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Architectural Thoughts On Urban Agriculture

For scientists and architects alike, preparing for the future of food production might be a question of looking up, as opposed to looking forward

words by Róisín HANLON

Inventive use of soil-free technologies like aquaponics and aeroponics are drastically reducing the square meterage of land required to farm. These growing platforms are allowing designers and scientists to experiment with methods of food production which are environmentally revolutionary, visually striking and symbiotic to modern city life. 

The use of these technologies in urban agriculture means that roofs, facades and all sorts of leftover spaces can be adapted for food production. By growing vertically and stacking crops, more produce can be harvested from a much smaller space than was traditionally possible. There are many advantages to this, not least because land is at a premium in the 21st century, and with a growing population worldwide, competition for space can only increase. Alternatives to traditional, fertile land will likely be a vital tactic for the future. There are also so many other benefits to bringing food production into cities. Transportation of food between suppliers and vendors contributes to a large percentage of carbon emissions, the shorter this route can be made, the better (with the added benefit of food arriving freshly picked). Like with any park or garden, food production in a city increases the quality of a city – by filtering pollutants from the air, encouraging biodiversity, decreasing urban heat islands, and minimising water run-off. 

There are successful and thriving examples worldwide. Brooklyn has several operational urban farms including Brooklyn Grange which is currently one of the largest in the world, and uses over 2.5 acres of rooftop to produce vegetables, eggs and honey for local residents and restaurants. Tokyo has a large rooftop farm by the name of City Farm which specialises in growing rice and other water-based crops. Locals can rent a plot and produce food for their own table. Lufa Farm in Montreal entirely covered the top of a warehouse building with greenhouses, allowing the production of food for over 3000 people, even through snowy Canadian winters. Power, heat and water all feed into or from the existing services in the building below. Soon Brooklyn Grange will no longer be the world’s largest. Next spring will see the opening of a vast urban farm in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, which will cover around 3.5 acres of rooftop. The city of Paris is already invested in the idea of urban agriculture, with a commitment to planting 100 hectares of vegetation – a third of which to be urban agriculture – by 2020. The new farm, which is currently under construction, sits atop an exhibition complex at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles. Agripolis, the urban farming company involved heavily in this project, say ‘Our fresh produce will be used to feed the inhabitants across the southwest of the city—either directly, through veg box schemes, or via shops, hotels, and canteens—thereby helping reduce food miles.’ The rooftop will also house a restaurant which will use produce from the project, essentially offering a farm-to-table experience – albeit one with views overlooking central Paris.

It’s not just rooftops that are being reinvented to create produce. This summer the world’s first floating dairy opened in Rotterdam. Floating Farm was created in collaboration between Beladon and Dutch architects Goldsmith. The goals of this project were to create a ‘transfarmation’ in terms of animal welfare and sustainability. By bringing milk production into the city, the project reduces transportation costs and emissions, with the milk produced being on sale in city wide Lidls. The company states that 80% of the cow feed comes from the city itself, from sources that are otherwise wasted – such as grass from parks and golf courses, and leftover food such as potato scraps. One of the design reasons to make the farm float is the flooding in the Netherlands that frequently renders farm land temporarily unusable. But this does also have relevance for the rest of the world. As arable land is already becoming scarce, this water-based alternative may have a wider application.

‘Our fresh produce will be used to feed the inhabitants across the southwest of the city—either directly, through veg box schemes, or via shops, hotels, and canteens—thereby helping reduce food miles.’

Urban agriculture is not just a trend reserved for the larger cities of the world. Closer to home there are several initiatives to explore if you’re interested in eating organic fresh food grown just around the corner, with more cropping up all the time. Sheffield University have transformed an abandoned school into a soil free farm. Bristol’s St James Barton roundabout has a fruit and vegetable garden in its centre, with all food free to be picked by anyone. Liverpool has Farm Urban, who has a few projects in the city including a farm on the top of the Liverpool Guild of Students, which provides produce to the guild café below. Farm Urban has installed three aquaponic systems at Alder Hey Children’s hospital, where the food produced is not only enriching the children’s environments but then also goes into ward meals. 

On an even smaller scale, GroCycle are a company advocating mushroom farming in your own home. They offer prepared kits that need only water before growing ready-to-eat oyster mushrooms. They also provide step by step tutorials on how to use waste coffee grounds as a way of growing mushrooms. This was exhibited this year at the V&A exhibition FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, where waste coffee grounds from the V&A café were used as a growth medium for the mushroom farm installation, and the harvested mushrooms were then served in meals in the café, ‘closing the nutrient loop’.

It is true that realistically we cannot hope to feed a whole city from these small piecemeal farming projects, but the impact will still be remarkable and paves a way to a better understanding of where our food comes from. RH