For the country dwellers of the past, moving from whichever rural hamlet they lived in to the big city was a way to escape a life on the farm.
But nowadays, if you move to the city, you might end up on the farm regardless. On the rooftops of tower blocks, floating on waterways or even underground in former air raid shelters, urbanites are now farming everything from microherbs to livestock.
There is massive potential for urban agriculture. One group of international academics estimated that it could produce as much as 180 million metric tons of food a year.
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But it’s not so straightforward. Surveys suggest that many city-based farmers have found it difficult to make money. Land in the city is expensive, and expanding comes at a high cost. Despite this, there are success stories. We’ve collected some examples of the ways cities have made urban farming work.
Sprout it from the rooftops
With direct access to good sunlight, rooftops can be great places to grow crops in even the most crowded cities.
In the Hague, a disused office block has been repurposed to become Europe’s largest urban farm. UF002 De Schilde has 1200 square metres of greenhouse built onto the roof, and a fish farm on the sixth floor. Running since 2016, the farm provides the city with fresh vegetables and fish daily, with the aim of providing 500 fish a week and 50 tonnes of veg a year to the city.
In Paris, the city’s government saw the potential to turn ordinary working rooftops in the city over to agriculture. With Parisculteurs, running since 2016, the city aims to grow plants on 100 hectares of building space across the city. One third of this must be dedicated to agriculture.
Businesses and homeowners can apply to participate in the scheme, and receive subsidies alongside advice from professionals. The total space dedicated to urban agriculture projects across the city now adds up to 15 hectares.
While some urban farmers head to the rooftops, others are going underground.
In a former air raid shelter in South West London, two urban farmers are growing microherbs and salad greens for the city’s restaurants and supermarkets.
Using a technique known as vertical farming, where small trays of crops are stacked in trays under banks of LEDS, the farm, named Growing Underground, manages to cultivate large amounts of crops in enclosed and cramped spaces the whole year round.
Thanks to the constant supply of light the crops tend to grow faster and require less water. They’re deemed tasty enough for the best restaurants: restaurateur Michel Roux Jr uses them in his double Michelin starred restaurant, Le Gavroche, and sits on Growing Underground’s board.
Bringing animals to the city is more of a headache. They require more room than plants and vegetables, create more waste and have little room for pasture.
A company in Rotterdam thinks it’s solved the problem by getting the animals out on the water. “Floating Farm” has built a dairy farm housed on a platform on one of the city’s waterways. Half the time the cows on the farm live in a garden-like environment on the floating farm where they are fed on LED-grown grass, the rest on a small grazing meadow on the mainland.
Forty cows produce 800 litres of milk a day which is then made into dairy products to be sold to the city. The “Transfarmation”, as its creators call it, is an attempt to use space efficiently and bring the city’s food closer to it. To this end, the farm invites business and school groups to visit.
Urban rooftops are also ideal environments for bees. In Ljubljana, an urban beekeeping company, Najemi panj, or “Hire a Hive”, offers individual households and businesses ready-made beehives for their rooftops. Beekeeping is expensive, so Hire a Hive offers set-up and maintenance services for a annual fee equivalent to the cost of a gym membership. Likewise in Paris, one of the urban farms on the Pariscultueurs scheme keeps bees and sells the honey they produce.
Bee populations have declined dramatically worldwide, by 33% in the US and 13% in Europe in 2016 alone. Thanks to the use of pesticides, many suspect industrial agriculture is killing them off. Cities, in contrast to the countryside, with their parks and gardens, can be relatively safe habitats for bees. — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/ACME)