With space in cities at a premium and in short supply is the concept of urban farming a flawed one? While farming near a customer base seems like a viable option, the industrial agriculture system has, enabled by technology, led to access to more food for less cost, food available to more people than ever before. This style of farming requires space, straight lines and is not suited to urban infrastructure.
One alternative is to grow up. Space efficient vertical farms have begun appearing in cities around the world. These factory-like spaces are aided by climate controlled conditions but these require space and infrastructure to run efficiently. Paris, it seems, has found the spaceunderground. It is estimated that there is 600ha of unused space as car parks. In the 1970s each flat had 2 car parks by law. Today much of this space is underused. A company called Cycloponics has started using some of this space growing mushrooms and endives, both of which require less natural light to grow. They have turned some of the space into cold storage and preparation areas for other small social groups and startups. One of the bigger challenges faced by Cycloponics was obtaining a fire safety certificate from the city authorities to run a business underground.
There are examples of urban farming in shipping containers and similar infrastructure growing a greater variety of produce. Square Roots in the US studies climate data where, for instance, peppers grow in Mexico and then recreate temperature, humidity and light within shipping containers in Brooklyn. Initiatives like this are most effective in producing leafy greens and herbs which suffer the most in nutrient loss and damage through transportation.
Another example of underground growing is in south-west London. Growing Underground are using a WW2 air raid shelter and have worked with Transport for London in identifying 6500 sq m of empty tunnels under the city. They have since set up climate controlled ebb and flow hydroponics systems with natural air flow through the tunnels.
The possibilities of underutilised and unusual urban spaces are beginning to be considered seriously now with extra pressure on supply chains and a public awareness of food systems. Growing food closer to consumers provides the population access to fresher and more nutritious food and can provide education opportunities around food in urban areas but of course urban farming is not the whole picture. Cities still need their hinterland for both foodstuff and natural services, labor and culture, clean air and biodiversity.
Investment in this area is needed to bring to scale also. Improvements in energy use are needed because high energy lights are needed throughout these systems. A Dutch company, One Farm, conducted a study comparing CO2 equivalent per tonne of lettuce harvested. It showed vertical farming using renewable energy has the lowest emissions, however vertical farming using non renewable energy was by far the highest emissions
Farming initiatives like outlined here can revitalise communities and urban areas creating employment, markets and new food systems beneficial for all if enacted equitably.