Design competition for urban farming sheds light on food security gaps

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Events like Re-Terra, staffed by personable fresh graduates in the creative fields, can help deepen conversations in youth circles. Photo courtesy of RE-TERRA

A snapshot of the food supply in National Capital Region during the first lockdowns showed that while rice and pork were in steady supply (and surplus, even), vegetables and fruits were 92.2% and 59.8% short of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute-prescribed proportions on the plate, according to research by Anton Simon M. Palo, Mercedita A. Rosetes, and Donna P. Cariño, or the Foodlink Advocacy Co-operative.

This finding is part of something that the energetic newcomer Brooklyn Industries could help to address with its architectural design competition for food security interventions, Re-Terra.

On a cool Monday afternoon at the Pasig Rainforest Park, Brooklyn Industries’ resident architect, Kathleen Encorporado, shared the competition’s mission to transform Metro Manila into a food-producing metropolis, as a formidable panel of judges from the academe, the Department of Agriculture’s assistant secretary for strategic communications Noel Reyes, Pasig City mayor Vico Sotto and the actor James Reid looked on. A linking of academe, local government, and industry, the event was sponsored by Boysen — which has been championing climate change mitigation through heat-reflecting paint — and East West Seed, which distributes tropical vegetable seeds across the country.

Interventions versus icons

First to present was Jan Mark Vargas from Saint Louis University. His “Project Sibol” was conceived as an ecosystem of down-to-earth and affordable interventions that could involve the local community: composting, reusing old tires as planters and using existing basketball courts as a marketplace for days when vegetables farmed by kids and their parents would be consolidated for redistribution, or “bagsakan” day.

READ: Amid lockdown, backyard farming gives food security to families

Vargas was interested in what he called “agripuncture” or activating specific community nodes to become agriculturally productive: a preschool, the aforementioned basketball court and a church. He modeled his solution from studying the preexisting structures in Barangay Santolan in Pasig.

Architect Joey Yupangco, who was on the panel onstage, liked the idea that Project Sibol could be inserted into any community. “I voted for it twice,” he said. “It didn’t require to be seen as a design, but an idea that can be planted in any given situation.”

Project Sibol by Jan Mark Vargas of Saint Louis University was revealed to be the tilt’s “Most Sustainable” project. Photo courtesy of RE-TERRA

Other finalists took more iconic approaches, such as the tree-shaped urban farming structures of Ariel Navarro Padua of University of La Salette in Isabela, and the sprawling development with modular bamboo farming structures, community kitchens and workshop spaces proposed by a team of recent graduates from the University of Santo Tomas, for the Kapasigan Linear Park.

It was evident that they took a lifestyle approach. Chona Ponce, head of the Council of Deans and Heads of Architectural Schools in the Philippines, said about the “urbanitrees” entry of Padua: “I can already imagine tourists taking selfies here.”

Yupangco also commended the tree form as a very good metaphor, but offered advice: “Maybe rework the scale so it can be more ubiquitous and transplanted in different lot sizes.”

The judges on stage, which also included Edgar Sabidong, Chairman of the PH Green Building Council, and Henk Hermans, President of East West Seeds Philippines, would return to these concepts of scale, cost, and how to distribute the harvested food, as well.

A team of fresh graduates proposed a sprawling development with modular bamboo farming structures, community kitchens and workshop spaces for the Kapasigan Linear Park. Photo courtesy of RE-TERRA

Distribution issue

Food insecurity in the time of COVID-19 is less a production issue than it is a distribution issue.

Since Filipino farmers are used to typhoons, floods and droughts damaging their crops, they are quite resilient, and in fact during the pandemic, the majority just kept on farming. However, the disturbance was in getting their crops to consumers due to travel restrictions, with 35% of farmers unable to sell their produce, according to a report from the National Economic and Development Authority. This led to kinks like oversupply in a local area of a crop produced there because they can’t get them out.

On this note, the study by Palo, Rosetes and Cariño, titled “COVID-19 and food systems in the Philippines” has a great insight on infrastructure already in place for distribution, but just not activated fully:

“The National Food Authority was originally designed to manage the whole country’s food security requirements. The National Food Authority now focuses on ensuring a buffer of rice stocks. Informants suggest that many National Food Authority warehouses, which are strategically located to maximize reach to populated areas, are underutilized. These warehouses could be used for buffer stocks of food items in addition to rice, such as meat products, vegetables and fruit.”

NCR — which is the parameter for the Re-Terra contest — has NFA warehouses for the Central District/Manila, the North District/Bulacan, the South District/Taguig, the East District/Rizal, the Integrated Port Services, the Metro Transport Service/Valenzuela, Cavite, and Batanes, according to an official directory.

It would be wonderful to see future years of the Re-Terra competition engaging directly with such underutilized spaces, and deepening understanding of the factors underpinning food insecurity — such as how farming is an aging practice.

Youth corps

According to the Philippine Journal of Science in June 2020, the average age of a farmer is 53 years, whereas it was 46 in 1966.

Events like Re-Terra, staffed by personable fresh graduates in the creative fields (Brooklyn Industries also operates restaurants and music ventures), can help deepen conversations in youth circles.

That usually starts with a click, and a sizzle.

Team Anarchi, also from the University of Santo Tomas, opened their presentation with a narrative of how they had all come from different provinces to study in Manila, evangelized by adults to be the place where opportunities happen, but having that bubble burst when they saw the overcrowding in the city. “Can you honestly say you’re happy with where you are?” asked their presenter. “Next slide.” They showed a slick video of cylindrical towers all connected by a linear park. From the side, it looked quite sci-fi, and the presenter kept referring to each tower by their number, to the tune of: towers one and five will host aeroponics, or hydroponics, while tower six will have storage prior to being picked up for distribution, and so on.

This won them the tilt, and they received a ₱250,000 cash prize.

A side perspective of Team Anarchi's "CU:RB" design. Photo courtesy of RE-TERRA

Of course, the key to actually building these designs, or the cores of them, will be linking with leaders who manage public funds.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar sent a written message read onstage: We are also looking at the doability of the designs. Is the project viable? Does it consider constraints?

Sotto said: “We will do everything we can to see these projects come to life here of course in the city of Pasig and eventually replicate it in other parts of the country, in other parts of Metro Manila.” The mayor admitted that civic leaders lack a major resource when it comes to projects pushing for new perspectives: “We don’t have a whole lot of time to innovate… so we need youth with the heart and the vision to propose new solutions,” he said.