Lessons Learned | Van Alen Climate Council: Designing For a Future of Food

Lisa Richmond Photography 2019
Lisa Richmond Photography 2019

On January 9-11, 2019, CMG Senior Associate, Pamela Conrad, joined the Van Alen Climate Council trip to California’s Central Valley, known as the agricultural cornucopia of the state, to experience firsthand the effects of climate change on the state’s primary food source. The group comprised of passionate leaders from the Van Alen Institute along with pioneering architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering firms visited UC Davis’s Innovation Institute for Food and Health, farms of various scales, Merced County’s Food Bank, and heard first hand experiences from day laborers part of Caesar Chavez’s organization, United Farmworkers. While listening to how climate effects are changing agriculture practices, like water shortages and increased temperatures, in the back of the group’s mind the question loomed – how can design improve the already challenged way of life for agricultural communities as climate change exacerbates those situations?

One positive takeaway was that agriculture in some ways is more resilient than we might expect – although crops that were once traditionally grown in the California’s Central Valley now may be more successful in the Pacific Northwest, those crops will shift north while traditional Southern California crops will shift into central California. A sort of “crop migration”. However, other challenges will likely be more challenging to overcome – increased temperatures up to 115 degrees in the summer reduce the manageable work hours for farm laborers already starting at hours as early as 3am. The water shortage in California will also continue to add increasing pressures to a volatile society that requires the precious resource for one of our most basic needs. Due to impermeable urbanization and overdrawing from the aquifer, the potable water supply is diminishing, which is spurring conversations of water rights and regulation – of which future issues are inevitable and foreseen.

Through a charrette process, the Council shared initial thoughts and impressions gleaned from the visit with a local organic agricultural leader, Bowles Farming Company, on how design might help to transform the agricultural system and help carry the industry through the changing climate. Ideas generated included the incorporation of alternative industries, like agritourism, imagining predictable, resilient infrastructure systems such as flexible housing, shared transportation and childcare resources, changing people’s perception of food, and  connecting people to culture and place to facilitate exchange of resources and community building.

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