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.

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

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