Re-imagining our urban foodprint. Urban farming and sustainable use of city spaces.

Ksenia Poplavskaya
June 2014

It’s not the matter of space, it’s how you use it. Potential can be found everywhere. The more limited the space becomes in today’s urban areas and more mouths there are to feed, the more human ingenuity shines through. Now that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around half of the global population, or over 3.6 billion people, live in cities, it’s no wonder urban farming has gained such a momentum.

It seems, an urban farm can have its origin almost anywhere, even in a milk crate, which was the case of the now famous New York Riverpark Farm. Innovative food-production methods can indeed take most interesting shapes: greenhouses in old shipping containers, vegetable beds in trucks and boats, portable gardens and edible paths, to name a few. The Dutch project Boatanic converted discarded tourist boats into floating gardens and farms on Amsterdam canals and waterways while young Australian foodies from the Youth Food Movement engage in farming on college campuses.

Surprisingly, even the most overdeveloped urban areas have copious amounts of underused spaces. As Roman Gaus, the director of the Swiss group, UrbanFarmers, notes, ‘In a city like Basel, in Switzerland, there are two million square meters of rooftops that could easily be transformed into gardens. Using just 5% of this area, or 100,000 square meters, it would be possible to provide vegetables and fruit to 25% of the local population’.

In the 2000s, rooftops, roadsides, underutilized land on hospital grounds, schoolyards, and university campuses obtained a number of alternative uses. In different parts of the world these spaces were used both for plant growth as well as beekeeping, chicken-keeping or even vinegar- and cheese making. For instance, in Greater London there are about 1 000 beekeepers, producing a total of about 27,000 kg of honey annually.

Coupling newest technologies with food-growing gave rise to especially innovative practices like the one in Singapore: a four-story-high greenhouse tower in the city allows multiple-layer food production where limited space is a serious issue.

Bringing food closer to home is a good idea, why not do the same with the workplace?  Urban farming is an idea that both city dwellers and local businesses can profit from. Some innovative businesses took up the idea of urban farming incorporating it right into their offices. Fancy some tomatoes in your salad? Feel free to pick those from the conference room ceiling. This is not a joke but a true story of a sustainable design by a Japanese architecture firm, Kono Design,  for a major recruitment company in Tokyo, Pasona. Japan is particularly notorious for the urban sprawl and vertical growth. Yet Tokyo is waking up to the fact that food-growing within the Metropolis is possible and highly beneficial. Pasona uses free office spaces in a savvier way, with plants growing right on the company building façade, in partitions for meeting areas and right in the canteen while rice is harvested in the lobby. From there, the product finds its way directly to the employees’ daily menu. Plus Pasona now teaches other inspired companies what it has learned, farming coaching now being part of its business activities.

Creative initiatives are still hampered by the local legal frameworks that haven’t yet established clear guidelines for the relatively new trend. This, for example, gave rise to so-called ‘guerilla gardening’, a movement that tries to revitalize neighborhoods by appropriating abandoned or vacant urban land for food production. Yet it often needs a bottom-up approach to provide the necessary impulse and make the authorities enthusiastic about the sprouting initiatives. Further on, top-down traction may help reinforce the projects both technically and financially and create a supportive framework that communities can bounce off.

Ever more local authorities now recognize the fact that integrating agriculture with the urban form can increase food security and savings while lowering transportation and energy costs. Not to speak of the social implications of urban farming, including boosting local communities, uniting individuals around a common cause, providing learning and employment opportunities.

In urban farming a lot can be done with the resources and investment in place. Bringing together local food producers, distributors, technology companies and education institutions has already demonstrated the potential of turning farming initiatives into economically viable and prosperous business models.

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