Glinting in computer-rendered sunshine, Vincent Callebaut’s sleek design for a new town sits below the headline “Algae Airship: Airborne City,” with all the pleasing alliteration of a Dan Dare cartoon. It is just one of the many plans for a vertical farm that have surfaced in recent years.
Glass skyscrapers are depicted floating above the landscape, buoyed by hydrogen-producing seaweeds that make this fictional city emissions free. Using a system known as aquaponics, these buildings employ a soil-less agricultural process, incorporating nutrient-enriched water supply to produce energy and ecosystem, effectively turning the idea of the ecological footprint on its head.
Although this utopian vision appears to be architectural fantasy, the design solves problems that are neither as fantastic as Dan Dare’s space aliens, nor a vision of a far-off future.
Food poverty in cities is already becoming an increasingly urgent issue, with “food deserts” documented where the urban poor can neither find nor afford fresh food, causing crises where entire communities suffer dramatically reduced health and life expectancy.
Put simply, the cost of supplying dense urban populations with fresh food has caused supermarkets to selectively zone where fresh food is sold. This reality effectively creates nutrient ghettos where suppliers cannot afford to provide fresh food, whilst local knowledge surrounding healthy eating is eroded. Researchers at the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition found that only 15% of people shop for food within their own census area. Similarly in the United Kingdom, the number of people living in food poverty has been estimated at 10 million. Beyond an issue of economics, this is also a problem of space. London’s food “footprint” indicates that the total growing space required to support London’s food intake is 125 times the size of the city itself.
The financial and cultural issues surrounding food poverty are as complex as the urban environments where they are most acute. Just as it seems paradoxical that children can be malnourished in a city that is also battling obesity, remedies such as Callebaut’s design also seem counter-intuitive: perversely proposing solutions that co-opt the archetypal symbol of the unsustainable city, the sky-scraper. There is a growing disenchantment with these kinds of images and a renewed demand for meaningful solutions that are both aspirational and actionable, appealing for innovations that can be implemented in the urban environments where we live and work today.
There is strong evidence that solutions do emerge when this complexity is embraced, although the reality is certainly a little less vertiginous than Callebaut imagines. A number of new initiatives are beginning to appear with little fanfare, provide locally-grown food for urban communities.
Something & Sons’ project the FARM:shop, for example, has taken over an empty building in east London’s Dalston district. Covering a comparatively modest three floors, it combines a fish farm, polytunnel and chicken coop, forming a fully-functioning farm in miniature.
In addition to offering fresh produce and renting office space, FARM:shop hopes to support other urban farmers with the information they need to create a sustainable food network. This is characteristic of urban farming, which often goes beyond the provision of food to address the cause as well as outcome of food poverty.
Similarly, inspired by the idea of urban space as inherently multi-use, Leah McPherson founded Cultivate London, a successful social enterprise that combines food growing with the provision of training opportunities for unemployed youth. Working with local businesses to transform some of the estimated 1,500 acres of vacant land in London into herb gardens, Cultivate London employs apprentices who gain cultivation techniques and confidence in their abilities.
Although urban farming was a relatively strange concept for many of the organizations McPherson approached, supported by programmes such as ‘Capital Growth’, she describes establishing Cultivate London like “pushing on an open door.” Noting the flexibility of Cultivate London’s nomadic strategy embracing a short-term leasing policy and multi-site structure, McPherson pinpoints this as key to her success, providing a viable solution for businesses otherwise struggling to obtain planning approval.
These projects demonstrate that the complexity of urban agriculture, while daunting, also imbues it with the unique ability to weave positive change through the core of communities. As Jac Smit, the president of the Urban Agriculture Association, has said, urban farming has the potential to “bring us all closer together as we meet in the garden.”
Ashoka, the world’s largest organization of social entrepreneurs, has launched the Nutrients For All Initiative to champion this movement by promoting shared expertise in order to bring a greener future one step closer. It is kickstarting a forum that supports innovations focused on intervening in the broken urban nutrient cycle and aims to find solutions that embrace the complexity of food poverty, while working across industries and sectors.