The Growing World of Urban Agriculture
Posted on 14 Nov 2022
“Farming is a profession of hope.” - Brian Brett.
In our previous article we examined the challenges facing the adoption of a sustainable transportation system using electric vehicles, and some of the technical challenges that were being addressed. In the next series of articles we turn our attention to the urban environment, including its infrastructure and transportation.
We will start by examining the growing challenge of supplying the world’s cities with nutritious, fresh and sustainable food, the growth of farms within the confines of our cities, and the social benefits that localized urban farms bring to their communities.
There is a degree of irony in the development of urban farming today as it was the move towards agriculture from the hunter-gatherer system that prompted early civilizations to congregate into focused urban areas millennia ago.
Now, growing food close to the population reduces transportation and environmental costs, reduces the need to freeze products, further reducing the energy required for food production. Urban farming practices include vertical gardens, rooftop farming, community gardens, and encouraging schools and restaurants to grow their own food.
What is Urban Farming?
Urban farming should not be confused with subsistence farming or community gardening. Although there are parallels with these, the term ‘urban farming’ assumes that the activity is a commercial enterprise, whereas subsistence farming tends just to be for personal or family consumption. Having said that, urban farming does not take place on the same scale as the traditional variety, and often involves cooperative or social enterprise ownership. The focus is also not purely on the food itself, but also the involvement and general benefit of the local community. The food is sold through local farmer’s markets, local restaurants or food shops. The farms can be located just about anywhere in a city - back gardens, parks, community spaces, rooftops, disused underground spaces, shipping containers, schools etc.
What can be achieved with Urban Farms?
Urban farms can deliver food with far higher nutritional value than traditional agriculture. This is because with most traditional farms, the produce is picked before it becomes ripe to allow for the traveling time to the consumer. With urban agriculture, the produce can be harvested at its most nutritious stage. In addition, as the food does not have to be transported long distances, the associated carbon footprint of the food can be drastically reduced.
Food waste is also reduced as traditional farms often produce more food that is required, and then stored. This means that unsold produce degrades and becomes unsellable. With urban agriculture, only what is actually needed can be harvested.
Urban agriculture also tends to use less water than the traditional alternative. Techniques such as irrigation systems on timers and hydroponic systems allow them to use 2/3rds less water. Setting up catchment areas from local buildings means that the urban farm can source all its water from the rain.
The higher quality food can also be seen to deliver health benefits to the population, resulting in lower levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, reducing the cost and stress on local health services. As urban farms can be located in previously deprived areas, adding green spaces and community activity to an area can benefit the overall mental health of the community, increase community involvement and reduce social isolation. Educational programs and workshops for both adults and children can increase the overall understanding of where food comes from and its nutritional value to overall health.
Economically, urban farms can bring jobs to individuals who may be suffering from long-term unemployment, as well as giving them valuable transferable skills and experience. The nature of urban farming can stimulate the circulating economy of an area. These farms also require less investment than the large-scale traditional farms, with lower setup costs, and easy access to a flexible workforce.
They help solve the issue of ‘food desserts’, inner city areas lacking in shops that supply affordable, fresh, good quality produce. The populations in these areas often have lower than average incomes, lack mobility, and only have access to fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Urban farms bring affordable, nutritious food directly to these communities.
The wide variety of locations available for urban farming has resulted in a number of different approaches and technologies being adopted, these include:
- Vertical Farming
As the name suggests, vertical farming involves stacking the crops vertically above each other on shelves. Vertical farming can take place underground, in disused urban spaces, shipping containers etc. It is usually combined with other innovative techniques such as aquaponics or hydroponics in a climate-controlled environment. The process of stacking plants fully utilizes the often limited space available.
This approach addresses one of the fundamental issues facing urban farming, namely the cost and availability of space. Vertical farming can increase the utilization of a limited area with a relatively small additional financial cost.
Hydroponics does not use soil at all. Instead, the plants are immersed directly into nutrient-rich water, or have water rinse over the root systems at regular intervals.
The advantages of hydroponics is the ability to reuse, and hence save water. Plants can also be grown in relatively harsh conditions compared to traditional methods. Hydroponics has even been considered to create a food source on a human trip to Mars.
Aquaponics utilizes the natural symbiotic relationship between plants and fish. The fish produce ammonia, which can be used as a nutrient for the plants. Water is recycled through the system, so has limited CO2 impact on the environment. It was found that Tilapia is one of the best varieties of fish for this system, and tomatoes and leafy green vegetables tend to thrive best with this system.
Some notable examples:
In South-West London, 33 meters below the busy streets of Clapham, Growing Underground uses the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology to create pesticide free plants using 100% renewable energy that contain up to 90% more nutrients. Growing 70 tonnes of produce per year, they are certified carbon-neutral (as well as being a certified B-Corporation), although in reality they are actually carbon-negative. Crops are grown all year round using 100% renewable energy. Plants grow in less than two weeks, with a possible four hour gap between harvesting and appearing on the consumer’s plate. Here, natural, non-gm crops are grown in a very unnatural environment.
In New York, Grow NYC is a scheme that has produced over 150 community gardens, that not only produce food, but also educate, and involve members of the community in a valuable group activity. They span the gap between subsistence producers and commercial enterprises, creating a network of areas and communities that offer support and advice to each other.
Urban farming and the weather
As with all forms of agriculture, from the vineyards of France to the tulip fields of the Netherlands, successful urban agriculture depends on an understanding of the nuances of the weather. Even the city farm 33 meters below the surface of London’s streets uses sustainable energy to power its pumps and LED lights, which is directly dependent on the prevailing weather conditions.
To address this, OpenWeather has created a visual and detailed Agro Dashboard that gives a unique view of a wide range of agricultural metrics. The power of satellite telemetry and machine learning have been harnessed to provide insights into crop, soil, and weather conditions, anywhere on our planet where agriculture is possible.
Like other aspects of the urban environment, city farms are constantly evolving, growing and adapting. Today’s urban farms are as diverse as the communities they serve, and are just as much about helping communities prosper as reducing carbon emissions.
In our next article on urban sustainability, we will look into ways cities are adapting their infrastructure and transportation networks to create a more sustainable and pleasant environment.
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