Blog Post

Urban agriculture – Food for thought

14.06.2019 | 13 min read

The Latin name that we have bestowed upon our species is “Homo sapiens”, meaning “wise human being”. Our persistent forefathers have been patiently conquering almost every square inch of the planet for millennia, all the while steadily and continually growing in numbers. Not even catastrophes like the Black Plague could stop us. Every obstacle that mankind has ever come up against was, sooner or later, simply overcome. Even when individuals perished, the collective prevailed. We have conquered the earth, the seas and the sky. We have learned to grow crops and survive in incredibly challenging conditions, be it cruel desert landscapes or the icy wastes of the northern hemisphere. We have truly become masters of this planet. But everything comes at a price.

Since the discovery of penicillin, it has become increasingly more difficult for Mother Earth to control the spreading of our species quite as efficiently as she used to. When the Roman Empire reigned supreme, people lived only to an average age of 20 to 35, not really straining the planet´s resources. There weren’t that many people walking around the globe either. How drastically that has changed.

Over a mere 200 years, our life span has increased dramatically, from a mere 30-year worldwide average in the early 19th century to a solid 70-year average lifespan of today. The inhabitants of most industrialized countries have a life expectancy of around 75, often having even longer lives. In extreme cases certain individuals live to the very ripe old age of a 100 – and more – earning the impressive title of supercentenarian. The oldest person who ever lived was Jeanne Calment, who died at an incredible 122 years of age. And not only are we staying alive forever, we are also multiplying at an unprecedented rate.

With the advance of science and greatly improved living conditions, mankind has become quite adept at circumventing the laws of nature. We can cheat and avoid most diseases that used to mean mass annihilation; such as cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox. We know about hygiene, sanitary living conditions and have developed incredible techniques and remedies that can prolong and improve our lives. We grow very, very old. We have made the systems of population control that nature had put in place almost redundant. Of course, our greatly altered lifestyle, vastly removed from the pursuits the human body was actually created for – such as moving all day long – has caused an alarming rise in ailments that are specific to the modern age – coronary diseases, certain cancers and diabetes, to name a few.

Nevertheless, population growth seems to be unstoppable. Scientists estimate that around the year 1800 only 1 billion humans roamed the planet. Since then this number has increased sevenfold, and in rapid succession: in the year 1928 – 2 billion; 1960 – 3 billion; 1975 – 4 billion; 1987 – 5 billion; in 1999 6 billion human beings lived on Earth. We are starting to take up too much space and too much natural capital. The path our species is currently on is not sustainable in the long term.

In the year 2019 7.7 billion members of the homo sapiens species exist on the 3rd rock from the Sun. The most populous countries are China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil. It is estimated that there will be 9.8 billion people in the year 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. This incredible, almost unfathomable number of bodies is a colossal strain on our planet’s resources. One of the most important challenges of our generation (and of those to come) is how to provide space, energy and most importantly food for this enormous amount of people. How can we continue doing what we have always done as a species – adapt to our environment and overcome obstacles – and not fall prey to our own success?

Since we have altered so much of the natural environment over the ages, we are now faced with a significant problem. Where do we even plant the crops we need to feed all these people? A rise in population numbers means an increase in built environments – which in turn means less fertile land at our disposal. Not ones to be thwarted by a seemingly unsolvable problem, many “wise human beings” have started to come up with some very creative solutions.

It isn’t easy being green

Even though in the industrial age much of the knowledge that had kept us healthy for thousands of years has been neglected, visionaries are returning to the roots, recognizing that we need to look back so that we could move forward, learning how to nurture nature again and seek opportunities in the most incredible places. It seems that in the age of machines we, as a species, have forgotten how to live in harmony with our environment; when in fact learning how to grow crops and become sedentary was precisely what allowed humans to thrive in the way that they have.

The mastery of agriculture was what allowed mankind to settle down in one place, build shelter, houses, villages, cities; create new tools, culture, trade, and in turn – this modern age that has physically removed us from the soil by providing us with processed foods which are saturated with fats, salt, sugar and all kinds of unhealthy components that are making the world’s population unhealthy and unhappy.

The earliest gardens were planted for practical reasons – to feed ourselves. Herbs, vegetables, livestock  feed – this is what started the boom that has allowed us to flourish ever since. Throughout history gardening and cultivating food has been a staple of every culture. Green oases live on in legends and history books, from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World; the monastic gardens of the Middle Ages that provided the monks with medicinal herbs, fruits, wine and vegetables; to the rustic retreat built for Queen Marie Antoinette within the reaches of the park of Versailles near Paris, complete with a natural garden, winding paths and filled with trees. Even the most powerful woman in France felt the need to dip her fingertips in the soil and reconnect with the Earth.

Luckily, that urge remains within us to this day. Despite an increasing and staggering amount of urbanization across the globe, urban farming has become a worldwide phenomenon, one that provides a sort of repose from the oppressive concrete jungles we live in and introduces sustainability into places that were devoid of plant life. Modern technology, coupled with existing agricultural knowledge, has allowed for innovative ways to grow food in the most remarkable places. As more and more people move from the countryside to big cities – a trend that is evident across the globe – the need for urban gardens will become ever more important.

This lovely new movement has many names: urban agriculture, urban farming and urban gardening. What all those monikers really stand for is the process of cultivating food in urban areas. It represents a sort of “going-back-to-the-roots” mentality; a social movement meant to make communities sustainable, healthier and to reduce the cities’ carbon footprint. With easier access to healthy, fresh food, city dwellers can rely more on their own regionally grown produce instead of having to get their food shipped from faraway lands, thus greatly reducing the cost of food and the resources needed to put it on the table. They can eat fresher and healthier meals, leading to increased health awareness and an improved lifestyle – and a lessened strain on the health care system. And they can derive great pleasure from seeing their cities become greener.

A once utopian fantasy is now taking shape and producing results across the globe. Urban agriculture is becoming integrated into the city fabric, allowing for the raising of plants and animals within and around towns and cities. Resources found in urban areas are now being used instead of thrown away – such as organic waste (which acts as compost) or urban wastewater (used for irrigation).

City farms come in many shapes and sizes, the common thread being that they are agricultural plots situated in urban areas. Usually community-run, urban farms are incredibly charming places that house crops and sometimes animals. These farms are meant to service their local community, instead of forcing the community to buy food that has been shipped in from all over the world, sprayed with pesticides and stuffed with antibiotics.

Since the global food industry is depleting so much of the planet’s resources, is a huge pollutant and a system not efficient enough to feed all the billions of people that are expected to populate the globe in a matter of decades, people are starting to think of alternatives. Fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers all stem from finite resources. At some point the well will dry up. The climate is changing in part because of massive deforestation that provides space for crops. 20% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are a result of the enormous meat industry (cows burp out methane, you see, and methane is a greenhouse gas – one just as bad as carbon dioxide.). So, what can we do differently?

Milan vertical forest

Built, but alive

The Italian industrial centre Milan has turned what could have been a completely standard and unremarkable residential high-rise into an example of forward-thinking architecture. The “Bosco Verticale” (meaning “Vertical Forest”) project demonstrates how real estate development can swerve from established practices into exciting new territory, garner great publicity and tackle the very serious issue of climate change – and at the same time use something as simple as plants to enhance property value. In 2008, Milan was the most polluted city in Europe, giving rise to concerns on how to best proceed with city planning measures. Architect Stefano Boeri proposed a daring new design, rethinking how the building industry could use nature to make the built environment better.

The 110 and 76 metres tall towers contain 400 condominium units. There are 2500 thousand plants growing on the towers´ balconies, irrigated by wastewater collected in the buildings, which has been filtered by using renewable energy from solar panels – making the building self-sufficient. The 90 species of plants have attracted various birds and insects to the city, adding to the biodiversity of Milan’s concrete landscape. The plants also filter fine-particle pollution caused by the city’s traffic out of the air, absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. When it was built this project was considered visionary. It has become one of the must-see tourist attractions in Milan, to be found in all “must see” tourist itineraries, simply because it is so unique. It remains to be seen whether real estate developers and architects will recognize the potential for positive change that such projects can generate and turn this vision into a building standard.

Or, we can reclaim land and space and use it to grow food locally. Vacant lots in urban areas, unused roofs, even tiny balconies can all be turned into green havens. A great example of urban farming is Østergro, a rooftop paradise in the Danish capital Copenhagen. Denmark’s first urban farm was started in 2014 on the rooftop of a car-auction house. It fills 600 m2 with vegetable crops, herbs and edible flowers. There is also a charming greenhouse on this serene roof above Copenhagen. It houses an organic restaurant that serves meals to local foodies (only freshly picked greens, of course). There is even a henhouse – and some beehives! The laid-back countryside vibe in the middle of a big city has brought them great success in the local community, as well as worldwide renown.

Many cities boast charming neighbourhood gardens, such as Vienna, the majestic capital of Austria. The city government supports neighbourhood and community gardens, encouraging its citizens to have more contact with nature, even though they live in an urban environment. From tiny plots of soil on street corners filled with wildflowers to charming community gardens, such as the one on one of Vienna’s most central and important squares, Karlsplatz, little green oases are popping up all over this central European city.

Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and Vienna’s “little sister”, has taken it one step further. A married couple has taken the city by storm by growing highly nutritious microgreens on the 17th floor of a high-rise building, selling their produce to a multitude of local restaurants. They have set up a high-yield, climate-independent urban farm in an apartment above their own, where they grow highly nutritious microgreens (little seedlings of edible plants that are primarily used to add flavour to meals, but also have many health benefits).


Growing food underground – science, not fiction

The field of urban agriculture is a fertile breeding ground for a multitude of formats and business models. Open-air plots, glasshouses, fully controlled environments (such as the microgreens farm in Croatia), public gardens, communal gardens, balcony “gardens”, rooftop farms – there are so many ways to enrich our drab built environment with greenery and reconnect with nature while finding a way to feed ourselves.

In the United Kingdom, a few urban farmers have taken it to the next level. London, the business centre of England and home to almost 9 million people, is famously stacked with buildings and not exactly a thriving agricultural centre. The city is also rich in history. “Growing Underground” Founder Steven Dring and his partner Richard Ballard really thought out of the box. They are using a former World War 2 bomb shelter, situated in the very centre of the city, to grow microgreens. The world’s first subterranean farm produces garlic chives, wasabi mustard, purple radish, red basil and many other greens on a daily basis; all grown 33 metres below the city. These little seedlings can be harvested every 14 days.

“Growing Underground” uses state-of-the-art technology to create absolutely perfect conditions for their seedlings – lighting, hydroponics, ventilation and special growing platforms. Colloquially known as “vertical farming”, this agricultural technique means that plants are grown in water instead of soil. The water contains a mixture of nutrients and elements that the plants need, while low-energy LED lights hover above the plants, enabling photosynthesis and replicating the power of the sun in the tunnel deep beneath London. Constant temperatures and the absence of pests enable the team to use organic farming methods. In this way, the operation does not emit any greenhouse gasses. It does not contribute to the depletion of oil and water resources or need to use pesticides and other harmful chemicals to grow their crops. The crops can reach the consumer only 4 hours after they have been harvested, as they are sold locally to markets and restaurants. This growing method requires much less water and energy than open-soil farming. It has no need for pesticides or fungicides. It isn’t perfect, but it is an exhilarating new approach to the looming food crisis. It will be exciting to see what the human brain will think of next.

Visionaries across the globe are thinking up new ways to feed the growing population. Many people enjoy spending their free time in their balcony gardens, planting vegetables that don’t need much attention, but provide the urban gardener with so much pure pleasure when plucked straight from the stem. It is a wonderful pursuit that can only enhance the lives of all city dwellers.

Do you have a small balcony or a terrace? If you haven’t yet, you might like to try getting your hands a little dirty. Growing your own food, even if it is just one tiny strawberry plant in a small pot on a minuscule balcony, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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