Jueves 10 de Julio de 2008, Ip nº 237

Can city dwellers be more self-sufficient?
Por Anna Shepard

We may dream of quitting the rat race and moving to the countryside, but the reality is that we are overwhelmingly an urban population. In the UK more than 80 per cent of us live in urban areas. Globally, it's the same story, with the UN estimating that, by the end of this year, more than half the world's population will be living in towns and cities.

The question of how we will feed these growing cities is an urgent one. According to Sustain, the food and farming alliance, the greatest challenge of modern agriculture is how to produce affordable food for everyone. “Growing Food for London”, a one-day conference that takes place on Monday at City Hall, focuses on urban food production in the capital. By drawing on efforts to develop agriculture within cities - from roof gardens in New York to community gardens in Havana - it is hoping to change the way that urban land is perceived.

“There's a lot of space in our towns and cities that is just green desert. It's there to look at,” says Ben Reynolds, one of the author's of Sustain's recent report, Edible Cities. “There are multiple benefits from making our cities more self-sufficient. The obvious one is security. The nearer food is, the easier it is to get at in times of crisis.”

We can also combat climate change by reducing how far food has to travel to get to consumers. When the WWF calculated an average personal carbon footprint in Britain, it found that food production and its transport accounted for our greatest use of carbon - 23 per cent of each person's total, ahead of personal transport and home energy.

There are already signs that we would like to become more self-sufficient. Half a million families - 2 per cent of households in the UK - keep hens, waiting lists for allotments have never been longer and, for the first time since the Second World War, vegetable seeds are outselling flower seeds.

But just how self-sufficient can our towns and cities ever be? Jeanette Longfield, a co-ordinator at Sustain, says: “They will never rival rural areas in terms of production - there never will be wheat fields and large-scale livestock production - but we could produce a lot more fruit and vegetables.”

At present 80 per cent of London's food comes from abroad. The rest arrives from other parts of the UK with only a fraction being produced within the city. Jenny Jones, a Green Party London Assembly member, says that the capital could produce as much as 25 per cent of its food, an ambitious target until you hear that there is 24 times the size of Richmond Park in flat roofs, ready to be turned green.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because we've done it before. At the height of the Dig for Victory campaign in 1943, 1,400,000 allotments around the UK produced 1.3million tonnes of food, half the nation's fruit and vegetables needs.

Today, as the examples below show, we're doing it again. What stands out about each project is how it has captured people's imagination, demonstrating that urban communities can respond to a food crisis and eke out productivity from unlikely places.


On the roof

On his lunch hour, Dave Richards leaves his desk, walks up to the roof of his office and grazes in a 200sqm garden. Once he's picked a few garlic chives or salad leaves to add to his sandwich, he finds a quiet spot and settles down.

Perched above the centre of Reading, he describes the urban oasis as “a beautiful space that you can eat”. It contains 180 varieties of plants, most of which are edible. “We eat the garden from the first nettles and wild garlic of early spring to the medlars, a spicy fruit, in October,” he says. It provides food for the café in the building below, as well as for staff and volunteers. “My daughters (aged 7 and 10) seem to eat most of it,” he says. “They come and strip it bare.”

It all started six years ago with a leaky roof. It was going to have to be redone, so Richards and other staff working for RISC (Reading International Solidarity Centre), the development education charity, decided they might as well ask for funding and do something different.

To prevent tree roots doing structural damage, a waterproofing and root-proofing layer was laid on top of the flat roof. Then a drainage layer, followed by thick fleece and, finally, a foot of soil. With a £50,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund, they also put up a wind turbine and solar panels to provide electricity to pump the water collected from surrounding roofs and held in a vast 2,000-litre tank.

The emphasis was not so much on providing food for the town, but on showing how you can produce diverse crops in a low-maintenance way in the middle of a city. It is based on the forest garden concept, a productive and self-maintaining approach to gardening, founded by Robert Hart in the late Sixties. Fruit trees offer shade to crops that require it; other plants, such as strawberries, are planted strategically to suppress weeds, and the whole garden takes only a few hours a week to maintain.

Richards points out that rooftop gardens are also an essential part of “sustainable urban drainage” as they act as a sponge for rainwater.

He believes that all new-build offices and public buildings should have a roof garden. “The best thing is that it's an extra room, an edible boardroom,” he says. “In a crowded environment it provides more space, so instead of everyone bundling into parks on a sunny day, they can go up and find a peaceful bit of green.”


Vertical farms

Imagine a high-rise building in the heart of a city with floor after floor of vegetables and grains. There might be poultry and fish too, maybe even a shrimp farm, providing every food that a city dweller might want. This is the idea behind vertical farms, sometimes called farmscrapers, and several cities have confirmed their ambitions to make them a reality, including the eco-city planned for Abu Dhabi and Incheon, in South Korea.

You grow in a controlled, small-scale way on a vertical farm, so need less fossil fuel than the fertiliser and farm machinery-dependent methods of modern agriculture. Plus, as its creator, Professor Dickson Despommier, of Columbia University, New York, points out, it's a way of getting around the farmer's number one enemy: the weather. According to Despommier's plans, one vertical farm, rising up to 30 storeys, could provide enough food for 10,000 people.

Plants could be grown hydroponically with their roots submerged in water. This reduces the weight on the building's floors as the volume of water needed is less than the volume of soil. Chickens could be reared organically, although they would never be free-range.

If it all sounds too much like factory farming, city-style, remember, says Despommier, that producing food in urban areas enables us to give land back to nature. “Instead of farms taking up our open spaces, we can go back to having forests soaking up CO2 and reverse deforestation.”

The building's carbon footprint would be kept down with LED low-energy lighting, an irrigation system that recycles grey water, and lots of daylight, maximised by it being made entirely of glass. Renewable resources would be used for energy, depending on what is available: it might be solar in a sunny city, geothermal elsewhere.

“You'd have to be clever about the design, putting plants that tolerate shade in the building's internal space and those that need more light on the outside,” Despommier says. “The first one might not be perfect, but we'd improve things each time.”

Neglected urban space

For inner-city productivity, nothing beats the fruits of a project called Vacant Lot, pioneered by two architects keen to promote the use of neglected urban space. On a run-down square of concrete, hidden between several housing estates in East London, there is now a thriving patchwork of vegetables, salads, fruits and flowers.

All this growing takes place in 70 half-tonne building bags filled with soil and compost. Made from drainage-friendly fibres, they make ideal, if unlikely, planting containers, with plenty of room for root development. Each is tended by a local resident, except for a few that are planted by Ulrike Steven and Gareth Morris, the project's founders.

It is one of several schemes established by What If, their organisation funded by the Arts Council and Shoreditch Trust, to highlight how many city spaces could be used for growing. Steven says that she has found 27 other “vacant lots”, in this corner of East London. She admits there is also a need for affordable housing, but green space is needed to accompany it.

When the organisers sent flyers about Vacant Lot around the nearby tower blocks, take-up was slow. A year on, there are barbecues and parties on the plot in the summer. There is also a waiting list, and the only trouble has been from a couple of teenagers frustrated that their bag was given to someone else after they moved away.

A diverse mix of people, some English, others immigrants from Poland, Turkey and Ghana, have become involved, growing everything from maize and sprouting broccoli to strawberries and spinach.

“People from different countries use different planting methods,” Steven says. She points to a bag containing a haphazard tumble of flowers and vegetables that belongs to Grace, 60, from Ghana. By contrast, a neighbouring bag, owned by an English man, is ordered, with wellbehaved rows of beetroot and salad leaves.


City parks

You'd expect to see geraniums and dahlias growing in a city park, but courgettes and cabbages? Last year, in Middlesbrough, parkland was identified as an ideal location for growing vegetables. As part of a council-run urban farming project, ornamental flowers were replaced by lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries and sprouts in two of the city's green spaces, Stewart Park and Albert Park.

It may have been the first time that park space has been treated like an allotment in the UK, but it has been going on since 2005 in Chicago's Grant Park. A similar project replaced a formal bedding area with more than 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers, which were distributed to community projects and soup kitchens.

Back in Middlesbrough, ploughing up parks is only one aspect of its attempt to create fertile growing zones. Grass verges and community centre gardens also have been turned over, along with school playing fields and residential backyards; in total, 264 growing sites across the city involving 1,000 people.

“One concern was vandalism, but we only had two episodes of that, one of which involved vegetables being pulled up and replaced with cannabis plants,” says Ian Collingwood, a regeneration consultant at Middlesbrough council.

The produce was used last year for a series of local meals, which culminated in a town meal. The outdoor event attracted 8,500 people, 2,500 of whom were fed. “One of the best things was seeing how people were encouraged to experiment with cooking the produce, to find what goes with what.”

With double the numbers involved this year and even more growing space being annexed, the future for the city's ornamental plants looks uncertain.


How to be self-sufficient at home

A paved garden can still be productive if you lay out a couple of growbags in a sunny spot. Instead of lugging them home, get a delivery from www.crocus.co.uk (£7.99).

Don't like the way plastic growbags look? Then buy a grow box from this recycling project (recyclingwood.org.uk ; from £40). It comes with a frame so is ideal for plants that need support, such as tomatoes and beans.

You can still produce home-grown bounty, even if you haven't got a garden. Try a mushroom growing kit, which will yield edible fungi at any time of year (gardeningexpress.co.uk ; £12.95), or a window box of salads and vegetables (rocketgardens.co.uk ; £24.99).

Fancy fresh eggs for breakfast? An eglu hen house keeps up to four chickens safe (omlet.co.uk ; £395, includes two chickens, plus feed).

Autumn is the right time to plant fruit trees. Gooseberry bushes are low in maintenance and will give you a constant supply of fruit for crumbles and fools (organiccatalog.com ; £10.40 for one bush).

Check out "sustainable cities sustainable democracy" on the internet. P.S.The rise of a vertical farm in Las Vegas turned out to be a hoax.

Walter, las Vegas, United States

To achieve self-sufficiency in food production what is needed is a sub-acre sustainable farming system that can be deployed quickly and on a broad scale. SPIN-Farming provides such a system and is being practiced throughout the U.S and Canada. See SPIN farmers in action at www.spinfarming.com.

Roxanne Christensen, Philadelphia, PA, US

  28/06/2008. Times Online.