Cities the size of London will never be able to grow enough food to feed the population – that much is without doubt. However, it still seems desirable to get food production closer to the consumer to make it more sustainable, and to reduce the food miles of what we consume and we release less CO2 into the atmosphere.
The bare facts of the matter are that in 2019 it is still cheaper to grow a lettuce in Southern Europe and ship it to the UK than it is to grow it locally. The infrastructure of agriculture is simple – space, growing medium, energy, water, cheap labour and logistics – but only with the last does the city have any advantage. One reason that people gather in cities is often to escape the economics of agriculture, so the idea of creating a self-sufficient city is somewhat contradictory. Food is so fundamental to our daily lives that to consider anything other than cost as a primary factor in our choices may seem indulgent for the majority of the population. But an increasing number are prepared to pay a premium for food that is better for our health and better for the planet also. And, as we found out from our panellists, the act of growing your own food has hugely beneficial effects way beyond the economics of feeding oneself.
There are multiple good reasons why we should encourage commercial urban food production. The issue is mainly the availability of space. There is just not enough space in the city and so we resort to things such as hydroponics, vertical systems and artificial heating and lighting strategies to make growing more productive. One prospective panellist reckoned that a full deployment of these technologies in their underground city space could increase the number of harvests of fast turnaround vegetables from 8 to 60 harvests per year. The solution according to panellist Tom Webster of GrowUp Urban Farms is to find complementary activities alongside growing food. Initially the business model involved combining the growing of edible fish whose waste water provided good nutrients for growing plants. They started in a shipping container with a greenhouse on top, and then in 2015 they built a prototype vertical farm in a warehouse in East London. At the end of 2017 after they had learnt all they could from their prototype they closed it down and are now working on what they think the future of Control Environment Production looks like.
Latterly the business has decided to move away from the urban realm to reduce its input costs by combining with energy generation infrastructure. This also brings them closer to the distribution centres of the food retailers. Despite this commercial move away from the city, he is still a strong proponent of the educational value of growing food near the people who would not otherwise be exposed to this most basic of activities. “Growing food in cities is a great way to re-connect people with food, but to feed the city we need to look outside the city.”
Ilford Market is a project that draws on circular economy principles from concept stage through to detailed design and ultimately the running of the market and farm. The building, which will occupy a neglected surface car park in Ilford Town Centre for five years, is designed to be dismantled and reconfigured on future ‘meanwhile’ sites.
They have made use of this space to expand the experience of visitors to the market. For most of them, the majority of food is grown, packaged and delivered to the shelves of supermarket by a ‘secret process’ unseen by the consumer. This project encourages visitors to engage and question this process with the complete cycle of production, consumption and waste processing all on one premises. In addition to reducing food miles, the project celebrates food as an important catalyst for social cohesion and education.
Details of the growing aspects of the project are sparse, particularly how these might engage the public from an educational point of view. Designed and presented by Anna Webster of Webb Yates engineers, the enabling structural elements that make possible this temporary growing facility are appropriately ‘light touch’ and elegantly thought through.
The project raises the question about we should educate city dwellers in the ways of food production. Should it be for traditional soil-based growing with seasonal harvesting or more intense controlled environment techniques? The same principles apply in the latter but do they bring the same pleasure as sowing and harvesting and a close relationship with the soil?
There is no doubt in the mind of Anita Gracie of the benefits that growing your own food in traditional ways can bring to disadvantaged city communities. In her view we should enable everyone to spend active time outdoors. Working with people of all ages, she believes gardening brings huge benefits to mental and physical health and wellbeing along with the joy of providing their own food. The key seems to be providing them with space – any space – for this to happen and her championing of this with local authorities is important to connect supply and demand. Take note housing associations and developers too. “Forget all those fancy landscaping plants; let them grow vegetables!” Is her rallying cry.
We need more people like Anita. She has been gardening and growing food in some way or other since she was three years old (that is nearly 70 years). She looks after three allotment plots in Barnet, outer London. She lives in Islington, central London where allotment plots are hard to come by. There the plots are small (scarcely a decent sized dining table in some cases), and once acquired, jealously guarded. They are mainly the province of the middle classes. The inner city allotment is a rare thing and does not reach a broad section of society, as they surely should, as a result
To compensate for this, she works part-time for Octopus Community Network, a small charity in Islington that consists of some 14 community centres spread across the borough. For 8 years they have been running a series of Lottery funded projects, focused on getting people outdoors and understanding their environment to improve environmental literacy. Many people in the poorer areas of Islington have never left the area, and the large number of people from immigrant communities do not move about much. Her latest project, run since 2016, is called We Can Grow. It focuses mainly on people from housing estates and encourages food growing in any way that they can. The Islington Council Parks and Housing teams are partners in the project, offering a small amount of match funding but importantly helping them with access to the communities that they want to reach and space to garden. A priority for the borough is the issue of food poverty. In a borough seen as rich, this is a major issue. Over 50% of residents live on estates and there is limited garden space. The estates have lots of space but it is mainly ‘fitted carpet’ grass. So they promote food growing in any way they can – be it pots on balconies, window boxes or community gardens in whatever space.
With indefatigable enthusiasm, Anita is constantly looking for new challenges- be it adding fresh produce to the food bank parcels or offering opportunities for the community centres to take and cook ‘waste’ food from business to offer free or low cost to communities’. But the lottery funding is coming to an end, and local authorities do not have immediate resources to replace this. How can we persuade people of the value of community growing activities such as these, so that we no longer need to lobby for space and resources.
Alicia Pivarro needs no persuading: she sees growing food as part of the democratic bedrock of cities. “Community gardens, growing projects and allotments are vital and all too often vulnerable spaces in our cities that show a view of a different world. This places people over profit, encourages collective enterprise, actively connects us to nature, shows the agency of bottom-up city-making vs professionalised planning.” She believes the radical potential of these special spaces needs to be recognized, celebrated and replicated.
Our ambiguous relationship with food production in the city is beautifully summed up by the image she showed of Agnes Denes’Wheatfield—A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, Golden Wheat, 1982.We know this is not how the city is supposed to be, nor farming for that matter, but we immediately feel a connection to the warrior like figure who is holding the modern city at bay.If growing arable crops in the city is more a provocative question than a sustainable answer, the image shows that we understand the deeply rooted argument.
One member of the audience wondered whether British cities could adopt a similar approach to, say, Seville where orange trees line the streets and the resulting crop is used for the production of Seville marmalade. There were a few suggestions for a London equivalent, but many felt the plane tree was so essential to the city that this could not be usurped by an upstart fruit tree – productive or not!
We started with the production waste cycle and we should end our discussion with the consumption cycle. Despite the undoubted efficiencies of the supermarkets and others in distributing food efficiently, we still have a gross propensity to waste a large amount of that food. Plastic packaging is really a subset of this says our final panellist James Hobson an engineer less concerned with disposal of this waste than the reduction of it through the way we design our living spaces. In his view built environment designers need to take more responsibility, using their ability to influence behaviour to design food waste out of their new communities. Simple things like storage provision in kitchen can make a huge difference. But here again he sees the benefit of small scale growing schemes to the way people behave: “We should empower people towards more sustainable consumption patterns through the facilitation of more localised food production.”
There was so much more in this topic we could have discussed. It is a rich area of opportunity for increasing the wellbeing of city communities. We cannot simply rely on the existing networks of gardens, allotments and parks. Activists, teachers and those who develop the built environment need to celebrate this vital activity to a greater extent than is currently the case.
The consumption of meat has a noticeable impact on the historic food infrastructure of cities. This is different from fruit and vegetables as it involves processing of a completely different kind, particularly before the age of mass refrigeration. Perhaps the biggest impact that a city can have on the planet is the reduction of meat consumption – a recommendation from Trevor Curson the Happold Foundation Chair for this conversation and long term vegetarian. Ironically,this may have more impact on helping the global environment than any other food production measures we discussed.
The Urban Agriculture Conversation took place at the Building CentreLondon WC1 on Tuesday 30th April 2019. The participants were:
Trevor Curson – BuroHappold Engineering (chairing). With approaching 40 years broad-based environmental experience, across consultancy, local government and industry, Trevor leads the company’s environmental consultancy, working in support of development projects at the feasibility, masterplanning or planning stages. The group has capability in areas such as air quality, noise, waste, flood risk and water resources, ecology, land contamination, energy and microclimate.
Tom Webster – CTO, GrowUp Urban Farms Ltd. Tom co-founded GrowUp Urban Farms in 2013 with his business partner Kate Hofman to deliver on their vision of using high tech growing systems to contribute to towards a sustainable food system. Tom is responsible for the R&D and design going into the next generation of Controlled Environment Production Facilities (CEPF), which they believe will be capable of growing affordable, delicious & safe food with minimal environmental impact.
Anna Webster – Project Architect, Interrobang. Since joining Interrobang in 2016, Anna has worked on a range of projects including the refurbishment of an art deco ABC cinema into a performing arts centre in Dalston and a community food market and hydroponic farm in Ilford, East London.
Anita Gracie – Secretary, Barnet Federation of Allotments. Anita has been gardening and growing food since she was three years old. She currently has a small garden with greenhouse at home in Islington and has 3 allotment plots in Mill Hill, Barnet. She uses her role within the Barnet Federation of Allotments to widen knowledge of food growing through delivery of courses. For 3 years she was a volunteer Master Gardener for the Garden Organic project, mentoring and teaching neighbours and the wider public how to grow food in whatever situation they found possible.
Alicia Pivaro – Urban Gardening Activist. Alicia is an urbanist, community activist and architectural tutor using participation and radical thinking to inform methods of urban and social change and advocates for greater community involvement in architectural production. She teaches at Westminster University and is a critic at CASS, LSA and CSM. She recently completed an MSc Urban Studies at UCL researching the radical political potential of community gardening. She established and ran the St Michaels Primary School Gardening Club for 10 years reconnecting the school with its past as a model farm school. As Chair of the Highgate Neighbourhood Forum she is advocating urban growing/rewilding through a new project called GrowHighgate.
James Hobson – BuroHappold Engineering
James has 18 years of waste management experience and is the global sector lead for BuroHappold. He leads a small, focused waste and logistics team which specialises in solving waste management problems in new buildings and urban masterplans. He works with designers, city planners and operators to accommodate the different methods for storing, collecting and processing materials at all stages of a project.