The lockdown and threat of a global pandemic has turned a lot of people who previously may have depended solely on supermarkets for their food into gardeners and would-be farmers overnight. As the global pandemic, lockdown and ensuing shortages triggered a basic need to ensure food supplies closer to home, gardens and allotments became not only places of escape for space and exercise, but vital for the future supplies of nutritious food.

For people in urban areas, there are many challenges to growing food at home, as gardens may be small or non-existent, and public spaces are rarely available for food production. Urban populations are now in the majority globally. In 2018, 82 percent of North Americans lived in urban areas, 81 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, 74 percent in Europe 74 percent and 68 percent in Oceania. Asia is catching up fast, at around half and Africa at 43 percent, but these figures include many megacities. So are there ways we could be growing more of our food closer to where people live and need to consume it?

In the most densely populated city in the United States, New York, a study by Columbia University found an astonishing 5,000 acres of land suitable for urban farming. A further 1,000 acres were identified in housing projects and on under-used land. Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Food at Britain’s University of Sheffield in a recent study  found that domestic gardens, allotments and suitable public green spaces could together open up 98m2 per person in the city of Sheffield for growing food – and that this was typical across UK urban areas. This is more than four times the 23m2 per person currently used for commercial horticulture across the UK. If 100 percent of this space was used for growing food, it could feed approximately 709,000 people per year their ‘five a day’, or 122 percent of the population of Sheffield. But even converting a more realistic 10 percent of domestic gardens and 10 percent of available green space, as well as maintaining current allotment land, could provide 15 percent of the local population — 87,375 people — with sufficient fruit and veg. With just 16 percent of fruit and 53 percent of vegetables sold in the UK grown domestically, this change could significantly improve the nation’s food security.

Singapore, one of the wealthiest nations in Asia, that imports more than 90 percent of its food, sees urban farming – including vertical and rooftop farms – as an increasingly popular solution to food security. The city-state aims to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs by 2030, by increasing the local supply of fruits, vegetables and protein from meat and fish.

Repurposing urban spaces for food production is nothing new. During World War One, US President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to plant “Victory Gardens” to prevent food shortages. In the UK, during the Second World War, a “Dig for Victory” campaign successfully brought production into the heart of cities, digging up flower beds and filling in fountains to plant vegetables. In the space of four years, UK reliance on food imports halved to 14.65 million tonnes and it was estimated that around 55 percent of households were growing fruit and vegetables. And in Post Cold War Cuba, the US blockade and rising oil prices forced home production in cities to new heights, resulting in 25,000 allotments being farmed by 1995.

What is perhaps different today is that technology can help us farm in different ways and in places other than parks and gardens. There are proposals, for example, to combine a shift to a shorter working week with measures to increase growing spaces dubbed National Gardening Leave. A pioneering project in Paris aims to cover the city’s roofs and walls with 100 hectares of vegetation, with a third of this is to be dedicated to urban farms and food production. Paris is an unusually densely populated city with only 9.5 percent of green space (ranking 32/37 of the major world cities).

‘Pariscultuers’ was launched in 2016 by the city’s mayor Anne Hidalgo and the city has already approved 75 projects which, together with those in this third stage of an ongoing project, are estimated to produce more than 1,240 tonnes of fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, and herbs, as well as fish, honey, and hops. Currently under construction in the south-west of the city, one urban oasis will span approximately 14,000m2 – making it the largest urban farm in Europe, tended by around 20 gardeners using entirely organic methods. Located on top of a major exhibition complex, the farm will also have its own on-site restaurant and bar, offering panoramic views over the capital and a menu featuring seasonal produce grown on the site. This is part of the Green Hand Charter (Charte Main Verte), an initiative allowing Parisians to establish community gardens on public land in collaboration with the city. About 130 community gardens have already sprouted around the city.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis sped up the thinking in this area, urban farming was on the rise globally, with projects ranging from community gardens, to vertical farms; from mushrooms grown on coffee waste in Rotterdam to subterranean herb growing in the air raid shelters of Clapham in London. The 8,500 square foot Food Roof in St Louis, Missouri epitomises the multiple benefits of such projects in transforming an industrial rooftop into a vibrant community hub. In addition to currently growing over 200 varieties of edible plants, the collaboration of architects, horticulturalists, structural engineers, and agronomists has led to a system proven to capture up to 17,000 gallons of runoff water per storm event, mitigating flooding for downtown St. Louis.

Wider relevance

Urban farming has the potential to help address food security worldwide. The first global estimate found that, if fully implemented in cities around the world, urban farms could produce as much as much as 180 million tonnes of food a year – perhaps 10 percent of the global output of legumes, roots and tubers, and vegetable crops. It is forecast that by 2050 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, and the speed of this shift demands rapid solutions to providing for these urban populations. The challenges go beyond food production, including job creation, community building and waste processing. Urban farming can make a positive impact in all of these areas, thereby also contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals 01, 02, 12 and 15.

Food security issues are not confined to developing countries. In 2017 11.8 percent of US households (15 million in number) were food insecure at some time. Lack of access to fresh food has a direct effect on health. According to a 2011 study by the Food Research and Action Center, low-income families are 30 percent more likely to be overweight or obese due to lack of access to quality fruits and vegetables.

Urban farming has been criticised for providing niche foods to an urban elite, but has also been shown to be a tool for aiding neighbourhood regeneration in local economies hit by industrial decline, and for addressing food distribution inequality. The US city of Austin’s Sustainable Food Centre implemented a programme that doubles the dollar amount of food vouchers, enabling less affluent families to get more fruit and vegetables at farmers’ markets. Community gardens help build social cohesion where the natural setting helps break down social boundaries and unite communities under a common goal. Increasing accessible green space in cities further provides recreational and educational opportunities.

Credit: ‘Urban gardening’ by diamond geezer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Growing food where people live also directly reduces the environmental cost of food production, particularly transport. A Life Cycle Assessment of Urban Food Growing in London found that urban farms could potentially reduce food related emissions, such as carbon dioxide by 34 tonnes per hectare. Integrating productive green spaces into urban ecological systems has the further beneficial effects of increasing resilience to climate change in cities by reducing runoff, keeping floodplains free from construction, reducing urban temperatures, capturing dust and carbon dioxide.

Context and background

Urban farming is not new; one study estimates that more than 800 million people worldwide practice urban agriculture, the majority of them being the urban poor in developing countries. It accounts for a staggering 10-15 percent of global food production. Those with access to land turn it to productive use, growing vegetables and raising animals – much as everyone did before the arrival of refrigeration and global food supply chains. While the majority of this is consumed within the household, surpluses are traded, and micro-enterprises develop where processing food raises its value. Urban farming in this context increases the food security of low-income groups, contributes to local economic development and the social inclusion of the urban poor, and women in particular.

Before the industrial revolution, cities were far more likely to grow food inside or very close by. In the late 17th century, Paris was nearly agriculturally self-sufficient, and urban farmers known as maraîchers (market farmers) pioneered intensive urban farming techniques that are still used today. After the occupation of Paris in World War II, agriculture was pushed out of the city into a surrounding 30km wide “green belt”. The city still relies on this local produce as its primary source of fresh food. But some are moving back in; for example, the delicate champignon de Paris, a variety of white button mushrooms, was grown in the catacombs of Paris from 1670 until the early 1960s, when producers could no longer compete with cheaper industrial production imported from the Netherlands. A farmer based just a short metro ride from the city’s financial centre is bringing back this tradition by reviving the business of his grandfather, one of the original mushroom growers.

Today, the global economic system favours large producers and the production of cheap food. Food prices vary significantly across different countries, even within Europe. In the UK, where supermarkets have become increasingly dominant in the last few decades, households spend an average of 8 percent of their total household expenditure on food – 8 percent less than the EU average, and less than half of what families would spend 60 years ago. The UK has become reliant on cheap food, though this may be about to change again with Brexit as the nation relies on 30 percent of its food imports from the EU.

Enabling factors

Renewed interest in food has grown steadily throughout the last few decades, with the growth of the Farmers Markets movement (starting in the US in the early 1980s in California and New York City) and the Slow Food Movement (founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 as a protest against a McDonalds opening on the Spanish Steps in Rome and now a global phenomenon). The Organic Movement, based originally on the Indian Vedic techniques of sustainable agriculture, has mutated in the western world from being considered innovative in the 1930s to alternative in the 1970s, then trendy in the 1990s and mainstream today. This transition has been helped by the fact that “health and wellbeing” has risen up the political agenda in countries where the diseases that are now the big killers – obesity, diabetes, cancer and stress – are caused or affected by what we consume.

Technology has played its part, enabling small producers to take payments cheaply and conveniently, and to market locally direct to consumers online. Farmers’ market traders often accept card payments now – a far cry from an old-school market where people bartered, traded or paid in cash. Smartphones have had an inarguable environmental impact that a sustainable farmer may not want to be associated with. But they have become an integral part of business practices, especially in micro and small businesses in developing countries. They increase the economic viability of small sole traders and the self-employed, enabling the vendor to cast a wider net for commerce.

The Dig for Victory and similar crisis campaigns were fuelled by the fear of loss of imported food. The key to its success was the unity of the campaign across society with people of all walks of life ‘doing their bit’ driven by a sense of national emergency. Seeing the Royal family give over their rose beds for growing onions motivated the millions, and the real change was made by empowering ordinary people to act in such large numbers.

The increase of serious weather events caused by climatic upheaval and global heating have also brought some benefits to local producers who are less at the mercy of a long supply chain and its potential disruptions. Following large storms such as Hurricane Sandy and winter blizzards, growers such as New York City–based Gotham Greens (which produces more than 300 tons of herbs and microgreens per year in two rooftop hydroponic operations and has another farm planned for Chicago), were able to thrive. According to co-founder Viraj Puri,“our produce was the only produce on the shelf at many supermarkets across the city.” Despite their relatively small size, urban farms often have surprisingly high yields; they often have less insect pressure than rural farms and they don’t have to deal with hungry deer or other animals eating crops. City farmers can also plant more densely because they hand cultivate, nourish their soil more frequently and micromanage applications of water and fertilizer. In New York, GreenThumb, a division of NYC Parks Department and the largest community gardening program in the nation, estimates that 87,000lbs of food is produced in the 553 community gardens it oversees.

(Credit: We are very grateful to the independent environmental researcher, Star Molteno, for her work on this story of change. Picture credit: Linda from Chicago, USA – New crops, CC BY 2.0)

Scope and evidence

  • Urban populations are now the majority of our world – in 2018, 82 percent of North Americans lived in urban areas, 81 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, 74 percent in Europe 74 percent and 68 percent in Oceania. Asia is catching up fast, at around half and Africa at 43 percent.
  • Urban farms could produce as much as much as 180 million tonnes of food a year – perhaps 10 percent of the global output of legumes, roots and tubers, and vegetable crops.
  • According to a 2011 study by the Food Research and Action Center, low-income families are 30 percent more likely to be overweight or obese due to lack of access to quality fruits and vegetables.
  • A Life Cycle Assessment of Urban Food Growing in London found that urban farms could potentially reduce food related emissions, such as CO2 by 34 tonnes per hectare.
  • Researchers in Sheffield, UK, found that just 10 percent of domestic gardens and 10 percent of available green space, as well as maintaining current allotment land, could provide 15 percent of the local population — 87,375 people—with sufficient fruit and veg.
  • In New York, GreenThumb, a division of NYC Parks Department and the largest community gardening program in the nation, estimates that 87,000lbs of food is produced in the 553 community gardens it oversees.
  • Singapore aims to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs by 2030, by increasing the local supply of fruits, vegetables and protein from meat and fish.
  • Paris is building a huge range of urban growing sites, including one urban oasis that will span approximately 14,000 sq metres – making it the largest urban farm in Europe, tended by around 20 gardeners using entirely organic methods.
  • In the UK, during the Second World War, a “Dig for Victory” campaign successfully brought production into the heart of cities, digging up flower beds and filling in fountains to plant vegetables. In the space of 4 years, the UK reliance on food imports had halved to 14.65 million tonnes and it was estimated that around 55% of households were growing fruit and vegetables.
  • The 8,500 square foot Food Roof in St Louis, Missouri will also capture up to 17,000 gallons of runoff water per storm event, mitigating flooding for downtown St. Louis.

Lessons for rapid transition

  1. Urban farming and gardening can bring multiple benefits: from being a buffer against food poverty, to aiding regeneration, improving public health and well-being, making urban areas more convivial places to live, while bringing environmental benefits and building community cohesion in neighbourhoods.
  2. Although farming is less susceptible to rapid change than other forms of production, being governed by seasons and things like soil ecology, given sufficient motivation and commitment from institutions at all levels, the rapid uptake of urban farming and gardening is demonstrably possible. Contemporary fears around food security in developed urban communities echo historical occasions which led to rapid expansion.
  3. Solutions to deliver rapid transitions can be a win-win: greener urban areas are more resilient to global heating and reduce pressure on their hinterlands, they also see reduced stress and incidence of poor physical and mental health, lowering social care and medical costs and improving quality of life. They also stimulate innovation and enterprise and can create worthwhile employment.

References

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