Urban farming is becoming an increasingly popular means of producing food, with examples seen in urban environments around the globe. With current food production levels having a key impact on our planet, urban farming offers the opportunity for communities to lead more sustainable and healthier lives. In this article, Architectural Assistant, Lucy Beech, shares how the concept can be put into practice and discusses how as architects and urban designers, we can incorporate features of urban farming into the places we create.
JTP project, Alconbury Weald incorporates community allotments for local people to use © Craig Auckland/Fotohaus
Throughout history, agriculture and living have been intrinsically connected, creating an understanding of the relationship between land and food within communities. In early civilisation, the lack of transportation meant that people ate what was grown locally, with the climate and seasons dictating the choice. However, in more recent times, the rise in technology, transportation and production has enabled food to be shipped across the globe, removing the connection between what is grown locally and what people eat. This has resulted in an increase in consumerism, providing people with the choice to eat food irrespective of the season. The connection between people, the food they eat, the land and the seasons has been lost and with it, a lack of awareness about the impact this is having on our planet.
The current production and consumption of food is a key contributor to health and climate issues, and without radical change there exists a threat to the planet and the existence of mankind. Across the world, crop production uses 70% of water reserves, has led to the deforestation of 40% of woodland and emits one third of greenhouse gases. The high emissions produced contribute to global warming, and intensive farming results in soil erosion and the pollution of arable land. Furthermore, the use of pesticides and fertilisers not only contributes to the pollution of soil and water, but also has a detrimental impact on our health. It is evident that the production and distribution of food plays a large part in climate change, therefore in order to reduce the harmful impact on the planet, it is essential to encourage more sustainable means of production and also significantly reduce food waste. In the UK alone, 3.6 million tonnes of food are being wasted by the food industry every year. Waste before reaching the consumer makes up one third of this overall figure. By growing food locally, the wastage of food through distribution and emissions from transportation can be controlled, significantly reducing the harmful impact it has on the planet.
Although historic rural patterns of farming successfully connected people with the land, food and seasons, this model is not compatible with the current global situation due to the growing pressures the worldwide population is placing on land currently used for farming. The planet’s population is 7.6 billion and growing. By 2050 it is expected to reach 8.3 billion, with two thirds of the population living in urban areas. We currently use 40% of the planet’s land for farming. With the growth of urban areas however, the available land for farming will decrease, forcing us to find alternative methods of farming.
Urban farming is a potential solution to this problem. It comprises of growing food and raising animals within and around cities. Its integration into urban economic and ecological systems differentiates from rural agriculture and contrasts with historic patterns. It aims to achieve direct links between food production and urban consumers, provides jobs, utilises urban resources (compost from food waste and wastewater from urban drainage) and has a positive impact on urban ecology and biodiversity. It can occur in a variety of places such as riverbanks, vacant plots, rooftops, windowsills, railway lines and public squares.
Visuals from Lucy's thesis and concept project in Nottingham
Urban farming in practice – concept project in Nottingham
Nottingham is one of the UK’s largest and fastest growing cities, making it ideal for testing new methods of urban farming. My university thesis project aimed to create an economically self-sustaining urban farm which encourages community engagement through the participation in farming and consumption of food on site. The concept is two-fold. A hub located in Nottingham City centre would feature a vertical farm. Vertical farming produces a maximum yield using minimal space. Rainwater collection and irrigation can be used to create hydroponic systems integrated in rotating paternoster structures. Enclosed by a polycarbonate structure, optimal environmental conditions can be controlled to achieve maximum growth.
To encourage community involvement, the produce made in the farm could be sold in a market or used in a community kitchen on the same site. Community kitchens not only provide a means to feed people in need, but also educate people on healthy eating and help to address issues of isolation in the city. A circular process using food waste can create energy for use on site. Food waste from the hub and from local communities could also be used for anaerobic digestion. This produces biogas which can be used to generate renewable energy and compost for rooftop growing zones.
Expanding beyond the commercial hub, unused spaces and vacant sites across Nottingham such as blank façades, windowsills and rooftops can provide a platform for communities to grow their own produce and reduce waste. More informal ventures can include traditional rooftop farming in boxes or planters in small blank spaces such as gables. Larger projects can include miniature versions of vertical farms.
The Impact of Design
As designers of towns and cities, we have a role to play to provide people with a platform to live more sustainable lives. Landscape layers can be used to achieve diverse permaculture landscapes within communities, which encourage a self-sustaining lifestyle. Achieving these layers on a range of scales is the key to their success and can include:
- The provision of private and shared outdoor amenity space to support people in growing their own food.
- Supporting community activities through orchards, allotments and public rooftop growing zones. Food production on roofs can also help to combat the urban heat island effect.
- The utilisation of beehives to increase the yield of urban food output, as one third of food is reliant on pollination.
- The creation of management models which enable farm and resident waste to be collected and used for fertiliser/soil improvements or to be used in an anaerobic digestor to produce renewable energy.
- Collecting waste CO₂ from industrial processes to aid plant growth in controlled farming environments.
- The provision of open access grazing grassland for livestock to make produce, for example milk, for local supply and provide local employment.
- The creation of small-scale horticultural enterprises using protected structures and intensive bed systems to feed residents and provide employment.
- Using the public realm and community projects to educate people on how to live more sustainable and healthier lives.
We are currently the masterplanners of a new Garden Village in Lancaster where we are exploring how we can change the existing landscape of the site, which is largely monoculture farming, to a more diverse permaculture landscape and encourage a self-sustaining lifestyle by incorporating these layering principles