Designing Urban Food Systems in Shanghai

Designing Urban Food Systems in Shanghai

I've joined the Media Lab's Changing Places group for a week in China to design the future of sustainable cities in Shanghai.

China presents enormous challenges and huge opportunities, all at a dizzying scale. 300 million Chinese, the population of the entire United States, will move to urban areas over the next 20 years. 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities are in China. Only 1% of China's 600 million urban residents have access to clean air, as measured by EU standards. Anyone serious about climate change, human welfare, and other challenges of the 21st century must consider China's role.

We've joined up with students from Aalto University in Finland and Tongji University in Shanghai. It's sort of like the Wizarding Cup in Harry Potter, with three nations of mages converging to meet and work together. Our Powerpoint slidedecks paint similar utopian cityscapes comprised of mixed use city blocks, local food production, and chic cyclists. We're moderating these dreams with what we learn of Shanghainese culture and the built environment already in place.

Our groups are broken into five areas of urban sustainability:

  • Food systems and urban farming
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Housing and buildings
  • Macro-scale urban planning

Our worksite is a small banana-shaped island in the Huangpu River, separated from the rest of the city by a canal. It's essentially a 3.5 kilometer brownfield, full of former and current industrial sites. A shipyard occupies much of the land. Any food we grow here is going to require imported topsoil or aeroponically-delivered mist.

The government has requested that we propose new designs for the island, and is in the process of constructing a subway stop to better connect it with the rest of the city. The subway stop represents new energy, and likely a sharp spike in traffic and land values.

We're struggling to determine how seriously our proposals will be taken, as well as the degree of freedom we can exert in redesigning the island. It's certainly not a blank slate, but at the same time, as many as 50% of the existing structures could be torn down to make better use of the land. The island is open for new urban experiments, and the government seems receptive in that these innovations could attract further investment and development to the somewhat dreary existing landscape. Our professor, Kent Larson, is encouraging us to think big, and establish dramatically progressive goals. Perhaps the island will be made car-free, or produce 50% of its food locally, or go completely carbon neutral.

I've spent the semester in the urban food systems group. It's an opportunity to work in several areas of passion, from nutrition to local food to city environments. Our group has investigated a variety of ideas, including aeroponic vertical farming systems, a social network and identity campaign to unite the nascent class of urban farmers, and a buy-one, give-one urban farming kit subsidizing agriculture in informal settlements. But we're eager to design a realistic urban food system that will scale, and not remain confined to designers' concept videos.

In true Media Lab spirit, my group is comprised of an extremely interdisciplinary group of designers, venture capitalists, artists, and community organizers. Each of us brings unique skillsets and experience, and also ambitions. Fortunately, we've combined enthusiasm with agility, and not become too married to any one proposal, because the local situation is quite different than the LEED-certified condo buildings many popular urban farm concepts take as a prerequisite. Since the beginning of the semester, we've kept an eye on those complicating human factors like income, cultural norms, and reaching meaningful scale.