How the future of farming lies in our inner-cities

Urban farming in Chigaco. Image: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Farming, it almost goes without saying, is not typically associated with cities. In fact, it’s near enough the opposite: very much a rural pursuit, rather than an urban one. Yet this longstanding perspective may be about to change, because we’re on the edge of seeing agriculture brought back into our metropolises. New technologies, coupled with clever design ideas, are beginning to challenge the age-old wisdom that to farm productively requires a lot of space.

Urban farming is as old as cities themselves, but the practice is only widely used in times of difficulty. In WW2, as the British government sought to decrease reliance on food imports, the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign saw inner-city gardens and green spaces, including London’s Royal Parks, transformed and used for agriculture. By the end of the war there were 1.3 million allotments in Britain; although only 250,000 remain.

Fast-forward to the geopolitical turbulence of Cuba in the 1990s, which had a disastrous effect on the food supplies, but which encouraged a strong urban farming movement. In Havana, a whopping 90 per cent of the city's fresh produce comes from local urban farms.

The most obvious problem faced when considering urban farming is space – or, indeed, a lack of it. Although in some cities, like New Orleans and Detroit, urban decay has freed up inner-city land that is ripe for farming; this dubious advantage is rarely seen in denser, wealthier cities .


Moreover, the economies of scale of larger, rural farms means that unless their urban competitors can up their game, city-grown produce will remain privilege of the wealthy. Technology to the rescue.

Vertical farming allows the growing power of those old quaint horizontal farms to be fitted into space a fraction of the size: stacked vertically, obviously. This controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) – which essentially means that it takes place in a space-age greenhouse – combined with a complex mix of new technologies and methods, such as computer-managed hydroponics and fertigation, means these farms can be far more productive than regular farms relying on flaky weather. Beyond facilitating agriculture in cities, CEA technology could allow for growing food in hostile environments like Mars. No wonder Elon Musk’s brother is getting into it.

We now have the ability to bring agriculture into the city in a meaningful way, reducing the environmental impact of transporting produce from rural areas. Technology has rendered cities’ traditional space limitations irrelevant, while also allowing for farming to be practiced by individuals. Water and green waste produced by a city’s inhabitants can be used as fertilisers, making the whole process ring with a fantastic synergy. Perhaps this is the next step in Jane Jacobs’ urbanism – city streets where people do not just live, work and relax but where their food is grown as well.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.