Urban Agriculture

Cities exist as a paradox. We live and flourish in them as if they were our natural habitat, when just the opposite is true. An infinitely complex and industrialized agricultural system and infrastructure has been developed to ensure that the 3.4 billion of us who inhabit cities globally (1) have full bellies breakfast, lunch and dinner. Civilization conjures an illusion that as a species we are elevated from the land. Someone living in an air-conditioned penthouse apartment on the 13th floor of a Singaporean high-rise may justifiably feel this in a very literal sense. But underneath this veneer we are, at our most fundamental, animals with animal needs and our survival depends on soil and seed just as much as it did 2,000 years ago.

Beyond the city walls vast swathes of countryside are needed to feed cities. London alone relies on a global hinterland with a combined area more than 100 times larger than the city itself. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire productive farmland in the UK (2). And to get this food from the fields to our plates takes an army of ships, planes, trains and lorries that deliver to processing factories, supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and canteens. So what’s the problem? You might ask. It seems to work perfectly well, doesn’t it?

Well firstly global population figures are rising at an alarming rate with a trend towards urbanization. By 2050 the number of us living in cities is expected to almost double to 6.4 billion, meaning that 7 out of 10 people will be urban dwellers (3). Given that an estimated 5.8 hectares is currently required to feed the average inhabitant of a conventional city (4), it’s a matter of simple arithmetic. We are fast running out of planet to feed all these mouths.

Couple this with the fact that our current agricultural system depends heavily on fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas, which everyone knows are quickly running out. Beyond the fuel required for our intensive and mechanized farming methods, the transportation of food from across the globe to ‘food deserts’ such as cities consumes huge amounts of energy. In the last decade the proportion of the UK’s food which is home-produced dropped by 14% to 60% (5) — that means more gas-guzzling ships, planes, trains and lorries trundling in the rest from abroad. To survive the inevitable depletion of finite fossil fuels cities must move towards a post-carbon system.

Cities need to become more self-sufficient. This is where urban agriculture comes in. By having city-dwellers growing and distributing their own food within urban areas it means that available land and space is being utilised more resourcefully to feed the rising population. It also means that food systems are relocalized. The fossil fuels required to transport food into cities is reduced when the food is both produced and consumed within the city itself. It can take various forms, as this blog will illustrate, from a window-box of lettuces, to a community vegetable patch or a state-of-the-art vertical farm. All of these contribute to the food security of a city by increasing the sustainable supply of fresh, locally grown food available to urban populations.

But it is not all just about preventing catastrophe. There are so many benefits to people living within cities growing their own food. It rekindles that important connection with the soil which sustains us, nurturing city-dwellers respect and appreciation for the natural environment. The social benefits are considerable too. Community gardens have been shown to improve neighbourhood pride and increase positive social interaction. Those who grow their own food report that they feel healthier with better mental well-being and reduced stress-levels. Perhaps most importantly urban agriculture reconnects people with the food they eat. It empowers individuals to grow and eat what they want. Food is no longer something that comes in a plastic container from a supermarket shelf. It is instead embedded in local culture; planted together, discussed, shared and celebrated. So what are you waiting for? Take inspiration from across the world and get growing!

(1) Figure from 2009 according to the World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/

(2) Steele, Carolyn. Hungry City.

(3) According to the World Health Organization.

(4) Steele, Carolyn. Hungry City. 

(5) Rough Guide to Food