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Green rooftops in New York Photo: Brooklyn Grange
Green rooftops in New York Photo: Brooklyn Grange

Lifestyle

The future of farming is urban

From underground farms to food skyscrapers and rice paddies in the office, today’s urban agriculturalist sees growth potential way beyond the balcony. Now, all around the world, city dwellers are taking healthy food into their own green-fingered hands. 

A friend of mine in Stockholm grows organic wheatgrass in her third-floor apartment. Having soaked and germin­ated her seeds, she plants them and tends them lovingly for 8 to 10 days, sprinkling them with water regularly to keep them from shriveling. At harvest time, the fresh shoots are snipped close to the base, leaving the roots in the seed tray to allow a second batch to grow. The mature, tender grass is then juiced immediately before consumption, so the full benefits of sweet mineral-, vitamin- and protein-­rich elixir can be enjoyed – always on an empty stomach. Who knows? On this daily shot of essential nutrients, maybe she’ll live forever. Meanwhile, a whole host of her eco-chic friends have jumped on the bandwagon, happy to pay her for a regular supply of the precious life-giving liquid. 

Prinzessinnengärten in Kreuzberg, Berlin, an abandoned wasteland that has been turned into a huge organic urban farm. Photo: Marco Clausen

Her boyfriend has his own way of taking care of their nutritional needs. He runs what must be the smallest organic farm in the city, growing carrots on the street corner on a tiny patch of public land. These health-conscious neo-hippies have earned my ­admir­ation for taking local food matters into their own green-fingered hands.  

All over the city, the urban eco-hipster’s interest in agronomics is growing. In 2011, an agricultural community even turned a disused railroad into a ­collectively-run food production operation. Groups of schoolchildren would tend their own planters, enjoying the outdoor life alongside the cool contingent of committed cultivators. It remains to be seen whether the project – currently on ice – will be rekindled.

The urban gardening trend is apparent in cities all over the world. ­Besides health-conscious middle class cultivators, often it’s the poor who become involved in it, with rapid urbanization having caused increased poverty and food insecurity. 

John Fullmore picks beans in the garden he created in an empty lot next to his house in Detroit. Photo: Getty Images

Worryingly, according to the Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF), which is committed to the development of sustainable cities, by 2020, 85% of the poor in Latin America and around 40% in Africa and Asia are expected to live in towns and cities. So we can only expect the issue to grow. 

City dwellers, meanwhile, are finding more unlikely places to grow their crops. In London, Growing ­Underground, the world’s first underground urban farm, opened in 2015, making use of old World War II tunnels built under the southwestern suburb of Clapham to provide shelter during the air raids. In ­Singapore, they build food skyscrapers to help feed people in the tiny, densely-populated republic that ­relies heavily on imported produce. It’s by no means uncommon for city dwellers to keep a rooftop garden. It’s neither quirky nor quaint. It’s not weird to grow tomatoes on your balcony or even oregano on the fire escape. It’s ecological and economical. And in the age of global warming, as people suffer the discomfort of the urban heat, producing food locally makes perfect sense. It serves not only the environment, but also the community and the economy. Small wonder, then, that it has become so big. 

Haver til Maver works to create an interest in health and nutrition among young people.

In Copenhagen, urban farms have enjoyed an explosive phase of development in recent years. Here, for example, the trendy Michelin-starred Amass restaurant on Refshalevej uses produce from its own kitchen garden. The plot, in Refs­haleøen in Copenhagen harbor, features 170-odd planters filled with everything from flowering arugula to wild fennel, kale, beets and carrots. Meanwhile, the air buzzes with bees that can produce over 70kg of honey in a single year.

On its website, Amass refers to the education initiative it runs, called Amass Green Kids. City kids from Copenhagen schools are invited to the garden and restaurant to learn about the wonders of plant life and the pleasures of growing and eating good food. In Denmark, children grow their own food in the schoolyard too, thanks to Søren Ejlersen’s Haver til Maver (“Gardens to Stomachs”). 

“We felt deeply concerned that people in the industrialized world had lost their connection with the earth,” he says. “When people get close to the cultivation process, something happens – they begin to ­understand the mechanisms involved, the aesthetics of the process. And as we learn to appreciate the importance of sustainable activities, we experience a sense of peace and joy.

“I don’t know if we’ll solve the big challenges the world faces, but I do know that if we can get more ­people growing more of their own food, it will be part of the solution.”

Certainly, given that traditional farmers may not be able to produce enough food for the growing population, buying and eating local appears to be the future of farming, so it’s a good thing that plenty of progressive, technologically-advanced and eminently-­sustainable urban projects are being developed. And that cities are implementing local food production strategies in a bid to redress the balance of the eco­system. 

Østergro – the  first urban rooftop farm in Denmark. Photo: Cory Ben Brown

In the Netherlands, the world’s highest greenhouse sits perched atop the former Philips office building, De Schilde, in The Hague. Going by either the suitably space-age name UF002 De Schilde, or UrbanFarmers, the six-story steel and glass edifice claims to be Eur­ope’s biggest rooftop farm. Here, edible fish and plants are raised co-dependently, while water is recycled through both, with the excrement produced by shimmering pink tilapia providing essential fertilizer for the vegetables. 

According to the RUAF, the cities of Vancouver (Canada), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Kampala (Uganda), Rosario (Argentina) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) are all experimenting with the inclusion of space for home or community gardening in new public housing projects. In Bangkok, aquaculture in urban lakes is combined with recreational activities such as boating and angling. The City of Cape Town ­Metropolitan Municipality assists garden groups with basic infrastructure such as tool sheds, fences and hose pipes for irrigation.

In the US, urban farming is empowering people and transforming their lives. (Thank goodness – remember Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, when the celebrity TV chef attempted to help fight obesity and get youngsters to change their eating habits? Some kids were surprised to learn that french fries come from potatoes and vegetables are grown in the ground.) In Los ­Angeles, urban agriculture is helping the unemployed and malnourished move from stagnant conditions to a healthy, productive lifestyle. And in New Jersey, the world’s biggest vertical farm opened in 2015, breathing new life into an old steel factory. In many US cities, (Austin, Seattle, Baltimore and Chicago to name just four), tax breaks are offered to people whi run urban gardens. Detroit, unquestionably, has led the way riding high on this great metropolitan horticultural wave. Here, in the birthplace of Motown and the US automobile industry, despite the economic downturn the city has suffered, there’s hope. Food production is encouraged on more than 70sq km of vacant lots. And besides growing food, these are ­places where people can learn and spend quality time. According to Keep Growing Detroit, one of the largest farms in the city, there are 1,400 urban gardens and farms located here.

Fortunately for the urban farmer, living near the food they buy gives local consumers confidence and encourages them to spend. Having fled the countryside and turned their backs on all things rural, they’ve been fed on canned supermarket fare and fast food for too long, suffering the health consequences and becoming alienated from the land. If we see food coming from a transparent source, it tends to make us feel happier – there’s nothing more comforting than a carrot grown close to home. 

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