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The Architecture of Food

Employing architecture to rebuild a regional food system that is woven into regenerative economies, ecologies, and cultural systems.

Photo of Caitlin Taylor
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

MASS Design Group

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Our ongoing work encourages collaboration with diverse stakeholders and change-makers in the region, including a few organizations that are submitting Visions whose values align closely with ours. In particular, MASS has a strong working relationship with Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, NY. Our Vision will be supported by a coalition of organizations dedicated to facilitating a strong food system in the Hudson Valley: the Hudson Valley Food Systems Coalition, comprised of the following organizations: Dutchess Outreach; Bread Alone; Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley; Newburgh Urban Farm and Food; Hudson River Housing; Stiles Najak and the GleanMobile; UlsterCorps; Rondout Valley Growers Association; Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation; Ecological Citizen’s Project at Longhaul Farm; and Matriark Foods.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Poughkeepsie, New York

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Hudson River Valley

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

MASS Design Group is a nonprofit architecture and design collective with the mission to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity. With offices on three continents, MASS’s practice is informed by broad-reaching global perspectives and deeply-embedded local investment.

MASS opened the Hudson Valley Design Lab in 2017, a community design center through which we demonstrate the power of place-based design thinking to catalyze systemic change. By immersing our team in the Hudson Valley, we commit to a daily practice of active listening, collaborative and inclusive design processes, capacity building, and collective visioning. Our Hudson Valley office, which is located on Main Street in downtown Poughkeepsie, NY, supports an inter-organizational culture of catalytic action throughout the region, encouraging partnership and communication across scales. By providing thoughtful, community-engaged design support to those who seek beauty, dignity, and opportunity in their built environment, MASS is redefining the responsibility of designers to practice in pre-market, post-market, or emerging-market communities of varying scales, while continuously challenging the underlying systems that perpetuate forces of injustice and inequity in our built environment. 

Our portfolio of active projects in the Hudson Valley includes architectural and urban design projects, as well as system-focused policy initiatives. We are working with community organizations to creatively repurpose aging buildings and infrastructure, and unlock funding to support proactive innovation and adaptation. At the urban scale we are focused on using the design process to build consensus, skills, and knowledge among diverse public and private stakeholders. And we are engaged in system-focused policy initiatives in our region by acting as a bridge between outside capital and community interests to build community wealth and avoid displacement.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Fringe City

Across the nation, small, post-industrial cities occupy a critical boundary between our polarized metropolitan hubs and our vast rural landscapes. These are the Fringe City. Prior to industrialization, these places were built by economic systems that were calibrated to support robust regional production based on unique ecological, social, and cultural resources. These regions were bounded and regionally-responsive by design. 

Globalization largely emptied these cities of their industries, making them uniquely vulnerable to the $13.1B spent by the federal government’s Urban Renewal program of one-size-fits-all planning, design, demolition, and construction projects in the mid 20th century. While many large cities have rebounded or even prospered from this initiative, these smaller, post-industrial cities have often struggled to rebuild from the social and spatial traumas of these interventions.

Because of their regional distribution, relative size, and abundance of infrastructural and architectural assets, Fringe Cities are uniquely positioned to once again take their place as hubs of regional food system innovation. This shift is increasingly urgent, and increasingly inevitable, in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

The Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley runs north to south down the eastern edge of New York State, with the Hudson River flowing through the 8 counties (Sullivan, Greene, Columbia, Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, and Rockland) that comprise the region. The fertile soils and microclimates that line the Hudson River have a long history of bountiful and diverse food production that continues today. The 2012 census reported approximately 5,300 farms in the Hudson Valley varying in size from 150 to 2,000 acres. 

The Hudson Valley is also home to a vibrant and richly diverse collection of palettes and cuisines.  As the Hudson River Valley continues to attract attention for its bounty and culinary diversity, people still struggle to put food on their tables, farmers have limited and uncertain access to land, and non-profit partners are stretched thin trying to close the gaps and connect the dots. Meanwhile, perfectly edible food is being tossed in the trash, not getting to populations in need, food is traveling to places outside of the Hudson River Valley to be sold at higher margins, while anchor organizations within our community continue to outsource to large-scale corporations. 

Historically home to thriving Hudson River towns and cities, flush with industry, jobs, and economic strength, Fringe Cities now share scars of urban renewal - downtown neighborhoods bisected by high speed roadways, large portions of the city segregated and left behind. The current food system in the Hudson Valley has supported a fast-growing population and has fueled economic development and urbanization. Yet these productivity gains have come at a cost, and today’s model is not designed to meet tomorrow’s longer-term needs.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Ecologically, economically, culturally, politically, and historically, food shapes the world around us. The current state of our globalized food system is strikingly fragile, built on an unsustainable base of industrial-scale monoculture and fueled by systemic injustice and environmental degradation. The infrastructure built to support the globalized production and consumption of food has been optimized to value placeless efficiency, uniformity, and profit, while manufacturing scarcity and manipulating surplus at a global scale. 

As the food system has been industrialized, so too has the construction of our built environment. Market-based thinking in the food system, and in the construction industry in parallel, drives a singular commitment to existing market values and a narrow definition of ‘good returns’ at the expense of people, communities, and ecologies. The current market frames all building, and all food production, as linear, zero-sum equations. Externalizing the cost of waste, public investment, environmental and cultural homogeneity reinforces the myth of infinite and unbounded growth as possible, and desirable. 

Meanwhile, our collective daily need to feed ourselves is disassociated from the cultural, historical, and personal meaning of what and how we eat.

In a business that already operates on incredibly small margins, farming is only growing more precarious as development pressure and impacts of climate change increase. Farms in the Hudson Valley are numerous - around 5,300 - but tend to be small. The number and size of farms are steadily decreasing because even the smallest fluctuations can close a farm business. There is no margin for error. Yet current policies continue to incentivize monoculture, environmental degradation, soil depletion, and overproduction, all of which increase the fragility of farmers’ situations rather than supporting long-term health and sustainability of our businesses, land, and natural resources. 

This linear and narrowly-defined system not only assumes a beginning and an end, but also an “I” and an “other.” The abundance of emergency food programs in the Hudson Valley is indicative of the fact that despite living in a productive agricultural region, many communities have neither financial nor physical access to fresh, local produce. A unique and beautiful collection of food traditions, ingredients, and cultures is overshadowed by a dependence on imbalanced supply and demand. 

Global food infrastructure, monocultural systems, and an industrial scale of processing are uniquely vulnerable worldwide to destabilized climate patterns. Radical transformation is not optional. 

In the Hudson Valley, the challenges experienced by our national and global food systems are playing out at a regional scale. Yet in it's fertile soils and rich agricultural tradition, the region contains many unique opportunities. For this reason, the Hudson Valley will serve as a replicable and aspirational example for what’s possible at a regional scale when bold ideas are tested, coalitions are gathered, and new infrastructure is designed around a clear vision for a regenerative, nourishing, and collective food system.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision is a regionally-recalibrated food system that is designed and built according to regenerative growth models, that is centered on justice, and that nourishes its people and place. Architecture and design is one tool that we will use to realize this Vision, but our buildings are not the end goal in and of themselves. Our goal is to build a new food system that gives architectural voice to the rich food culture of the Hudson Valley, and in which every building that gets built, every landscape that gets planned - and every thing that gets designed, actually - is deeply rooted in place, in social context, in environmental stewardship, and in time. 

At MASS, all of our work is predicated upon the mission-driven belief that our built environment reflects our societal values, and that design decisions have vast systemic impact. We employ design and architecture to build consensus around a shared vision for the future, and as designers, we are uniquely experienced in spatial and narrative storytelling. Buildings are vessels for our collective stories, the containers for our shared beliefs. We design to shift culture, to reveal the interconnected architecture of our daily lives, to accomodate uncertainty and change, and to encourage collective decision-making. 

Our vision focuses particular attention on the Fringe Cities in the Hudson Valley as a fertile site for replicable cross-sector food system innovation, and applies design thinking to rebuilding equitable regional systems that nourish the people and places that depend on them. 

Typologically, our work will include the design of spaces for food education, new types of institutional food preparation and procurement, food production landscapes, farms, land use planning, infrastructure and logistics for regional aggregation and distribution, and sites of food preparation and consumption—including markets, restaurants, and grocery stores. 

From the scale of a city to the scale of a plate, our work will focus on designing a food system that values economic, social, and environmental justice.  By engaging in a community-embedded, participatory design process, we will improve the awareness and visibility of food sourcing for a diverse audience. By redesigning connections between fragmented parts of the food system, we will increase resilience. By scaling regional supply and demand within economically feasible limits, we will encourage affordable access for fresh and healthy ingredients. By researching and advocating for regionally-calibrated, regenerative growing methods, we will increase biodiversity. By designing at multiple scales of food system interface, we will build food literacy.  

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

A redesigned Hudson Valley food system in which economic, social, and environmental justice are accurately valued will create a cultural space in which the production and consumption of food can rebuild collective agency. Designed relationships between seemingly disparate but intimately interwoven components of our food system will reveal the power of a resilient regional system that is built within the natural limits of economies and ecologies. Giving food an architectural voice, from the scale of the table to the scale of the city, will manifest a new commons, built on a foundation of strong civil society and powered by shared values.

Global-scale production and consumption result in fragmentation, dislocation, and homogeneity. Our design process will manifest a regionally-responsive food system that reconnects the cultural and spiritual act of eating to our daily lives, to our built environment, and to our natural systems. 

Our work centers justice and dignity for all people. It is not only that all people deserve a beautiful built environment, or that a design that is functional can also be beautiful, but that architecture must be beautiful for it to be fully functional. All of us have a fundamental right to a built world that is beautiful, and one that improves our quality of life. Redesigning a regional food system in the Hudson Valley will provide a replicable example of how design decisions can catalyze broad systemic change, and how designing for the power of food in our build environment can nourish people, communities, and ecosystems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our work approaches the systemic challenges of the food system in the Hudson Valley as design opportunities, and asks how our architectural practice can participate in the development of systemic solutions.

Challenge: The Hudson Valley is full of institutions - schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons. For example, Poughkeepsie, NY  is within 10 miles of SUNY New Paltz, the Culinary Institute of America, Vassar College, Marist College, Dutchess Community College, Vassar Hospital and Dutchess County Jail. All of these educational, cultural, and civic institutions require a steady supply of large quantities of food on a daily basis. Less than 20% of that food is local.  These institutions are constrained by the limitations of multinational food service providers, who are wedded to a highly industrialized food system that prioritizes money and efficiency over stewardship and people. 

What if there was a network of regional co-packing facilities that were designed in partnership with the communities in which they were embedded, and according to the principles of a regenerative building culture, to connect mid-size farms and institutions?

Vision: Institutions in the Hudson Valley, including schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons, detach themselves from the highly monopolized system of food service providers in favor of ecologically sound, fair, humane, and regional food sources. A network of local food hubs that aggregate, process, package, and store food from local farms become primary distributors to regional institutions. These food hubs or co-packing facilities become the foundation for a new innovation and training program that tests and experiments with safe and creative ways of turning food scraps or unwanted leftovers from farms, institutions and food businesses into high quality, nutritious food products that are then used in food service. Additionally, these facilities become a testing ground for new technologies and materials for shelf-stable sterilization and sustainable packaging. Despite the dip in production during the winter season, food can be processed, packaged and stored safely to supply institutions all year round. Once the food service kitchens themselves have been redesigned to support scratch cooking rather than heat-and-serve preparation, talented chefs from all over the country lead culinary training programs for kitchen staff that inspire wholesome, scratch-cooked meals made with fresh, nutritious ingredients from the Hudson Valley.  

Challenge: In a business that already operates on incredibly small margins, farming is only growing more precarious as development pressure and climate change impacts increase. Farms in the Hudson Valley are numerous - around 5,300 - but tend to be very small. The average Hudson Valley farm is estimated to be about 150 acres, with some as small as a couple of acres and some as big as 2,000 acres. The number and size of farms are steadily decreasing because even the smallest shifts can put a farm out of business. There is no room for error. Yet current policies continue to incentivize monotony, environmental degradation, soil depletion, and overproduction, all of which increase the fragility of farmer’s situations rather than supporting long-term health and sustainability of our businesses, land, and natural resources. Despite the fact that the Hudson Valley is surrounded by farms, local populations still find it difficult to access fresh, local food. 

What if regionally-responsive and cooperatively-managed seed banks, outlets, and aggregators were connected by vibrant and visible infrastructure?

Vision: Farmers are provided resources and incentives to diversify their production, adopt chemical-free production practices, cover crop, and heal the soil on their land. Those farmers that demonstrate a commitment to sustainable agricultural practices receive subsidies to help acquire and/or manage their land. A regional network of “Food Hubs” aggregates, processes, stores, markets and distributes food from small and mid-scale farms in the Hudson Valley, making it possible for them to source regional institutions and sell their goods to local populations. A regional seed bank is formed to preserve indigenous seed varieties and the heritage they hold. Native seed sanctuaries pop across the valley as both reparations for the land that was stolen from them and as demonstration of regenerative agricultural practices. Very large farms collaborate with land grant institutions like Cornell Cooperative Extension, using portions of their land to expand research into new varieties and ecologically sound farming practices specific to the Hudson Valley that encourage on-farm resiliency in the face of new pests and diseases, changing temperatures, and increased flooding. As flooding continues to undermine existing infrastructure, farmers begin to implement site plans and architecture that not only bolster their long-term viability, but facilitate integration with the land and closed-loop use of materials, resources, and energy.  

Challenge: The Hudson Valley is home to a vibrant and richly diverse collection of palettes and cuisines. Mexican, Jamaican, Dominican, and Indian populations feature prominently, introducing unique, flavorful dishes, such as oxtail soup, jerk chicken, and chile rellenos. La Guelaguetza Festival in Poughkeepsie attracts thousands of visitors from around the world every year to experience the incredible food, music, and traditional dances of Oaxaca. The diversity and richness of food culture in Hudson Valley cities is often acknowledged, but is not living up to its full potential. On average, 36% of urban populations are hispanic, but beyond the occasional visit to a Oaxacan Taqueria or Sylvia’s Jamaican Jerk chicken, most residents interact very little with Spanish-speakers and have no idea what incredible history and stories go into traditional dishes. In 2018, New York was listed as one of the states with the highest amount of white supremacist recruitment activity taking place. In a time and place where hate crimes are on the rise, cultural connection is about more than eating a new kind of food; it is about learning how to relate to those who are different from us, using food as a tool to unlock new perspectives and ways of life, understanding how new understandings of diverse perspectives can build love, rather than hate and therefore enrich life for everyone. 

How can the design of shared cultural tables engender radical love and collective stewardship?

Vision: Cooking and meal sharing takes center stage as an opportunity for training and employment, cultural connection, exchange of stories, and cultivation of welcoming and inclusive public spaces. Regular community meals and food events pop up in cities and towns all over the Hudson Valley, each one specific to local demographics and driven by communities out a desire to develop meaningful relationships and celebrate shared experiences. The meals become a platform for language learning, business, and culinary training. These cultural hubs replace soup kitchens as homeless and unemployed populations receive social welfare resources and are hired to prepare ready-to-eat meals for sale. Youth are employed in after school programs to manage urban farms and gardens in previously vacant lots and bring that food to the cultural hubs for processing, cooking, and preparing. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website


Join the conversation:

Photo of charles hage

Dear Caitlin,
Our two visions address different areas of New York State with similar goals. One difference is that food hubs are a stated part of the system you envision, while I favor direct delivery from producer/processor to retailer. Nevertheless, I think we'll find it helpful to share ideas as we refine system concepts.
Chuck Hage

Photo of charles hage

Dear Caitlin,
Are you available to talk or are you waiting for the results of the first round of evaluation?
Chuck Hage

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