Urban Farming – The City as a Pantry
Urban planners, architects, politicians and residents all agree that cities need more greenery. There are numerous approaches to this. Green façades, roof gardens and the targeted redevelopment of industrial wastelands, to which New York owes its Highline so popular with locals and tourists alike. But what if it’s not just about creating pockets of greenery amid pavement, steel and glass? Urban farming is going a step further, for it aims to bring food production into the city.
The world’s population is growing, and 9.5 billion people are forecast for the year 2050. And this puts the planet under pressure in several ways. To secure the subsistence minimum in terms of calorie supply in the future alone, 850 million hectares of additional farmland will be needed – and will simply not be available. And this diverts attention to alternative spaces, such as those seemingly unsuitable ones in our cities. Anyone who lives here and has an appetite for fresh fruit and vegetables can go to the weekly market, to the greengrocer on the corner or to the supermarket. But what about harvesting lettuces, tomatoes or radishes straight from the field? Usually unthinkable for city dwellers. But there are both large-scale ideas and small-scale initiatives with the aim of changing that.
Because there are many benefits associated with the integration of food production into the city. Behind it is the concept of regional supply: The city feeds itself – at least in part. This shortens distances and lowers the CO2 emissions caused by transport. It also has a positive impact on microclimate and biodiversity. Urban farming can also achieve social benefits: Collectively tending the neighborhood vegetable garden brings people closer together while taking responsibility for their city and public space at the same time. And, not least, our appreciation of food and its quality changes when we integrate production into our immediate surroundings.
An idea that takes root...
The Incredible Edible Network in Britain supports communities in planning and implementing their urban farming strategies. It all started about ten years ago, when Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear started creating “guerrilla gardening” beds in their home town of Todmorden. They wanted to counter the challenge of climate change locally, make their city more sustainable and, last but not least, promote the regional economy. Today, more than 100 groups are networked via Incredible Edible, the idea has taken root worldwide, and little Todmorden has become a model with its school gardens, a nursery and various programs to support local agriculture. What is special about the movement is its bottom-up approach, as the network acts on its own initiative outside the administration. The simple rule for participation is “If you eat, you’re in”.
...and bears fruit
That all this is more than an idealistic idea is demonstrated by an evaluation by the Manchester Metropolitan University and University of Central Lancashire. Nearly the entire 15,000 population of Todmorden is aware of the Incredible Edible campaign, about half of them occasionally help themselves from the beds. Public space is perceived more positively, since the beds can be found virtually everywhere in the throughout the town – whether outside the train station, the police station or the nursing home. The sense of togetherness has increased, as has civic pride. And even if you look at the bare figures, the effect of the Urban Farming Initiative is considerable. Veritable “vegetable tourism” has developed, bringing Todmorden many new visitors and hence revenue. Local producers report increases in turnover in connection with the use of the Todmorden logo. The scientists have verified this and presented the added value using the social return approach. On the investment side is about 150,000 pounds for 2016, most of it voluntary work. The return on investment is five and a half times higher. The profit results primarily from the higher demand for regional food and from the increased number of visitors. Incredible Edible is a venture that is paying off for Todmorden in many ways.
The concept of urban farming is also bearing fruit elsewhere. The “edible city” of Andernach consistently fills its public beds with useful plants – picking is expressly permitted. The Canadian city of Toronto is expanding the idea to include educational programs for children, tips for growing vegetables in private gardens, and ways to prevent food wastage. Urban agriculture in Cuba is writing a real success story, even though the idea was originally born out of necessity there. The collapse of the former Soviet Union left the Cuban economy in tatters. So smallholders were encouraged to reopen the previously banned farmers’ markets. The aim was to produce directly where demand was greatest. Today, two thirds of the vegetables consumed in Havana are cultivated by small cooperatives, some of whose beds in the city are in the middle of residential developments.
From outdoor to indoor
The ideas for urban farming, however, go far beyond the creation of public fields and beds. For example, what about areas that have limited climatic suitability for outdoor cultivation? And are not vacant spaces scarce and expensive, especially in cities? One solution is Vertical Farming developed by Dickson Despommier at Columbia University. The Berlin start-up Infarm also works on this principle. In vertically arranged and modularly stackable indoor farms, crops can be grown and harvested virtually anywhere and all year round. The bed boxes can be installed directly in restaurants and supermarkets. Each box forms its own ecosystem tailored to the respective plant, taking account of temperature, nutrients and light spectrum. Continuous monitoring and remote control of the parameters ensures that plants’ needs are optimally met. The range currently includes pak choi, kale, lettuce and a broad spectrum of herbs. According to the supplier, indoor cultivation requires no pesticides at all and uses 75% less fertiliser and even 95% less water than conventional farmland. The savings in terms of space are even more obvious – only 0.5% of the land is needed for the same yield.
It is quite possible that a combination of all these approaches will help to turn our cities into pantries in the long run.
In more and more cities around the globe, urban farming strategies are bringing agriculture back into the city – and bringing us all closer to what lands on our plates every day. The start-up Edible Garden City in Singapore has created over 200 gardens in recent years. Sarah Rodriguez, Marketing & PR Manager, talks to us about the challenges along the way and how good ideas can grow.
CORPUS: Can you tell us how Edible Garden City was founded? How did the concept of urban farming take root in Singapore?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: Co-founder Mr Bjorn Low and his wife worked for over four years on organic farms around the world as part of an international volunteer network. Inspired to bring the concept of urban and sustainable farming back to Singapore, Bjorn and two partners founded Edible Garden City in 2012.
CORPUS: Singapore is a land-scarce city. How did you overcome the challenges of finding suitable spaces and infrastructure for urban farming?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: When we first started it was really difficult to get farmland as many areas were earmarked for other uses. We had a breakthrough when some of the restaurant owners showed interest in getting a supply of fresh herbs and vegetables and approached Edible Garden City to build productive gardens on their plots of land, and within their restaurant premises.
So far, through our Foodscaping Unit, Edible Garden City has helped to create more than 200 gardens in schools, shopping malls, homes and commercial buildings.
We have also developed an education department where the public can experience gardening in workshops. We also visit schools to show kids ways of starting a garden. We found that it has helped children to learn how food is grown and over time they become more open to eating a variety of foods and wasting less.
Edible Garden City's Citizen Farm aims to feed the community with sustainable, safe, and locally-grown fresh food. Our model features an array of different farming systems which grow the best quality produce with the least amount of waste. Unlike traditional farms, our agricultural by-products are composted and upcycled into fertilizer, which goes back into nourishing the soil and plants.
Together with two other farms located in Funan mall and Raffles City, we supply fresh produce harvested within a day to over 70 restaurants weekly.
CORPUS: What are your insights and experiences with regard to trends in urban farming across Asia?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: For Edible Garden City, we will be focusing on the therapeutic benefits of gardening. Research has found that gardening can help to lower stress levels, and we are looking at ways to lower the barriers to gardening and making it accessible to everyone.
In Hong Kong SAR, where the city area is densely populated, a company called Rooftop Republic has made use of rooftop spaces for urban farming and invited companies and communities to join in the farming activities under Corporate Social Responsibility projects.
CORPUS: What is the future of urban farming and what needs to be done to make it even more successful?
SARAH RODRIGUEZ: We urge architects and developers to consider incorporating urban farming right from the start in their blueprints when they are designing public spaces and commercial buildings. Many of the urban farms we’ve built were retrofitted after the completion of construction.
For example, for our newest project – the Edible Garden located in Funan mall – we were able to bring in climate control systems and other new ideas, as these were incorporated into the design by the developer.
For urban farming to be even more successful, I think education is important. We need to bring this concept of sustainable farming into schools and teach the importance and benefits of home-growing and food security to kids.