Urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Hydroponics at work. Image: Getty.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.


Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about $6.9bn worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

They grow up so fast. Image: Mandy Zammit/Grow Up/author provided.

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

A simplified hydroponic frame in Portsmouth. Image: Silvio Caputo/University of Portsmouth/author provided.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

The ConversationAs with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.

Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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