Credit: The Urban Design Group. Vyonyx/Arup/Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation

+ Wanzhuang Eco-City.

It was late 2005 when Arup's eco city design team began to raise the issue of food sustainability as part of the built environment. "Look," they argued, "we are designing these eco cities to be sustainable, using sustainable sources of energy and water, being waste and transport efficient, but what about food?" How are these eco-cities going to feed themselves sustainably? At that stage we didn't really know.

By early 2007 we designed the second generation of eco cities including food and agricultural strategies smartly integrated with waste, water, transport and energy strategies. In the process, we discovered that if we want any community to be sustainable we cannot ignore the issue of food. Food appeared an essential component in closing close water, nutrient and carbon cycles of our cities.

With any new development we now ask the questions: Where is the water coming from? Where is the energy coming from? What do we do with our waste? How are we moving people and goods around? Where are the building materials coming from? Where does the food come from? Is it produced sustainably? Is it building up a balance of social, environmental and economic capital? Is it depleting our natural assets or distorting any other social or economic balance? We have made food a pivotal element in the design of sustainable communities.

We are now living in 2011, six years from where we started. Third generation sustainable communities proposed in China, Chile, Europe and Australia now demonstrate that urbanisation doesn’t necessarily have to go ahead with a consequent loss of agricultural capability or capacity. We demonstrated that urbanisation and farming today can go hand in hand with mutual benefits capturing synergies in newly discovered win-win situations. We managed to break a deadlock in rural and urban development that existed for many decades!

Many now ask me what will the future of food look like? Will food be grown in cities? Will food be grown in vertical farms? The answer to the first question is “most likely” as cities are rich sources of wasted water, energy and nutrients all becoming increasingly scarce. The answer to the second is “perhaps” and depends on if we can design vertical farming systems to be more efficient than the horizontal ones both in terms of resource use and, more importantly, in very practical day to day operations.

As a planning consultant and engineer within Arup I will do my best to design food sustainability into our communities with as many benefits and synergies I can think of making sure that sustainable food is not ruled out by our design and people have a choice.