06 Sep 2021 • Living
How is urban agriculture driving the growth of the subsistence city?
From improving food security to the biophilic bonus, agriculture is set to redefine our urban topography.
Alongside masked faces and deserted streets, one of the enduring images of the first months of the pandemic was empty supermarket shelves. While the shelves didn’t stay empty for long, the moment did highlight the vulnerability of the supply chains that keep our cities nourished. 'The pandemic is exposing our food system’s fragility,' argued an editorial in The Guardian in March 2020, 'a crucial warning in a world where other shocks – notably from climate change – will be heading our way.'
Urban agriculture is being widely touted as one response to this vulnerability and a swell of interest is forming around a wide range of inner-city farming projects with an enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen since the rise of guerrilla gardening in the early-2010s. The basic premise of urban agriculture is clearly appealing: cities can become self-sustaining entities, where residents can eat healthy food grown within metropolitan borders. This will, in theory, reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation and storage while reducing the amount of rural land used for agriculture.
How we might arrive at this urbanely farmed future, however, is far from clear. The term 'urban agriculture' itself refers to a huge variety of projects currently capturing the attention of designers, planners and omnivores alike. These range from educational farms to start-up hydroponic labs and on to city-wide approaches whose seeds are only just being planted.
Cover and above: Avoid Obvious designed Hong Kong's K-farm, which is run by an NGO.
Meet your greens
In the UK, city farms have typically been places to pet a goat or a donkey, and perhaps to learn a thing or two about ‘real farms’ out in the countryside. Today, a new wave of sites has emerged, producing food on small scales while continuing that legacy of education and community growth. The example par excellence is the Sweet Water Foundation, a community-oriented neighbourhood regeneration programme in south Chicago. The foundation was cofounded in 2014 by architect and MacArthur fellow Emmanuel Pratt, who has described Sweet Water as a 'living learning laboratory'. Among the foundation’s projects is The Commonwealth, a 'campus' that spans four blocks of formerly degenerating neighbourhood space. In 2014 Pratt worked with city authorities to rezone the area for agricultural use and today the site boasts a community farm of 210 vegetable rows feeding hundreds of neighbours, community gardens for educational use and hydroponic facilities, as well as cultural spaces for use by local artists of colour. According to the foundation, urban agriculture can be conceived 'as a practice central to the revitalization of the neighbourhood'.
K-farm in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town performs a similar role. Completed in 2021 to a design by local architects Avoid Obvious, the farm is run by an NGO and features an aquaponic pool, vertical farm installation, rain shelter, organic farm and a handsome steel-framed dodecagonal greenhouse. With its neatly landscaped and compact waterfront design, the K-farm appears more as a pocket park than what one might typically imagine as a farm. In both cases, the farms serve more as a proposition than a productive site; their agricultural output is tiny but their value is in multi-generational inspiration, for the urban farmers to come.
Lufa's recently opened 15,000-sq-m Montreal greenhouse produces over 11,000 kg of food a week.
Elsewhere, small-scale farms run by start-ups are focusing on hyper-efficient production of greens for local delivery. These are the new generation farms which, with their LEDs, glass cases and vertically stacked crops, tend to look like a blend of spaceship and fashion boutique. They also represent an interesting new frontier in urban typologies – the farms need to be centrally-located, but don’t need to be street-facing or even on ground level. Canadian company Lufa recently opened a 15,000-sq-m greenhouse on a Montreal rooftop which produces more than 11,000 kg of food – mainly tomatoes and aubergines – per week. According to the company, the rooftop location allows them to save water by capturing rain and save energy by using heat from the building below.
Meanwhile in London, Growing Underground is a farm located 33 m beneath the south London neighbourhood of Clapham. Growing Underground currently delivers directly to consumers in the local area, as well as to the city’s famous New Covent Garden vegetable market, and aims to be producing an annual total of 60 tonnes by next year. Thanks to its 'smart farming' approach facilitated by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the farm is currently growing 12 times more per unit area than a traditional greenhouse, although it’s also consuming four times more energy per unit area.
This energy-yield balancing act is typical of the challenges faced by other emerging urban farming businesses. What’s more, the produce coming from these vertical farms is largely limited to herbs and microgreens – hardly enough to feed cities of rapidly growing populations.
Growing Underground is a farm located 33 m beneath the south London neighbourhood of Clapham.
Grow and aggro
More promising, however, are policy-level approaches to urban agriculture which, although in their early phases, might indicate how these small-scale projects might be integrated on a citywide basis. For example, the city government of New York published a ten-year food policy plan in February 2021 which recommends identifying new spaces for urban farms and removing legislative barriers to setting up new farms. Similarly, architects Katrin Bohn and André Viljoen, long-time researchers on productive urban landscapes, are working with the south English city of Brighton on their Circular Economy Programme, which aims to incorporate the city’s surrounding, council-owned rural land into the city’s sustainable future.
While these are promising moves, other urban agricultural projects highlight some of the darker sides of the changes to come. Another vertical farming company, &ever, was founded in Germany and has large operations in Kuwait. In an interview with The Common Table, the company’s head of marketing and sales explained that '[The people of Kuwait] are very interested in increasing the amount of food grown within their city borders because they are worried about climate change or possible economic stand-offs, which could lead to them not being able to feed their own people.' &ever’s warehouse-like mega-farm in the Kuwaiti desert is an architecture of resource-scarcity, even a war technology for struggles to come. It’s a timely reminder that these projects are more than simply green niceties or cool hydroponic interiors. Like the empty shelves of pandemia, the rise of urban agriculture in all its forms anticipates dramatic changes in food production and supply that may define the years to come.