Supporting our Food Systems through the Built Environment.
I’m currently sitting in a concrete room, with a concrete floor, looking out over a series of brick walls against a jagged glass and metal skyline, and I’m grateful for the tiny sliver of tree-lined water that lends a degree of separation to the sheer solidity of this scene.
I’m not trapped or in prison, no, but I am in a workspace in a city, and as we gather in our ever-greater numbers in increasingly urban, hard-edged environments, and spend 90% of our time indoors, I can see how we often subconsciously crave refreshment and respite, only to find it in the natural connections that subtly surround us; the shapes, the treatments, the textures, the aromas, the organic inspiration that informs our most forward-thinking architects and planners who, in turn, nod the credit to the natural world.
But where can we cultivate them, these connections, among the profusion of rectangles and squares we box ourselves into? These fluid forms and sweet smells that restore our senses? These plants that replenish wildlife, and colours that lift our spirits? And why are they important?
Of course, they’ve always been there. Our beautiful planet has been here long before we came along, and will be here long after. Across the millennia, there has continually been a diverse and generous supply of materials, structures, shelter and sustenance that, bafflingly, maintains a complex and fragile ecosystem which supports the wellbeing of all living things. Just like that, and despite what seems to be our best efforts to the contrary.
Because, by now you know the drill. We bury things. We pave over things, and chop things down, and dig things up, and control things, and grow things only exactly where we want, using toxic chemicals and the like. We thought we knew better, and now we meet the consequences. As the ahead-of-her-time Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick used to say, “Mess with nature and it will mess right back”. Drastic environmental changes and questionable social wellbeing - it’s not entirely unfair to suggest that we played with it until we broke it, and now it’s breaking us.
‘Man versus nature’. ‘City versus country’. Examples of our everyday vernacular pitting nature as a thing apart. But we are nature. And nature doesn’t register city lines. So even in the built environment, as the cityscapes expand, there is still a wealth of opportunity, and even more of a responsibility, to make informed and balanced choices that benefit the entire living world.
Daunting as that may seem (disconnected as we are), thankfully, it’s testimony to nature’s indomitable endurance that there remain plenty of rich connections between each other and our environment which we can explore, and revive. Because no matter how many buildings we construct, or objects we design to fill them, or acres we cover to make way, our wellbeing is only as good as the planet’s, and our very best selves rigorously maintain a close link to that fundamental and magical space between food and nature, the inseparable duo that forms our life support systems on Earth.
So how can we preserve and protect our life systems through the built environment?
Making the connection
As we build our blocks against blue skies, and fill up our green fields, conversations in architecture and design can seem quite separate from the conversations on nature and food systems. But here’s the thing - food is nature, and nature is life, so the link between our food systems and our built environment is just as strong as to a nutritionist, or a doctor, or a farmer, or a chef. Because it’s not so much about the food we’re eating at the end of the process, but the way we use our natural resources relating to food production and our physical environment, that can make or break our food systems. And the quality and impact of our food systems is what affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, the plants we grow, the insects we protect, the animals we care for, and so on - all for our own survival, might I add.
Several years ago, I was working on Mattergarden, one of three feature concepts I had developed over the years for 100% Design at London Design Festival. The brief had been to create an installation design concept for the Design & Build section of the international design event which would inspire and encourage a shift in industry practice.
At this point, it’s important to note that the word ‘Eco’ was being dropped for the first time from the title of the section, and rightly so, as the move reflected the fact that such a value should be intrinsic to the decision-making process across the board - it should no longer be thought a separate consideration that could be put off for another time.
I felt that it would do little harm to connect this ‘new-found’ eco-awareness with the fact that such values have always been in existence, albeit temporarily mislaid. That our working with nature, rather than in spite of it, or against it, would be the focus of this feature. And that the required inclusion of an edible offering would allow for a powerful integrated concept around the omnipresence of nature, where all activity and visitors would feel at one with the surrounding environment; biophilic, botanical, or built.
And so ‘Mattergarden’ was born - an appreciation of the Earth’s permanence and a celebration of its generous supply of materials, its structure and sustenance; and the transient role of humankind as responsible alchemists and interpreters of its bounty.
As part of the early Mattergarden concept development, we planned a colourful and refreshing menu based on raw and organic matter such as fruits, vegetables, leaves, herbs and spices. The menu took the form of juices, fruit waters, and infusions, and it felt natural, colourful and clean. In essence, it would serve as a ‘mini-oasis’ for the show, emoting elemental energy and purity on a number of levels, and helping visitors feel inspired, revitalised and refreshed.
It was during the research stage for this particular section of the feature, that I made some fascinating discoveries about certain foodstuffs and their somewhat secret double lives as eco-friendly building materials, surprising us with an extra set of credentials within sustainable design.
So I pushed the concept a step further, and explored a blended experience where visitors would have the opportunity to enjoy the variety of fresh products, but made from organic ingredients that are used in architecture, interiors and construction. An experience where they would - literally - get a taste of raw design and building materials, and contemplate our timeless unity with nature.
One of my all-time favourite quotes is: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” as said by the remarkable environmentalist, John Muir. I use it a lot as it is always appropriate, and no less so here. Because once I started to look into the connections, they appeared everywhere.
I didn’t know then, for example, that coconut trees are referred to in Sanskrit as kalpa vriksha, ‘the tree which gives all that is necessary for living’. Because not only do parts of the coconut and its tree represent some of our increasingly go-to material choices for sustainable design - its husk and coir used for a variety of applications, including insulation, matting, flooring, cushioning and upholstery - but it bestows on us nutrient-rich milk and oil, meaty flesh, natural sugars and electrolyte-rich water.
I had long been aware of bamboo as an eco-friendly material for use in architecture and interiors, but was less aware of its status as an actual sustainability superhero, robust and rapidly self-renewable, with around seventy-five species, and constant new applications being found at pace. And I was not at all aware that its edible shoots are a source of protein and fibre, contain anti-inflammatory properties, and are a natural support to our immune systems. No wonder the architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously stated, “The best friend on earth of man is the tree. When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources on the earth.”
Wheatgrass shots had been on my - everyone’s - radar as an inescapable (and arguably over-hyped) health food. But with further research into its purported magical nutritional qualities yielding abundant usage of non-committal words like ‘may’ and ‘could’, I had to suspect a possible placebo effect at play in its ‘superfood’ status. But of course, wheat as a foodstuff is a long-term global staple, a cereal grain vastly produced as ingredients like flour, semolina, malt, bran and bulgur, for seemingly endless products including bread, pastries, cakes, biscuits and beer. So I was fascinated to find that wheatstraw, a byproduct of the industrial process which is generally burned, was instead being salvaged, to create a fully eco-friendly wall cladding solution for a vast range of commercial and residential interior projects. An alternative to the likes of OSB and MDF, but all-natural, with no toxic glues, and preventing the highly negative impact that the large-scale burning of wheatstraw as agricultural waste has on the environment, chiefly via destruction of land and harmful emissions.
And, last but not least, even all the little seeds and berries we cram into our juicers and blenders - strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, pomegranate, rich in vitamins and antioxidants — have had a starring role for centuries, as a rich source of colour, gathered and pounded as pigment for paint and textiles.
A default in every aspect of our environment, colour often goes unnoticed as a complementary backdrop to other more prominent focal points. Yet, in truth, itis in itself a myriadic entity that affects us in so many different ways.
As Albert Einstein said, ”Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” For it is our ancient quest for food that cultivated our early relationship with colour - the bright shades of berries catching our hungry eyes, the greenness of a lush landscape evoking a feeling of calm as we recognised fertile, and thus abundant, land.
So, as the Mattergarden concept developed further, I grasped the opportunity to explore natural colour and pigmentation by way of the byproducts from the juicing process, and planned an interactive task where visitors would create natural dyes from carrot peelings, onion skins, beetroot, red cabbage, kale, petals and leaves with spices, thereby turning the whole feature into a selfcontained mini-ecosystem.
Imagine if we could do that with our buildings and cities.
I’ve already mentioned just a few examples of food system connections sneaking into our surroundings when we least expect it. Sometimes visible enough, to the inquisitive eye, appearing as hard surfaces like building materials and walls, softer surfaces like textiles and furnishings, and decorative touchpoints like artworks and colour schemes. Or simply a presence we can feel but not quite pinpoint, infusing our everyday life with added energy, curiosity and creativity. Either way, they help fulfil the potential to solve a problem elsewhere in our ecosystem.
With the extent of ecological issues being rapidly uncovered daily, information is constantly being shared and updated. Every day, new solutions to refine and implement emerge - it can be a little overwhelming.
So, as ideas ebb and flow around us, and the opportunities and obstacles are defined and solutions tested and secured, I choose to anchor myself to the fundamental pursuit of creativity as the paramount solution.
As a creative futurist, I wholly advocate personal creativity and productivity as an unchanging, underlying solution to future woes both external and internal - for example, both our environmental issues and our battle with personal wellbeing have a lot to owe to our disconnection from our own individual thought processes and imaginations, and development of our personal skills.
Largely we design outcomes with commercial goals in mind - capitalism can be funny that way. In that context, material costs, land, labour, profit and timeframes all contribute to the decisions we make, and they out-manoeuvre any significant moves towards positive societal and environmental impact.
But what if we shifted the desired outcome to a healthy living planet, where all walks of life and their wellbeing were considered? What if we just did it, together, as one? Immediately, compelling opportunities for creative impact would emerge.
Choosing materials based on sustainability means understanding the whole product journey, from production to disposal, and if it is solving other problems along the way.
It’s not just down to specifiers - all forward-thinking suppliers now need to withstand hard questions, and should be reconsidering their product range and NPD if they cannot. Times are changing, and the culture emerging in our young people today (and plenty of older) will inform decisions imminently.
What is it made of, how is it held together, how has it been sealed, or treated? Are there toxins in production or disposal? What has been removed to make way for this material? What has it harmed? What measures are in place to mitigate that harm until a better solution is found? Where does it come from, and how is it packaged, and shipped? When we cut it, does toxic dust go in the air and into our lungs? Is it a natural product, is it renewable, is it a byproduct of another process? Is it making use of waste, recycling refuse destined for the dump? And where does it go at the end of its life - straight to landfill, without a thought? That’s a dealbreaker. Or is it biodegradable? If so, how long does it take, and where should it be sent? Or best of all, is it designed as circular; recyclable and reusable in other forms?
This may sound quite intense, but the scope of problem-solving materials innovation is irresistible to me. I think of it more as a compelling creative challenge with widespread rewards should we rise up to meet it.
Proximity to nature is essential to the entire change-making process, and authenticity is imperative for positive impact. No plastic grass, printed forests here.
A long-time favourite product of mine is the pioneering Organoid® range of decorative and acoustic panels, sheet material and textiles from the Alps. It combines alpine hay, bark, lichen and grasses, with edible herbs and plants like lavender, cocoa, peppermint and rose petals, to create a naturally aromatic, tactile and aesthetically pleasing environment that restores the connection with nature and boosts wellbeing - as you can imagine, a sensorial favourite for spas, hotels and relaxation spaces.
The rich illustration of outdoor life that this conjures up on the inside can be expanded on outside in much-needed support of biodiversity. Insect hotels, wildflower roofs, bird boxes and green walls. Urban rewilding, with wildflower landscaping, and educational interventions to spread the word.
We all know about the bee declines, and the catastrophic risks that poses. Some of the most famous roofs in Paris - Opéra Garnier, the Musée d’Orsay, the École Militaire, Notre Dame, the Grand Palais, and the Institut de France - are home to hundreds of beehives, as part of an ongoing, growing, city-wide beekeeping project started by just one man in the 1980s. The colonies are free to fly and feast on the many window boxes and floral displays found in Paris’ streets, their exposure to pesticides thus limited, and now they produce a sustainable ‘city honey’ which has become a prized piece of the Paris brand, loved by visitors and locals alike.
Just a handful of examples which inspire progressive plans that create the wildlife habitats and activity we need to pollinate the plants required for sustainable food systems.
We also have an outstanding opportunity to support the health of the environment and ourselves in the design of our own homes. To design our own hives of productivity based on sustainability and self-sufficiency, from growing food, to cooking and storing it.
‘She’s just talking about The Good Life!’ I can just about hear you all scoff, in reference to the 1970s British sitcom about a couple’s amusing attempts to escape the commercial grind in suburban London. Yet I look at the long, thin back garden of my in-laws, a similarly suburban semi - the like of which will never be built again - and I consider how it was scaled to accommodate growing food for a family of four. And I think it’s time to revisit this age-old idea for the umpteenth time, but this time, make it stick.
Losing this knowledge has not served us well. Let’s get it back.
Consider more fully the concepts for vertical planting, lighting, patio gardens, window ledges, balconies, tight spaces - and make them work, and make them mainstream, by making them inbuilt. Work with property developers and plan kitchens with preparing and preserving in mind; work with home economists and nutritionists, and plan simple culinary inspiration and batch-cooking around healthy and homegrown.
Outdoor spaces planned for simple kitchen gardens in collaboration with community growing, that is proactive, not reactive - with residents having to pull up patio slabs, or communities having to ‘reclaim’ an urban wasteland.
Create today’s personal production kitchens that tackle the skill-sapping, saltladen, plastic-wrapped convenience products and the food waste issues that arise from lack of time and basic cookery knowledge, and lead to climate emissions.
Time to Design the Future
The future of food is a global conversation fundamental to the urgent action required on climate change and the collapse of biodiversity.
A great deal is riding on our improved understanding and appreciation of the world of food: the experiences around it, the infrastructure that supports it, and the scale of its impact and reach. As with everything we touch in the world, we need to continually strike a careful balance and be adept and agile with our decision-making, to ensure responsible use and sustainable practices.
And we all have our role.
We’re an intelligent species, and we’re just passing through this amazing place, so we need to better understand and embrace our roles and individual skillsets as custodians of this planet, and as responsible interpreters of what it so generously provides.
And part of that is ensuring food conversations expand out beyond eating, and into sustainable development across a number of disciplines and applications, including the built environment - architecture, urban planning, property development, landscaping and more.
Addressing our ecosystem issues while enhancing our everyday life, innovations based on renewable resources and sustainable processes not only improve the wellbeing of human inhabitants, but ensure preservation of natural habitats and native species, in turn, underpinning the potential for positive change in our food systems overall.
As designers and specifiers we can make efforts to break the boundaries between industrial and environmental by choosing to learn from and work with nature by default. With the aim that, by being respectful of the supply and use of these remarkable resources, these generous assets to our existence, we can be just as beneficial to the earth as it is to us.
Because - seriously. If we focus on nature once and for all, and do it together, what a sensorial feast of solutions awaits.