Urban farms have growth potential

Our friends at Pizza Pilgrims are approaching an important milestone. All of the basil used in their restaurants will soon be sourced locally in collaboration with their pals Harvest London in Leyton. Pizza Pilgrims managing director Gavin Smith tells us that the change not only allows them to have complete quality control over that ingredient, it also reduces 250,000 food miles each year. This last point is particularly relevant as consumer awareness of sustainability and environmental issues is growing, something we have highlighted in previous blogs.

That, together with the opening earlier this year of the world’s largest (150,000 sq ft) rooftop urban farm – Nature Urbaine in Paris – has prompted healthy speculation about whether inner city agricultural units will flourish to become a significant part of our future urban landscape.

Rooftops (historically an under-utilised part of many developments) have obvious potential, with direct access to rainwater and sunlight, but technology has evolved to the point where it is now possible for plants to be grown in windowless, indoor spaces, including basements, underground car parking levels and disused transport tunnels, which proliferate in many city centres. On the face of it, this allows urban farming to fit into any building. In fact, the concept has already been tested in London, for example GrowUp Farms and Growing Underground.

Right now, how this will work in practice is the subject of energetic debate. Some crops (lettuce and other ‘leaves’, like basil) are, we understand, much better suited to urban farming than others, meaning it is unlikely that rural arable farms would ever become redundant. And the energy required to grow food in a windowless space is considerable, despite recent advances in energy-efficient LED lighting. There is also the question of viability, as land values in most urban areas are significantly higher than in the surrounding countryside.

For these reasons we think suggestions that urban farms will become a common part of our city centres, providing significant amounts of locally-produced fruit and veg, are probably wide of the mark. But we do think urban farms have the potential to occupy the less intensively-used and lower-valued spaces in all kinds of town centre developments.

We also question whether urban agriculture will be dominated by commercial food producers, as one might expect, but could be part of a people-led renaissance of local food production. We’re impressed by the number of micro allotments sprouting in many city centres including London and New York. These are cultivated by people from diverse backgrounds, united by an interest in producing their own food. The success of urban farms as meanwhile uses in central London, such as Nomadic Gardens, and elsewhere suggests that this is a trend that is here to stay.

For both private and public sector landlords and landowners, urban farms have the potential to bring important diversity into all kinds of places. While we suggest that they should be treated as any other type of occupier, those which flourish will undoubtedly bring benefits to a much wider community.

Article by Thomas Rose, Co-founder of P-THREE