Edible cities: Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar on post-pandemic public spaces and urban agriculture

What would our cities look like if agriculture was systematically integrated into the urban fabric?


Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar thinks about how we could grow more food within  cities — how agriculture should be a part of contemporary urban infrastructure. Sure, that means things like more community gardens where people can grow their own food. But even the practice of community gardens needs significant expansion and change.

“At this point, most (community gardening) is often a very privileged activity, or it’s on a very small scale,” says Lickwar, who is on the faculty the University of Texas School of Architecture. “But gardens have to be seen as a right. They have to be available to many people, and scaled differently to meet the needs of communities across demographics.”

In her recent book “Farmscape: The Design of Productive Landscapes,” co-authored with Roxi Thoren, Lickwar surveys agriculture in landscape architecture throughout history. The book published shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown and upended the food chain supply. Some foodstuffs were in short supply at grocery stores while others that were normally shipped to restaurants or schools went to waste.

Big industrial agriculture has had a big influence on how we understand and relate to plants that we eat, Lickwar says. Large scale monoculture is ultimately limited and inflexible. But what would our cities look like if agriculture was systematically integrated into the urban fabric, understood as an essential component of urban life?

“Agriculture doesn’t have to mean a singular use for a piece of land. What about having a campus landscape that also produces crops? What about a cultural landscape with an agricultural overlay?” she says. “We have to think of urban agriculture as necessary infrastructure across a city. Urban planning needs to have an agriculture overlay from the beginning of the process.”

Recently Lickwar was awarded the Rome Prize, and this September she and her family will embark for a year at American Academy in Rome where she’ll study the lost practices of traditional Italian agroecology and will speculate on how their recovery can inspire novel hybrid forms of urban agriculture in Rome, and elsewhere.

Through her professional practice FORGE Landscape Architecture, Lickwar has designed civic landscape projects that fuse aesthetics and ecology including the National World War I Memorial, the Newport Beach Civic Center Park, the Glenstone Museum, and the National September 11 Memorial in New York.

Sightlines: Tell us about what kind of public spaces we should be designing for after COVID-19?

Phoebe Lickwar: The past year has made it very clear how significant public spaces are to building healthy and equitable cities. The pandemic has exacerbated all of the existing structural inequalities in our society and made painfully obvious the uneven distribution of resources, including the uneven access to public space. We need to ensure that all communities have the same level of access to restorative outdoor spaces and we need to understand this as a matter of public health. Investing in public urban landscapes and in urban landscape systems is a prerequisite for building healthy communities.

More than ever, we are all needing connection, to each other and to the living organisms with whom we share the planet. The places we seek out are life sustaining, but we cannot find them in our cities. Our urban landscapes are impoverished. Our urban soils are degraded, often incapable of supporting life. Our waters are polluted. We are at war with the plants who thrive in such conditions and attempt to eradicate them with poisons in the name of biodiversity. The connection between planetary health and human health has never been more evident. The more we degrade our environments, the more we sever connections between ourselves and others, the more our health will suffer.

Phoebe Lickwar
Phoebe Lickwar

As much as possible, we need to design public spaces that are regenerative, meaning public spaces that are characterized by a capacity for the renewal and growth of living systems. Regenerative spaces are dynamic, adaptable, diverse, and multifunctional. Regenerative spaces facilitate symbiotic relationships and equitable social structures. Regenerative spaces depend upon a relational ethic, where mutually beneficial partnerships are cultivated over time.

S: What do you wish we already had in place in our city before COVID-19?

PL: Two things were really magnified for me during the pandemic — the vulnerability of our food system and the critical significance of schools. The pandemic revealed a lack of resilience and adaptability in these areas, and when systems failed, the consequences proved to be devastating in a multiplicity of ways.

Regarding the food supply, we need to get serious about developing an urban agriculture that is equitable and capable of provisioning the city, not on its own, but in conjunction with other forms of rural agriculture. This is an idea I’ve been exploring in my own research and practice, looking at agroecological systems that have persisted for centuries to understand how we might adapt regenerative practices to build an urban agriculture that is multifunctional and sustaining. I don’t think we realize how deeply the model of mechanized monocultural agriculture has shape our ideas about landscapes, and even more broadly, about the way we design and manage vegetated urban spaces. I’m interested in deconstructing this inheritance and developing an alternative vision for urban landscapes that will feed us both literally and figuratively.

Phoebe Lickwar

Regarding schools, one of the things I wish we had in place before COVID was the ability to pivot to outdoor learning environments to keep schools open and to keep parents working. Flexible outdoor spaces designed to accommodate learning could have greatly eased the limitations on educational institutions. The pressure on parents this past year has been enormous with school closures. Many parents, primarily women, left the workforce. I heard about communities that were able to move to outdoor learning but our city’s schools did not have this kind of flexibility. The outdoor spaces of schools, and even universities, were underutilized as learning environments despite their capacity to keep schools open and parents working. I see this equally as a failure of investment and a failure of imagination.

S: How do you prioritize users’ voices when designing these spaces?

PL: Involving users in the design process early and often is important but I’m equally interested in how users shape urban landscapes over time — how designers can invite participation in the cultivation of an urban landscape over time. If we truly wish to create constituents who steward urban spaces, we need to shift from a design/build mentality, where public participation is included but essentially external to the process of design and construction, to a collaborate/cultivate mentality, where the participation of people is invited and anticipated over the long-term, opening up the potential for users to work more meaningfully as collaborators and ultimately stewards.

Phoebe Lickwar
For the Domaine Chaumont-sur-Loire International Garden Festival in France, Phoebe Lickwar designed a series of wooden gangways that wound through a dense planting of 400 trees and intersected with circular series of gravel paths.

S: How do we plan public places to be responsive to future cultural, political, and health changes?

PL: That is a big question. In so many ways we are recognizing that change is inevitable and happening at an accelerated rate. It’s hard to predict what the future will hold and yet there are certain changes we can already anticipate, for instance the effects of the climate crisis we are seeing now. Rather than a technological, physical, or material change in how we build public places, I believe we need a fundamental philosophical shift in how we conceive of public places. We need to understand public space, and its regenerative potential, as absolutely critical to planetary health. We need to relinquish the anthropocentric perspective and discover what it means to collaborate with other living beings, especially plants. And we need to devote significant resources to actively shape the physical environment season by season, year by year.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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