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.

Will Trucks Ever Vanish? The Future of Transportation

Will Trucks Ever Vanish? The Future of Transportation

While trains, trucks and ships continue the global movement of our food in what is now a decades-old system, the evolution of that last mile to our front door is vaulting forward. Here are a few innovations that might become old hat within the next few years.

Foodie Robots

Don’t be surprised when you begin to notice your sidewalk cluttered with electronics instead of people. DoorDash, an on-demand food delivery service based in San Francisco, is testing out robots as an addition to its food-delivery workforce. [Read more about DoorDash in our story, “Smarter TV Dinners.”] With pilot programs that began in Redwood City in 2017, the self-driving robots deliver goods to customers within a two-mile radius. The futuristic helpers come from Starship Technologies and look like small refrigerators on wheels. The self-guided machines use nine cameras and sound waves to create an imaginary bubble around them, which allows them to go around objects or make a full stop. It’s not all rose-colored glasses, though, as cities like San Francisco attempt to enact restrictions limiting these pesky bots.

Edible Drones

The future of delivery, according to everyone, is drones. But that reality — drones dropping boxes out of the air — is a long way off, despite stunts pulled off by Google and Amazon. However, two designs are delivering food in meaningful ways. Windhorse Aerospace has developed a one-use drone, nicknamed Pouncer, to bring food and other supplies to disaster zones. The device, made of lightweight plywood that can be used for firewood post-delivery, incorporates meals wrapped in thin plastic that could be reused in disaster shelters once the meals are finished. According to founder Nigel Gifford (above), the drone will feed about 100 people for one day. Inedible components, such as the electronics, are being kept to a minimum. One day, Gifford’s crafty engineers could wrap those components in bouillon cubes. Sounds delicious, right?

Another forward-thinking drone test is happening in our national parks. The pilot program is aimed at rescuing prairie dogs. The cute rodents have been hit by a disease that, if left untreated, could spell disaster for their primary predator, the black-footed ferret, an animal on the brink of extinction. This is where the drones come in: They’re dropping peanut-butter pellets — the size of blueberries — laced with vaccine for the sick prairie dogs on the ground. The beauty of the drones in both examples is the distance they can cover and their ability to serve hard-to-reach spots.

Autonomous Pizza

For six weeks in late 2017, Ford partnered with Domino’s to deliver pizzas to randomly selected customers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, via its Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle. Customers who agreed to be a part of the test could track their pizza on the Domino’s delivery app, receiving text messages as the car approached. When it arrived, customers received a text with a unique code to unlock the heating compartment inside the vehicle and retrieve their pizza. Ford’s test cars use lidar, a method for measuring distance to a target using pulsed laser light detected by both radar and camera sensors. While the test did include an engineer behind the wheel, the windows were blacked out so there was no interaction. Despite these depersonalization measures, the team found people wanted to interact with the car, even saying hello to it and waving goodbye. As the second-most-profitable pizza company in the world, behind Pizza Hut, Domino’s is paying close attention to what role self-driving vehicles may play in the future. While Ford won’t begin building its self-driving vehicles until 2021, you can already order a pie from Domino’s simply by tweeting the pizza emoji to your local franchise. [Read more about the self-driving Domino’s vehicles in MIT’s Technology Review.]

Underground Delivery

In the distant future we may see the return of pneumatic tubes making their way back into the world as we know it. Several years ago, Amazon filed for a patent for a dedicated system of underground tunnels that could bring packages closer to home — a system that “may avoid congestion experienced by traditional transportation networks.” Late in 2016, the patent was awarded. Other companies are tinkering with similar ideas: Elon Musk is developing technology to bore tunnels below street level in Los Angeles, and Mole Solutions Ltd, an English company, has tested similar systems with government funding. But there’s another more obvious use for our underground spaces, and that’s for our salad bowl. So far, we’ve got greens growing inside giant warehouses, in shipping containers and on rooftops, and it won’t be long before we see hydroponic cells — microfarms, if you will — cropping up underground. When the lettuce is ready for harvest, it can be delivered quickly to surrounding areas, keeping the carbon footprint as tiny as a microgreen.

Feeding Smart Cities

Feeding Smart Cities

With more and more talk about tech-powered smart cities, what are we doing to ensure innovative food logistics are part of the conversation?

When William McKinley became president in 1897, he enacted protectionist legislation and began what could be called a “buy local” campaign. In the same year, a British writer known for books about fly fishing wrote “War, Famine and our Food Supply,” fraught with concern about England’s ability to feed itself. The author, Robert Bright Marston, was beside himself, calling attention to England’s reliance on Russia and America for wheat and corn. Noting how Napoleon’s army starved on the steppes of Leningrad, Marston wanted another flavor of protectionism — the construction of grain storage buildings that would enable England to live for three months if a war cut the country off from its main sources of food supplies in Russia and the United States. He wanted to buy time for British farmers to build local capacity to make up for any missing imports from Russia and America.

Both McKinley and Marston knew that food was critical to the health of their nations, both to maintain social stability and to enable economic progress for all its citizens. Today, cities like New Orleans and New York City are keenly aware that disruptions  whether hurricanes or other breakdowns of the food supply chain  have received only improvised protections. And yet, with all the talk about “smart cities” enabled by technological advances, we hear very little discussion about innovative ways to secure food supplies against further disasters. Cities routinely talk about their three- to five-day food supplies, but those fall dramatically short of the luxurious three-month supply Marston was angling for.

“Today, cities like New Orleans and New York City are aware that disruptions  have received only improvised protections.”

Whether or not a city needs enough food for three days or three months  or three years  is a question that deserves more attention. Syrians are happy to have three minutes to consume a hastily provided meal from the World Food Program. While the media talks about casualties caused by weapons, little is said about deaths caused by famine and poison through the food systems in countries now at war. Few are aware of the destruction of livestock and cropland, or the contamination of soil and water, over the long duration of some modern conflicts.

The ripple effect of the disruptions caused by wars is difficult to imagine. The most obvious is the breakdown of the infrastructure, especially in the transportation of food. In Syria, even the perception of a disruption in the delivery of food causes an increase in black market activity, rising food prices and higher incidences of hoarding. Pita bread, animal fat and potatoes quickly disappear into personal storerooms, and Syrians freeze and dry food for longer-term storage. As it becomes more and more difficult to transport food to Syria, Syrians are looking for more localized food sources. As commodities like fuel and flour diminish, people worry about being able to produce flatbread, a simple yet essential element of their diet. With the breakdown of Syria’s government comes the loss of state control of bread prices and ingredient supplies.

“The ripple effect of the disruptions caused by wars is difficult to imagine.”

While not as long term and uncertain as the Syrian crisis, Hurricane Sandy brought home how food supply disruptions can upset the stomach of an entire region. In the aftermath of the hurricane in 2012, gasoline was scarce, transportation broke down and food logistics professionals struggled to keep New Yorkers supplied with pizza and bagels. New York wants more than three days of food to keep it afloat in the future  12 months would be nice. But who decides, and how do we accomplish what Marston argued for in 1897: at least enough food for a country to adapt and find new sources of sustenance? We need food to enter the conversations of urban designers, especially those engaged in creating those “smart” cities.

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.

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.