Multifunctional Landscape Analysis and Design


Agroforestry for Food -  Multifunctional Woody Polyculture

The overall goal of this project is to develop a research infrastructure that evaluates the potential of multifunctional woody polyculture as a transformative system of agriculture to meet growing demand for healthy foods while advancing the sustainability of food production systems in the United States and abroad.  Woody polyculture cropping systems offer a sustainable solution because of their unique advantages over conventional annual crop systems: (1) perennial growth habit allows for carbon storage and efficient utilization of resources, (2) integration of tree crops supports vertical layering of production, and (3) a mixed community of different fruit and nut species diversifies products and increases financial resilience. We will establish UIUC as a global leader in woody polyculture research by developing critical physical infrastructure and by achieving five primary objectives that will leverage complementary approaches to elucidate the economic, environmental, and social value of these systems.

Farm Design & Planning for Multifunctionality

One of the largest barriers for farmers to transition to more diversified production systems is a lack of appropriate planning tools to envision alternatives that offer multiple functions. MLAD works on the development and application of tools for assessing existing and future agricultural landscapes based on a range of attributes across the three dimensions of ecological, production, and cultural functions.  These tools are particularly important for encouraging a transition to perennial systems such as agroforestry systems, that require a greater up-front investment and longer-range goals.  Several current and past research projects in Illinois and Vermont help to expand our ability to support farmers in design and planning for multifunctionality. 

Multifunctional Buffers for Marginal Farmland

Perennial buffers designed for multifunctionality can offer an opportunity to bridge production and environmental health. The literature contains a body of research supporting the notion that perennial habitats integrated into agroecosystems offer a wide range of ecosystem services. On-farm perennial habitats have been shown to effectively support biodiversity, improve visual quality, encourage wildlife, and remove excessive nutrients. The economic potential of perennial systems must be considered, however, or farmers are unlikely to adopt the practices. Landscape planning could play an essential role in resolving tradeoffs between societal benefits and private profit from land use activities. Local, site-specific solutions could be the most successful because they empower participants, encourage creativity, and leverage local knowledge.

Permaculture: Design, Movement, Practice Worldview

The international sustainability movement called 'permaculture' has been around for over three decades, and has projects on every inhabited continent. But there is remarkably little research about the movement - and even less about it's distinctive approach to farming systems. What are the proposals emerging from the permaculture movement, and how do they sit with contemporary agroecology? How are farmers using permaculture concepts to design and manage agroecosystems? What are the outcomes? This research assesses the present and potential contributions of permaculture for transitioning to diversified and multifunctional agriculture. Preliminary research has shown a high-level of diversification on permaculture farms, across a wide range of farm sizes. Ensuing field research will examine the distribution of land uses and functions in ~50 permaculture agroecosystems across the continental US. This work is part of the emerging discussion of diversified farming systems as a productive and sustainable alternative to input-intensive monocrop agriculture.

Urban Agriculture in Chicago

Over the past decade, interest in urban agriculture has grown dramatically.  Diverse actors promote it as a way to build more resilient communities and to address specific urban issues such as food insecurity, a lack of food access, economic disinvestment, and public health problems such as high rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.  Community gardens, and to a lesser extent urban farms, have been the focus of much of the policy work and academic research related to urban agriculture.  We take a broader approach to exploring the social and ecological dynamics of urban food production at multiple scales, from backyard gardens, to squatter gardens on vacant land, to aquaponic systems on industrial rooftops. Recent work has focused on mapping and analyzing the spatial distribution of food production sites in Chicago using Google Earth and GIS, and on investigating the social and ecological processes associated with the residential and vacant lot food gardens of ethnic or immigrant households in the city. 



Pollinators for Urban Food Systems

How do local landscape characteristics and the surrounding urban context impact the abundance and diversity of insect pollinators in community gardens?  Our preliminary results show that the area of flowering plants on the site is correlated with the abundance of bees.  These results suggest that there are benefits of having strips of flowering plants on an urban agriculture site to draw in pollinators that could improve crop yields.  Interestingly, the urban environment hosts a very wide variety of different bee species to support this important function.

Sustainability of Biopots

After transplanting, containers from greenhouse production are typically destined for the dumpster. Even when recycling facilities are readily available, agricultural plastics are often thrown away given their poor quality from light exposure and safety concerns surrounding exposure to chemical inputs like pesticides. Plantable and compostable biocontainers are designed to reduce waste entering our landfills and have caught the attention of environmentally conscious gardeners. However, their use can impact all aspects of greenhouse production, from irrigation demand to shipping damage. Our work is part of a larger multi-institutional effort to assess the economic and environmental sustainabilty of these “green” packaging alternatives. Specifically, MLAD is leading efforts to assess the carbon footprint of biocontainers in production systems via Life-Cycle Assessment.