especially, once depended on public market systems to feed their populations. By bringing the trade of life’s necessities under tight municipal regulation and oversight, and balancing the interests of customers and vendors, early New York managed a smart and successful market system that sustained the common good of access to food to all residents.

The Manhattan Refrigeration Company towers over the Gansevoort Market. The company, incorporated in 1894, operated nine cold storage warehouses. By 1906, a network of underground pipes connected the chilled warehouses, providing storage for shipments of perishable food that arrived on the steamers docked at the Chelsea and Gansevoort Piers nearby. “Mechanical refrigeration” was a new invention then. It situated the market as an area for food distribution–related businesses.

Now known as the Gansevoort Market Historic District, this space in today’s Meatpacking District was a food market throughout the 19th century. Near the Hudson River commercial waterfront, Gansevoort Market was ideally situated to transfer meat, dairy and produce from ships to the market and beyond. After the Civil War, the market space expanded and included Skelly & Fogarty’s Centennial Brewery on West 14th Street.

Buyers and sellers of regional produce and dairy also transacted their business there. In 1893, the New York Biscuit Company, which became Nabisco, added to the food-related business that crowded around the market space. You can imagine the combined aromas of manure and biscuits filling the streets.

The Gansevoort Market (1880 to 1928) has always been a mixed-use space, as you can see from this photograph taken in 1900. Low Italianate structures exist next to tall warehouses. Some of the metal canopies built for the transfer of meat into those warehouses still exist, as does some Belgian block paving. The Hudson River Railroad freight yards nearby provided transit for meat and other food items uptown and beyond Manhattan. Beginning in 1869, Cornelius Vanderbilt owned the rail line, along with the New York Central, and expanded the rail network to reach meatpackers in Chicago.

By 1880, other food markets in New York had fallen into disrepair, and vendors filling the streets had become a nuisance to pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. The city decided to create a new market space in the Gansevoort neighborhood to aggregate the commerce of farmers, buyers and sellers into one space. Originally developed for the sale of fruits and vegetables, Gansevoort eventually became the center of the meat market.

Horses transported most of the food from the piers and through the market. Buyers brought their wagons into the market, bringing filth and congestion with them. By 1900, almost 170,000 horses filled Manhattan’s streets. Over 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking companies filled the Gansevoort Market neighborhood, adding to the stench and manure.

Food for Thought: Smart City Tools, Then and Now

Food for Thought: Smart City Tools, Then and Now

Food technology — gizmos such as blockchain, sensors, taste algorithms, genomic tracking — is a hot topic these days, generously funded by venture capitalists. But food technology has been around for decades. Can openers, anyone?


No one would dispute that a GPS tracker is sexier than a simple can opener. But those early inventors deserve credit for laying the foundation for today’s innovations. After all, it took almost 50 years after the can was invented before someone made an opener for it. Our everyday can opener — the rotating serrated-wheel device — first appeared in 1870, and it’s still in everyone’s kitchen drawer, nearly 150 years later.

Food storage technology developed from clay amphorae and wooden barrels to polyethylene drums with lever-lock rings for transporting food commodities such as cooking oil. Today, wooden barrels appeal to artisan fermenters and brewers who embrace the flavor-enhancing properties of wood. Sacks and bags continue to transport our food from the grocery store to our house or from the coffee plantation in Kenya to our roaster in Brooklyn. Some are still made of cloth, paper and hemp, while others are big, woven-plastic buffle sacks that optimize space in container ships.

Weights and measures are the quants of food markets. Beginning as bowls and rocks in the Indus River Valley, weighing scales used balance mechanisms, such as this early 19th century balance scale, until the digital age arrived in the early 1980s. Not quite the graceful scales of the past, these digital scales are more sensitive and adapt to multiple units of measure.

Maintaining its utility throughout the ages is the meat hook, the hand tool for butchers and meat processors. The only difference between this 19th century hook and today’s version is the handle: one is wood and the other plastic. Some technology endures the test of time.

Really, Really Smart Cities

Really, Really Smart Cities

At Food+City, we think a lot about the relationship between food and our cities. Now, through the artistry of Josh Cochran, we can look at how food might fit into future urban landscapes and what urban designers now call Smart Cities. We contacted three really, really smart people for their visions of what our food-wise city might look like in the future.


The president of the Appalachian Mountain Club brought his view of how plants, agriculture and the natural environment could mingle in a city. He envisioned new uses for telephone pole infrastructure as aeroponic poles, vertical gardens to be found every few feet. And he sees car-oriented technology reapplied to food, including parking lot–based planters powered by hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that plug in during working hours; and a just-in-time composting “uber” with sensors that indicate when the bin is full and trigger a self-driving composting barge to come pick it up.


As director of the GustoLab Food Studies Program in Rome, Massari sees an end to restaurants as we know them but no lack of socializing over food. People will prepare food and eat on the go in their driverless cars; and solar-powered food trucks will grow their own ingredients in mobile gardens. City squares and green spaces — some on rooftops — will become open-air gyms and community gardens. And neighborhoods will be equipped with digital vending machines that sell fruit, vegetables, milk and other fresh products. In Massari’s future, every flower bed and traffic barrier will become agricultural land. Through an app, all citizens will be able to water plants and take care of these areas. Urban gardens and agricultural areas will be monitored using Information Communication Technologies (ICT) and digital devices. And perhaps most notably, food waste will disappear: All leftover food from supermarkets, kitchens, industries or urban agriculture will be gathered by food collection apps (which will direct food to people who need it) or it will be sold in supermarkets featuring soon-to-expire foods sold at a discount.


An urban planner who works with cities as centers of innovation and food distribution, Zapalac sees kitchens as hubs of information that feed individual food supply chains. The details of our kitchen inventories will be available on our smart devices, so we avoid buying duplicate bottles of mustard — but also so that grocery delivery services can be truly automated. Along the way, recycling and compostable waste collection will be complementary services to grocery delivery: Containers will be reused rather than recycled (think the return of the milkman), and our food scraps will become the compost feeding the produce that will eventually become our next great meal. Thinking more broadly, in neighborhoods once recognized as food deserts, an expanding network of community foodscapes will combine concepts from the edible education movement with innovative forms of job training — building capacity by strengthening the soil and enhancing the beauty of once depleted communities. These places will also function as stages and urban “dining rooms,” providing venues where local culture and local identity can be shared and celebrated.