Urban farms won’t feed our cities – but they’re still a great idea

Lettuce, Newark, New Jersey-style. Image: Getty.

Large-scale urban agriculture is on the rise globally, with more and more farms appearing in our cities. A far cry from allotments and community gardens, urban farms occupy much bigger spaces; they can employ people, regenerate huge neighbourhoods and give residents access to fresh produce on their doorsteps.

The practice has been popular in North America for many years, with many huge rooftop farms surrounding New York City. Brooklyn Grange, for instance, produces close to 23,000kg of organic vegetables each year, and the world’s largest urban farm recently opened in Chicago.

Yet investment is also opening up elsewhere, particularly in the UK, with several urban farms planned across the country over the next few years – from Greater Manchester to London, and beyond.

Dinner? Image: Maxwell Hamilton/Flickr/creative commons.

These spaces come in all shapes and sizes. Some have animals – for petting or for slaughter – while others train farmers or apprentices. Many are increasingly using hydroponics and other forms of technology to grow food more efficiently.

A good example of this is Farm Urban in Liverpool, which is using leftover land (including the University of Liverpool Student Union’s rooftop) for aquaponics: a man-made, symbiotic system where plants and aquatic animals such as fish can nourish each other.

Those adopting a highly technical approach appear to be more sustainable than other types of urban farms. One can often find forward-thinking individuals at the helm of the projects, using their skills to gain financial support from major businesses. For instance, The Biospheric Studio in Manchester uses hydroponics to grow mushrooms for five star restaurants, which are willing to pay for the trendy local food label.


Self-sufficent cities?

Although urban farming is on the rise and we are witnessing more investment, as yet there is little evidence on its value and impact. Our book on Informal Urban Agriculture shows there is a need for more evaluation in this area.

In reality, these spaces do little to improve food security among city dwellers, as they produce far less than traditional rural farms. Many attempts to bring in revenue through box schemes – where urban farms sell packages of produce to locals – often face barriers due to the lack of product.

Polytunnels (a tunnel-like structure under a cover, which acts like a greenhouse) and other tools can be used to increase yield. But these only go so far toward tackling the problem. Many urban farms in the UK are also suffering financially and have resorted to charging visitors, or continuously applying for grants from government and charity to sustain their work.

Scene of the crime

There is also the issue of vandalism, which is prevalent with all forms of urban agriculture but particularly this larger version. Early in 2016, an urban farm in Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester was vandalised, resulting in the killing and injuring of several animals.

This happened several years earlier too, with birds decapitated and other livestock injured. Expensive CCTV systems and other security measures have been put in place to deter suspects. But this does not always prevent crime and – with expensive equipment and money often kept on site – thieves are increasingly targeting urban farms.

However, sites which have existed for a long period often report that there is more vandalism in the first years of a project, but once there is buy-in from the community this soon dips.

CCTV at Woodbank Valley Urban Farm, Birmingham. Image: Mike Hardman/author provided.

Despite these barriers, our 2016 study into the state of urban farming showed that huge positives can come out of these spaces. For example, urban farms often act as a social incubator, bringing together communities and connecting cultures. Many also impact significantly on health and well-being, allowing city-dwellers to access fresh food and sometimes even supplement diets.

We found that those connected to The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens were strongest. They gained value from the networking with other such sites across the UK.

A few in this extensive network have existed for over 30 years, and are still going due to the excellent support from both locals and the wider network. Ultimately, the idea of urban farming is not to replace traditional rural farms, but rather to complement and add value.


To push forward with urban farming, there’s a need to build on what works – in particular, to learn from urban farms in the US, which are expanding and are on a different scale entirely to anywhere else.

Global and national initiatives mean we’re likely to see more of these urban farms appearing across the world – improving city dwellers lifestyles, impacting positively on the local economy and regenerating neglected spaces, such as new farm Woodbank in Stockport, Greater Manchester, run by The Kindling Trust.

The capacity of urban farms to tackle major issues such as poverty and reducing food miles should not be underestimated, and with more ambitious projects starting up every day, it might not be long until you see one appearing in your neighbourhood.

The Conversation

Michael Hardman, Lecturer in Geography, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.