061-0144-23L  AGROECOLOGICAL REPAIR. Transformative Practices for the Zurich Territory.

SemesterSpring Semester 2023
LecturersM. Topalovic
Periodicityyearly recurring course
Language of instructionEnglish

AbstractDesign studio in collaboration with the MAS in Urban and Territorial Design, probing the possibility of an agro-ecological transformation across the territory of Zurich based on ecological repair and social justice. Contributing to an urgent transdisciplinary political debate on the landscapes of food cultivation and their relationships to cities.
ObjectiveThe critical role of agriculture within the territorial project has hardly been examined within the urban debate. However, as once rural landscapes are engulfed and surrounded by extended urban systems, and as higher biodiversity rates are recorded in cities than in the countryside, the metabolical links across these ecosystems and the need for a paradigm shift in design thinking within both local and regional contexts, become not only clear but also urgent.

In the face of unpredictable climatic changes, fluctuating water reserves and pressure on agricultural land to produce not only food, but also biofuel, solar energy, leisure landscapes and further demands of expanding urbanisation, agricultural practices across the majority of the Global North still predominantly consist of pouring chemicals into the soil, polluting aquifers, exploiting imported seasonal labour and relying on industrially-produced seed, feed and food deliveries. Switzerland is no exception.

While the Swiss countryside appears to be well cared-for, carefully manicured, preserving valued traditional spaces and activities, producing high quality and culturally valued products, research has shown that the unseen degradation of soil, water and air quality, as well as the more palpable domination of monocultural pastures geared towards industrialised production methods and the lack of biodiversity, add up to an urgent condition of depletion and exploitation. Commodification of nature and life has become one of the key instruments of agricultural intensification. Birds and insects have disappeared from the Swiss countryside, while production from the iconic Swiss cow has swollen to five times since the 1950s, not because of increased livestock numbers, but through selective breeding. Milking cow numbers have actually decreased by one third since 2000, while production has remained steady at 3.4 million tonnes/year.

Even so-called conventional farmers engaged in intensive forms of production are under extreme economic pressure, having to rely significantly on subsidies, chemical imports and seasonal labour. Through direct payments for biodiversity and cultural landscape protection, they have become veritable “caretakers” of the Swiss landscape. Despite growing awareness around sustainable food production, pioneering agricultural practices from regenerative farming to demeter, community supported agriculture and other approaches, occupy only a small percentage of the economy.
This is a profession difficult to enter under current Swiss regulations, including farmer’s education and inheritance laws. Today in Switzerland two farms per day cease production due economic difficulties.
We did not inherit the land from our parents, we borrowed from our children”, (Farmer Zimmerberg).

The Zurich cantonal border corresponds roughly to the commuting space of the metropolitan region, hence the agricultural landscapes are tightly interwoven with expanding urban development. Instead of focusing on the well-studied cities, our studio applies design as an instrument to readdress the territorial subject as a whole and develop an integrated vision for its agroecological transformation. This reversed view lies at the core of the methodology.
ContentThe MAS explores a new role for the designer who repairs damages wrought by urbanisation processes in the previous decades and asks how we can catalyse positive processes of transformation that lead to socially and environmentally just landscapes and territories. The project draws on a wealth of precedents at the Architecture of Territory Chair, and the accompanying lectures, sessions and courses.

However an overarching territorial concept for the canton of Zurich, based on agroecological regeneration has never been drawn, visualised or proposed. Together, the eight case studies explored during the semester will contribute to such a vision.
Our hypothesis is that agricultural land and practices can be interpreted through a number of distinct socio-spatial landscape typologies incorporating both the built and the unbuilt space. These typologies are historically and geographically specific–for example drained valley floors or pre-alpine pastures–therefore design efforts of agroecological repair must be situated, and respond to these unique contexts.

This semester eight such typologies at dedicated sites have been selected for further design investigation; Metropolitan Core (Zurich City), Gold Coast (Wädenswil), Drained Valley Floors (Furttal), Crop Rotation Plains (Embrach), Mosaic mid-heights (Mettenstetten), Seasonal Pastures (Wetzikon), Vital Streams & Water-bodies (The Glatt), Forests & Canopies (Tösstal).

By diving deep into these specific landscapes of agricultural production, the studio aspires to raise questions unlocking the transformative potential of reparative thinking and practices in urban and territorial design.
Can we rethink social relations linked to the land and define space for solidarity practices in agriculture? Can we redesign the cultural laws leading to commodification of landscape? Can we undo previous industrial practices and models of land drainage and other complex processes?

The principles of agroecology are as old as agriculture itself, having long been utilised by, for example the indigenous Nahua or Māori people. Today supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in particular towards achieving 12 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, agroecology is summarised in 10 principles that also include social values and governance.

The design studio is at the core of the programme–sessions, courses and inputs are curated in such a way as to directly support the design work and project development through interdisciplinary exchange.

In addition, significant resources are reserved for field work investigation in this unique studio, which plays a central role within the methodology–design work is based on in-depth exploration of the field and context. We will learn from different practices and engage with both regular and more extreme farmers and pioneers. Mobile and multisited ethnographies, interviews, oral histories, participant observation, visual study and archival work are indispensable to building a body of original research and to gradually formulating the research and design hypotheses in the studio. The fieldwork is generally conducted after the semester’s three-week overture period. It encompasses group and individual visits to project sites, meetings with inhabitants, community organizations and municipal offices.
The project work develops in the form of a web-based investigative reportage. In the field, participants work through interviews, sketches, video and field notes. Back in the studio, experts in GIS, web design, architectural writing and videography support the process. Cartography is fundamental for both analytical and projective approaches to territory: GIS-based geospatial modelling will be applied on the project site to construct novel interpretative and critical landscape representations. Film and photography capture polysemic dimensions of territory, its social, material and more-than-human manifestations. An introduction to visual ethnography and visual anthropology will form an important element of the course. The investigative reportages and visions will be presented online and in the public forum meant to inform design practice and public discourse.
LiteratureA literature list will be made availabkle at the beginning of semester.
Subject-specific CompetenciesConcepts and Theoriesassessed
Techniques and Technologiesassessed
Method-specific CompetenciesAnalytical Competenciesassessed
Media and Digital Technologiesassessed
Project Managementassessed
Social CompetenciesCommunicationassessed
Cooperation and Teamworkassessed
Customer Orientationfostered
Leadership and Responsibilityassessed
Self-presentation and Social Influence fostered
Sensitivity to Diversityassessed
Personal CompetenciesAdaptability and Flexibilityassessed
Creative Thinkingassessed
Critical Thinkingassessed
Integrity and Work Ethicsassessed
Self-awareness and Self-reflection assessed
Self-direction and Self-management assessed