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.