BiodiverCity 2021: Urban Farming and Sustainability

The Urban Age.

This is what the United ‌Nation’s body on settlements and sustainable urban development UN Habitat calls the current century. What’s more, the organisation is not alone in this designation because the role of cities as drivers of developmental change is climbing in a variety of fields.

It is a no brainer, especially when talking about sustainability. Many cities are ideally placed as testing grounds for innovation and implementation of green practices. Large enough to allow statistically significant conclusions. Small enough to enable effective management and inclusion of diverse interests.

Now, we can go on and on about the role of urbanisation in sustainability, but the topic is way too broad to cover in a single post. So, this one, in particular, will mark an activity that has been gaining traction in the past years — hyper-local city farming. A sprouting practice lauded to promote a sustainable lifestyle, though not void of shortcomings. So we begin…

Urban Farming: Fad or Solution?

There are so many questions about farming in cities that beg for answers.

Can urban farming actually take on traditional agriculture? Can it solve some of today’s most pressing challenges? Can it address inefficient distribution, excessive reliance on chemicals, and lessen the environmental footprint of agriculture?

In short, it is certainly in the plans for city farming to tackle all these issues. But we must dig deeper to uncover the nuances of urban farming.

Urban Agriculture and Food Security

Urban agriculture is not a 21st-century phenomenon. People have farmed within city limits for millennia, but we are only now hearing more about it because of new advancements in science and technology. Breakthroughs that have revolutionised how urban farming functions as a sustainable practice.

Such is the case with modern growth systems like drip irrigation, aeroponics, aquaponics, hydroponics and the sort. These methods produce promising results on their own but hop on a next level when combined with smart, automated operations. This integration allows sustainable and cost-effective production with minimal human interaction. The big question, thus, is whether growing produce in cities could help feed the world and improve food security.

Supply

Among the urgent aspects of food security are inefficient food distribution and the worldwide abundance of “food deserts”. These are problems that torment developing nations though they do not spare developed ones either.

The gravity of these issues is evident in several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They came to be in 2015 with the ambitious task of achieving “a better and more sustainable future for all” by 2030. Especially relevant are Goals 2 and 12, which call for “zero hunger” and “responsible consumption and production”.

There are two big hopes for urban farming as related to food security. First, that it will help with meeting local demand for fresh, nutritious produce. Second, that it will lessen the need for imports, leading to a more balanced food distribution.

The takeaway is that at this point in time city farming is expected to play a supportive role in solving these issues. However, the area is not yet mature enough to take up the torch from conventional agriculture as the principal food supplier.

Quality

Another critical aspect of food security relates to the quality of produce.

The UN and many other bodies warn against overconsumption. It causes whole regions to experience food insecurity and pushes suppliers to pump out produce at levels that are unnatural for organic yield.

Therefore, to meet current demand, manufacturers must rely on “enhanced” growth methods. This did spawn the bio movement, with its promises for a high-quality organic food grown under the care of Mother Nature. However, foods labelled as “organic” and “bio” remain a niche area, not least due to their price tag.

With the right business model, mass-scale city farming will ease some of the pressure from overconsumption. It could also make quality organic produce more accessible and affordable.

Environmental Impacts of Urban Farming

Now we are shifting focus to the second principal component — the environmental impact of urban farming.

Sustainability

Many points showcase the positive effect of urban agriculture over the environment.

For starters, city farms can pop up on existing urban infrastructure, and often they don’t need any permanent add-ons. This means breathing new life into unused structures and not contributing to over construction. As for upcoming and future developments, planning urban structures with farming in mind pushes for greener designs which result in greener cities.

We also must emphasise on the social side of urban gardening. City farming is not limited to corporate operations. In fact, one of the appeals is that anyone, even apartment dwellers, can grow produce. This presents a socialising factor for local communities that can bond over a shared interest in city farming. Through such meet-ups, people get an appreciation of how food actually gets to their plates, raising awareness for more respectful food culture, and instilling a drive for making sustainable life choices.

Biodiversity

An often lauded perk of urban agriculture is its alleged positive effect on local biodiversity. But do urban agriculture practices actually boost biodiversity?

The answer is still out there.

A 2015 meta-study found a positive relationship between urban farming and biodiversity. However, the findings of another meta-research from 2018 were mixed. It notes that “of the studies that did measure biodiversity [in relation to urban farming], some showed increases in diversity compared to vacant urban lots, but other showed no difference.” The authors also point out that most studies involved North America.

On the surface, the two meta-studies concluded with opposing results. One found a positive correlation between biodiversity and urban farming. The other observed conflicting evidence about it. Still, both agreed on something important. That to reach a confident conclusion, the field needs way more research. Furthermore, there is a common takeaway from other studies on farming in the city and biodiversity. According to them, urban farming benefits biodiversity, but only when farmers help it through their ecosystem services.

There is also the case for growing a vibrant bouquet of produce that is not suitable for local conditions. This can happen through well-known controlled-environment growth methods like hydroponics and aeroponics. They are compact and can run in vertical gardens housed in repurposed structures and shipping containers. Such methods also lessen the risk of introducing invasive species or polluting the soil and water with toxic solutions.

Truth be told, this is not genuine increase in biodiversity in that species grown in such closed systems never actually enter the environment. Still, it is a way for the consumer to get access to a variety of fresh, local produce. Perhaps the best-suited example of that comes from the Netherlands. In practice, the conditions in the lowlands are far from ideal for farming. Yet, the country is the second-largest exporter of agriculture in the world, after the United States and boasts the highest tomato yields per hectare in the world. The key to success?‌ Embracing technology.

Growing Food in the City

We’ve covered the theoretical basics of urban farms. Now, let’s see how they turn out in reality with the help of some real-life examples.

Farming-Oriented Urban Design

First, note that in the context of urban development, “design” goes beyond visuals. The term refers to the whole process of developing and fulfilling urban projects.

Second, there are two essential aspects of urban sustainability projects. “Urban development” applies to upcoming projects. “Urban transformation” goes a step further by also transforming the current infrastructure.

Here’s how this works in practice through designs that have already come to fruition.

Development

The first example is that of private rooftop projects. Rooftop gardens and vertical farming installations are growing globally. They range from apartment-ready grow kits to commercial-ready ventures, each with its advantages.

Apartment “gardening” is suitable for adding to individual consumer needs for fresh produce. In contrast, commercial-sized projects act on a broader though still local scale. The keyword here is local because one goal of urban farming is to cut the need for long-haul deliveries. Though minimal, in the grand scheme of things, such deliveries add toxic emissions and other nuisances. Hyper-local growth and sale offer fresher produce within a short distance.

This is the reasoning behind urban gardening businesses like Paris-based Agripolis. This year the venture should open the largest rooftop farm in Europe on an area of 14 000 sq. m.

On the venture’s vision and mission Pascal Hardy, Agripolis’ founder, said for The Guardian:

“The goal is to make the farm a globally-recognised model for sustainable production. We’ll be using quality products, grown in rhythm with nature’s cycles, all in the heart of Paris. Furthermore, we won’t be using any pesticides or chemicals, so the farm will be a haven for biodiversity.”

The garden will also serve as an educational and social hub for those drawn to hyper-local urban farming.

Of course, Agripolis is not the first nor the only such project. Many tech-enabled large-scale urban farms already function all over Europe and the world.

Among the larger ones in Europe is the BIGH farm located atop Brussels’ Foodmet market. The farm employs a variety of green practices to grow plants and fish through aquaponics. BIGH uses circular economy, electric self-sufficiency, and automation to stay sustainable. The venture is an excellent example that living in an urban area can be an excellent farming opportunity.

“Having always had a vision of the city as a solution and not a problem, I’ve been investigating ways to make it productive,” said for Euractiv Steven Beckers, founder of BIGH.

Transformation

Transformation builds upon existing designs. Thus, it is an indispensable part of the sustainable urban movement. It helps with overbuilding and improves the environmental profile of legacy structures. In this regard, a suitable case to consider is the Danish capital of Copenhagen. A city that for decades has been topping the sustainability charts.

Perhaps the place is best known for its bike culture and green transportation. Copenhagen is home to the most cyclists per capita. Close to half of the residents there use cycling as the primary means of transportation. Further, public transportation is well developed and “green” which is an added incentive to pick a more sustainable option instead of a personal vehicle.

But Copenhagen’s sustainable profile involves much more than environmentally-friendly transportation. The Danish capital is an excellent case of a 360-degree involvement in sustainability. Something that experts preach as the right way to go.

On the governmental level, a notable action is that in 2010 the city adopted a “green roof policy” According to it, all new buildings and those to be renovated, with a roof slope of fewer than 30 degrees must have vegetation on the roof.

The Danish scientific community too is interested in the potential of urban farming. Two years ago, five departments from the University of Copenhagen founded the Urban Farming initiative. The project’s goal is to form a multi-dimensional scientific inquiry into urban farming.

Of course, citizen and private activities are not lacking either. The now ten years old DYRK Nørrebro project is among the pioneers of a citizen-led push to transform urban areas into green spaces. DYRK Nørrebro is an organic garden which enthusiasts raise atop a school. The project has received municipal funding and since its start has spread out “satellites” across the city.

Business-oriented initiatives are transforming urban spaces, as well. Consider one of the trendier restaurants in Copenhagen Amass. The establishment is pleasing its patrons with veggies grown in the restaurant’s garden. The space grew on the grounds of a former industrial site and hosts “more than 80 different varietals of plants”. It also serves as a social and educational hub, showing the varied nuances of “greenifying” urban spaces.

Citizen Participation as a Driving Force

There are plenty of other cases that show the growing interest in business models for sustainable urban farming. It is equally important to pay attention to government-led ideas. Yet, we mustn’t forget the critical role of the urban population. It is a critical resource in the ongoing push to turn cities into sustainability havens.

Policy-related action

We live in times of unprecedented access to knowledge. What’s more, this learning opportunity goes hand-in-hand with a 24/7 interpersonal connectivity. These two factors have resulted in spontaneous and organised mass citizen movements. They have also remodelled the public from a reactive crowd into a proactive alliance. An alliance that brings along impact on a local and global scale.

“Regular” citizens are steadily becoming the driving force behind social and cultural changes. They relate to all walks of life, including sustainability and environmental management. This development might not be immediately apparent due to its gradual and often local impact. Still, figures confirm that citizen participation is on the rise, resulting in effective change.

Experts on sustainable urban planning welcome the positive influence of citizen action. They also emphasise the importance of multilevel and interdisciplinary involvement. In other words, an effort that unites the government, science, education, business and citizens.

“We argue that a more holistic policy approach is needed in order to alter existing lifestyles, technologies, business models, legal and planning regulations as well as institutional and political structures.” -from “How to achieve Urban Sustainability Transformations (UST) in real life politics?

Moreover, the available social and communication channels make it easy for word of mouth to spread around and across communities. An appeal by opinion leaders and loved ones has proved to be an effective persuasion technique. Moreover, counting on word of mouth is more cost-effective than relying on paid media. This is something that decision-makers should leverage when gathering support and feedback.

Lest we forget the educative role that citizens play as they upbring next generations. As parents, educators, and authority figures, citizens are one of the pillars that shape the values and beliefs of future leaders. Thus, generation upbringers must instil such values early on, so they become a way of life instead of a lifestyle disruption.

Hands-on action

The significance of citizen engagement is about more than policy shaping. It extends to hands-on action. After all, citizens are not only voters but also experts and a source of precious feedback. Citizens are also immediately affected by the surrounding environment and its management.

Equally significant is the rising interest in citizen science. People with no scientific background can now fulfil life-changing projects for their communities.

Such cases are especially inspiring when they come from developing regions. There, resourceful locals, sometimes even in their early teens, find a way to educate themselves in engineering and sustainable practices. This knowledge, applied in practice, results in needy areas getting access to fresh water, green electricity and sanitation. It also translates in familiarising the local community about sustainable farming practices that bring higher yields and tackle pressing issues such as pest and disease control and farming in drought-prone regions.

Further, a host of public-call events embrace and support the value of citizen science. This emboldens citizen scientists to present their projects, receive funding and guidance, and bring breakthrough solutions to a global benefit.

But citizen contribution does not end with scientific experiments. Citizens are well aware of the shortcomings of their living environments even if at some point they blend in as “just another day in the city” This is an excellent chance for decision-makers to get feedback on urgent issues and unpopular projects.

The latter is especially crucial for advancing sustainability as a normal part of life and not introducing it as a burden to society. The line between the two can be fragile in that it all depends on the appropriate communication. Sometimes, sustainability-related projects suffer pushback from the community. Often, this is a result of poor communication. Elaborate stats, technical jargon, and pleadings that we must “take one for the team” are not that effective. It is essential to be genuine in how such projects will affect people’s lifestyle. But, people click when they see the personal benefit of the project at hand.

Analysis and evaluation

Finally, how do we judge the effectiveness and efficiency of city farming? The spectrum of metrics and analysis that experts utilise is too broad to do it justice here. So, let’s focus on the primary aspects of evaluating the viability and impact of sustainable urban agriculture.

Key metrics

From the broad field of examined metrics, fundamental ones are the economical and environmental impacts of city farms.

Economic

On the economic level, of course of utmost importance are market-related metrics. They manifest through supply and demand, price elasticity, and buyer demographics, among others.

This category also includes the socio-economic aspect of urban farming. Notably, the job-creating potential, education opportunities, and cultural shift in food appreciation.

The city-level impact is another aspect to consider. Who is responsible for the safety of urban farms and their yields? Is it economically sustainable for cities to incentivise urban farming? Could this work, for example, through subsidies, grants, change in zoning plans, etc.?

Environmental

As for the environment, relevant metrics study the net effects of urban agriculture on the environment. Urban farming is a general term that encompasses a vast range of growth and business models. Not all are genuinely sustainable.

But there are observable environmental benefits to farming in the city. For example, farm plots can help with heat management and stormwater flow. Vegetation growth comes with cooling effects, while the cultivated aerated soil accommodates stormwater.

Evaluation

It becomes clear that evaluating urban farming is a 360-degree approach. One that measures more than the obvious pros and cons.

Hidden impact

Urban agriculture’s “hidden” effects concern input needed to sustain an urban farm. One suitable metric is the Environmental Loading Ratio (ELR). It compares the renewable vs non-renewable energy that goes in raising a garden in the city.

Studies have shown city farms that are inefficient and do not meet the high expectations for sustainable operations. Thus, we should not jump to judgments about the overall footprint of urban gardening. A more accurate approach is to consider the impact on a case-by-case basis.

For example, an Australian study from last year found that

“yields [from studied 13 community gardens] were nearly twice the yield of typical Australian commercial vegetable farm [… but], they were relatively inefficient in their use of material and labour resources.”

Another issue often overlooked is the indirect impact of city farming over employment. In its current state, urban agriculture is far from causing a major shift in employment. But what if it lives up to the hype? How would this impact employment in rural farming and haulage services? If urban farming can contribute to local demand, this would affect food imports. If this happens on a grand scale, it could lead to layoffs. So, what is the solution?

Realistic view

Sustainable urban farming growth and the respective business models come with many virtues. Yet, we should keep in mind that not all is a bed of roses.

There are concerns about community-related troubles like noise, odour, and potentially toxic leaks. Moreover, staples such as corn, wheat, and potatoes are not well-suited for urban farms. They can grow under controlled conditions like grow lights and indoor verticle gardens. But, that’s too resource-intensive to be sustainable. At the same time, these are the most demanded crops globally. This is yet another challenge that stands on the way of urban farming’s high ambitions.

Conclusion

Of course, all the above points are relative and subject to appropriate management. A city farm is only sustainable if its business model puts sustainability at the core.

Bottom line is that urban agriculture is not a silver bullet for either food security or sustainability. Same goes for the environmental footprint left from city farms. Not every car is environmentally-friendly, right? Analogically, not all urban farming models are solutions to sustainability and food security.

Nevertheless, many eyes have turned towards city farming as a potential solution to pressing problems that if left unsolved, could lead to

“2 billion people [being] undernourished by 2050”.

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