With 75% of us projected to live in cities by 2050 we better get used to the challenges that city life can bring. And getting a sustainable supply of healthy, nutritious and convenient food to everyone is going to be one of those challenges.
Meeting the demand isn’t going to be easy. Food is going to be a tremendous influence on inequities across the world. In poorer regions, food security has become a real concern with grain supply and food prices pushing millions into food poverty. In the richer developed world we might have to get used to seeing less of some produce. Maybe it’s time to start re-thinking how we obtain food, where it comes from and bringing it closer to home where we can.
Can business do more to address this by supplying healthy and nutritious food that is grown in green spaces in cities? It is estimated that growing green produce on empty New York city rooftops would be able to provide roughly twice the amount of green vegetable yield necessary to supply its citizens. The development of new farming methods such as hydroponics also offers innovation with space that can give impetus that will drive forward an urban revolution.
Growing food in and around cities isn’t a new idea – it was the norm in ancient times and it’s only really within living memory that urban sprawl has taken over and created vast concreted expanses that support food systems shipping in packaged produce from afar. Unsurprisingly, for many city-dwellers that has meant a disconnection with nature. Impoverished districts, even in the most modern of cities, are devoid of healthy fresh produce. The Prince’s Foundation’s Field to Fork programme (Education - Field To Fork (princes-foundation.org) is a good example of how children are having to be taught the importance of seasonal cycle and good soil health and even just basic understanding of where their food actually comes from.
Many cities are now trying to take steps to re-green their space. In a relatively short period, we have become used to the idea of green walls and green roofs and modern developments in some of our bigger cities are increasingly incorporating a bit of greenery in their design. Yes, there’s a cost involved but this isn’t an environment versus economics debate. Green space is good for physical and mental health and the benefits to well-being counteract any costs argument. There are biodiversity benefits too - an orchid, thought to be extinct in the UK, was recently discovered on a green roof in London. But, can we add food value and do more with green space in cities and on buildings – the answer to that is most certainly.
Projects such as private rooftop plots, commercial rooftop farms, commercial rooftop greenhouses and hydroponic vertical gardens are examples of an integration of architecture and agriculture that can provide real food benefits in cities. This type of project is becoming more common in sustainable design in the US, Asia and Scandanavia. However, it is early days and only around 74 acres of vertical farm were in use in 2020 worldwide. In the UK, traditional urban food space in community gardens and allotments have been around for decades but very little in the way of commercial urban growing space or use of buildings. However, the development of new farming methods, such as vertical farming, underground farming, hydroponics and aquaponics, are increasing in the UK and will, undoubtedly, drive the possibilities for urban farming in our cities.
So, what is in it for business? Firstly, for hotels, restaurants, and small grocery retailers the opportunity to bring fresh produce to your business operation is a real winner in terms of supply security, cost and customer satisfaction. Secondly, there’s the commercial gain in renting out otherwise free space to satisfy demand for healthy produce. Then there is the advantage from connecting more to the local community. Add to this, the wider socio-economic gains to health, the enhancement of biodiversity, and the building of skills and employment. All is achievable in our larger towns and cities, particularly if proposed through new development and encouraged by local planning policy. Of course, there are downsides too, such as, pests, contamination, labour availability, costs – much like farming anywhere. But with time, and the broadening of knowledge and skills as well as the creation of support networks, these can be minimised.
It doesn’t have to just be buildings, either. Many businesses (and public organisations) own land in city areas which could be better utilised. If even a fraction of London’s almost 7000 acres of undeveloped land was utilised, thousands of tonnes of fresh produce could be grown each year. And, what about housing developments incorporating greenhouses or raised beds?
Urban farming cannot solve all our food security problems or address all our nutrition and diet issues, but, with some imaginative thinking and a willingness to invest in space, the growth of fresh city produce could help businesses in cities make the most of their assets and benefit, not only the business, but local communities at the same time.