From rooftop and wall gardens to subterranean farms and edible gardens that dangle from office ceilings, urban farming has left no city without its little green enclaves. And although it still remains largely controversial, urban farming has quickly become a “thing” in cities around the world.
Here are some of ways that entrepreneurs and innovators have managed to put the green back in our cities.
Far from being a fad, community farms date back to at least World War I and Word War II, when victory gardens were used for growing vegetables, fruit and herbs in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and Germany. In the UK, encouraging women to contribute to their community farms to support the war effort was part of Winston Churchill’s wartime propaganda.
Today, many community farms in the US adopt a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, allowing growers and consumers to share the risks of food production, and encouraging locavites (a neologism used to refer to people who want to eat local) to have a stake in the production of their food. Other community gardens have been driven by NGO initiatives, like Slow Food’s 10,000 Gardens in Africa, which has introduced small farms to schools, private houses and nurseries across Africa and raised awareness about the importance of locally sourced and locally sustainable food.
In Los Angeles, California, 350 families known as the South Central Farmers spent 12 years cultivating 100-150 species of plants in the community garden South Central Community Garden. The garden, which was located in an industrial area and was maintained largely by low-income Hispanic farmers, became famous for the controversy that ensued between the farmers and the property-owner – a was that was documented in PBS’s South Central Farm, Oasis in a Concrete Desert and in the 2008 documentary The Garden.
Rooftop farming – which has been growing steadily since the early 1990s in cities around the world – is one of the most popular ways to utilize unused space, introduce green elements, offset the effects of pollution, absorb noise, and reduce heat island effects in large cities. In the US, cities like New York have provided incentives and grants to private property owners to incorporate green infrastructure into their buildings, while Seattle’s P-Patch program has introduced patches of greenery across the city, mostly in the form of community gardens.
With green infrastructure ripe for the taking, companies like the Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens have swooped in to create climate-controlled greenhouses on rooftops in New York and Chicago. Another company, Brooklyn Grange, operates rooftop soil farms in New York and provides urban farming and green roof consulting and installation services, as well as workshops for farmers. Brooklyn Grange also works with non-profit organizations to provide training and awareness about local farming to youth, immigrants and refugees. The New York-based aquaponics greenhouse Edenworks, on other hand, started with a pilot farm dubbed “The Farmlab” on a rooftop in Brooklyn and has since expanded their operations to create commercial-scale, data-driven aquaponic farming systems.
In Europe, Swiss aquaponics company Urban Farmers adopts a similar model, providing complete systems for rooftop gardeners in addition to running its own operations, while the London-based Barnes and Webb installs and rents beehives on rooftops and in gardens around London. In Montreal, the hydroponic rooftop farming company Lufa Farms has found ways to combine rooftop farming with indoor farming to maximize its output.
Vertical Farms & Wall Gardens
With a population of 5 million, Singapore has been exploring rooftop farming since the 1990s to address food security as it is struggles with land scarcity, but it was the country’s innovation in vertical gardening that caught the world’s attention. The country’s emphasis on food security spurred a public-private partnership between the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and local firm Sky Greens to create a water-driven, rotating, vertical farm. Designed by Sky Greens Director Jack Ng, the farm, which uses water to power its rotating towers and then recycles it to water the vegetables, has been operating since 2012 and delivers fresh leafy greens to market every day.
In an entrepreneurial endeavor, the Boston-based Terra Sphere Systems has worked to minimize ecological footprint by building vertical farm systems in Surrey, British Columbia, and Boston.
One company in London’s Clapham – Growing Underground – has started what is hailed as the UK’s first subterranean farm in a World War II shelter. The company, which is a partnership between entrepreneurs Richard Ballard, Steven Dring and Michelin chef Michel Roux Jr., currently grows pea shoots, radish, mustard, coriander, Red Amaranth, celery, parsley and rocket, and trades directly with restaurants as well as selling wholesale, retail and online.
Container farms, which are easily transported to different locations, are well suited for urbanites that may not have the luxury of remaining on one place for long. Launched in Berlin’s Moritzplatz in 2009, Prinzessinnengarten was built on a reclaimed wasteland by volunteers and activists, and has since become a popular community container garden.
The US-based Freight Farms brings a whole new meaning to container farming by upcycling shipping containers to create a vertical hydroponic growing system that they call the Leafy Green Machine. The modular, Smartphone controlled CropBox also uses shipping containers that can be stacked to grow herbs, greens, lettuce, strawberries, microgreens and fodder.
Indoor Urban Farming
While making use of vacant outdoor spaces to grow fresh produce works in some climates, the usage of hydroponic and aquaponic solutions makes indoor farming more practical for growers. The London-based GrowUp Urban Farms is an aquaponic indoor farming company that produces fresh greens and fish in unused urban space. Their farm, Unit 84, which is housed in an industrial warehouse, currently provides produce to local restaurants and grocers.
The Berlin-based INFARM, on the other hand, is an indoor modular farming solution that can be monitored and controlled by an app. The vertical hydroponic farms include LEDs and micro-sensors and are sold to consumers / commercial growers. In 2015, the company installed Europe’s first in-store farm at the Metro Cash & Carry supermarket in Berlin.
Although less common, office farms have found an audience in Tokyo, with one of the most famous examples being the wildly experimental Pasona Office Farm, which was designed by Tokyo-based Kono Designs. In addition to providing employees with team building and de-stressing activities, the office farm is integrated into the office space, allowing employees to work, eat, and meet side-by-side with fragrant herbs, dangling tomatoes, and rice paddies. The produce grown at the office is used for preparing meals at the cafeteria.
Flat Pack Farms
Although relatively new to urban farming, flat pack farms, best described as “Ikea for farming,” are farming structures that can be unpacked, assembled, and in some cases, disassembled and moved elsewhere.
On company, the Danish urban design lab Human Habitat, delivers urban farming solutions in a Scandinavian-designed package called Impact Farm. The two-story hydroponic farm – which debuted in late 2015 – has a footprint of 538 sq ft. (164 meters) when installed, and is positioned by its Danish founders as a potential solution to the US’s notorious food deserts and a tool for dealing with food shortage in humanitarian crises.
The crowdfunded AKER, on other hand, delivers flat pack farming solutions like beehives, chicken coops, raised bed gardens, worm composters, and grow walls. The company also allows users to print prototypes and make them themselves – provided that they upload enhancements to their designs for others to use.
Although truck farms cannot produce enough to sustain a community, one experiment in New York proved useful in raising awareness about urban farming – especially among youth. Truck Farm – a moving truck farm project-turned-documentary-turned-book – was initiated by Carl Ellis and Ian Cheney with the objective of raising awareness among youth about local food and teaching children to farm hands on. The duo planted tomato seedlings, basil, broccoli, parsley, nasturtium, arugula, and lettuce, and later converted the truck into a mini-greenhouse for the winter.