In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Read on for an interview with Paul Coseo, Senior Global Futures Scientist at Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and Assistant Professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
1) How did you get interested in food systems issues?
In terms of my interest in food systems, I feel like I just grew up being interested. My grandmother grew her own food and had farm animals in her yard. That passion got passed down to me. I'm a landscape architect by training and have always been interested in growing plants. From an early age, I knew that if you're going to grow something, why not have something that you can also eat? I got my masters degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan and there were a lot of people working on urban agriculture. As part of the work early on in my studies, I was exposed to urban farms in Detroit, Flint, and part of the Midwest to address the lack of availability of fresh produce in food deserts.
As part of my masters degree and my Ph.D. (I got my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in urban planning), I was a TA for classes and I helped out with urban agricultural projects as part of the student work for the University of Michigan's Urban Planning program. I had a very memorable time. We had clients that were in Flint and we went there in January one year. There was about a foot of snow on the ground. They had some hoop houses, but they were growing kale, lettuces, and other cool weather crops within neighborhoods that were community-based agriculture to support healthier diets. It really impressed on me the importance that when we plant anything, we need to think about the multiple benefits that those plants can have. In landscape architecture, there's this idea of aesthetics, but things can, from my perspective, be both beautiful and delicious. That's part of what has influenced me to this date.
I spent some time in Chicago as well, and there's a lot of urban agriculture there. Now I've been here in Arizona for about eight years. It’s been interesting to work with different folks on food and agriculture challenges within the context of our desert environment and how that might change when we're thinking about native and indigenous crops (plants that are under-appreciated as a food source within our desert ecosystem).
2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
I work broadly with cities such as Tempe on multiple projects related to their climate action planning process. My area of expertise is on resilience to extreme heat. I work in that window, but I also work more broadly around sustainability in inner cities. I try to match what I teach with the research that we're doing with cities. It's what's called a service learning model: the students are learning from the city and they're also providing a service. We've worked with the city of Tempe a lot on the idea of food forests. The city previously worked with the School Sustainability and Arnim Wiek to define food forests and determine how they can be applied to Tempe. Our students have done some of the work by collaborating with local landowners to envision what that might look like. We have a lot of native plants that could be reimagined and reintegrated to create more sustainability. This could be done in a food forest. That's the main way in which my research intersects with food forests. This is connected to heat as well because vegetation is really good at cooling environments. In the context of water, we can use it in a way that's providing food and more nature in cities so we can feel more connected to wildlife. For urban agriculture, a critical thing to really understand is that our cities have very polluted soils. I aim to understand how we can integrate urban agriculture with soil that has been really degraded from human-use over decades.
3) What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
The innovation that I'm most excited about is this idea of food forests. With our understanding of local ecosystems, we can create landscapes for people in cities that provide food, shelter, and heat reduction. Before I came to ASU, I knew very little about food forests. Coming here and learning more about that particular way in which we can integrate food systems into our cities has been really exciting.
Another innovation space that I've been working within (this is similar to food forests, but a little bit different) is the integration of plants and vegetation into our built environment. I've been working on green roofs in the desert and determining the viability, ecosystem services, and other benefits that we get from these types of systems that are different from other wetter, cooler climates where the benefits of green roofs are more clear. We've planted prickly pear and Nopales agave, along with other things that could be food. We want to maintain the desert landscape aesthetic, but also be able to harvest from it. We have a green roof experimental plot on top of the Design North building here on Tempe campus that we've been working on. We've also worked closely with a new APS substation down at Roosevelt and Seventh Street in downtown Phoenix. We’ve been monitoring their green roof for pollinators. They have over 30 different biodiverse plants that we planted. Most of them are Sonoran native and some are non-native desert-adapted, but they're all intended to provide, at the very least, food for others. We're going to have some camera traps and other tools such as weather stations to collect data on the benefits.
Food forests and green roofs are particularly exciting to me because they’re more common in other parts of the world where it’s cooler and more wet. It’s very hot and dry here so we have different conditions that hold a lot of new possibilities.
4) What’s your favorite weeknight meal?
This time of year I love to make butternut squash soup and ideally I like to add in hatch chilies and corn. This time of year just really speaks to me. I make that soup and usually I put in carrots and leeks and onions and garlic as well. It's easy to do and it's really delicious, especially with a side like cornbread.