According to the UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2007 marked the first year in human history where more people lived in cities than in rural areas. By 2050 the population is expected to be roughly 9.8 billion, with more than 6.7 billion of them living in urban centres. Currently, 1.5 million acres of farmland is lost in the US every year to urbanisation, with that trend only set to increase in the future.
The immense stress this will put on the agricultural sector cannot be overstated, and will pose what will undoubtedly be the most important question of the 21st century, ‘How do we feed everyone?’ One answer is as ingenious as it is simple — urban farming.
What is Urban Farming?
The term urban farming encompasses a lot of different types of farming and agriculture but put simply it is the process of growing food in urban centres and making use of every possible inch of space in our cities. And the country currently leading the charge? France.
In 2019, Europe was witness to the opening of a 150,000 square foot (14,000 square metres) urban farm, located on the roof of Paris Expo Porte de Versailles, an exhibition space in south western Paris. It has the potential to grow 30 different types of plant species and more that a 1000kg of vegetables and fruit in growing season. This is the largest urban farm in the world and even sports a restaurant ‘Le Perchoir’.
Many credit the existence of such spaces, and indeed the green space explosion in Paris, to 2015 legislation from the French Government that said every new commercial building was required to have either solar panels or ‘vegetation’ on its roof. It may seem a strange choice, but ‘vegetation’ doesn’t necessarily mean an urban farm, grasses can be planted which have been shown to improve ventilation in the summer and heat retention in the winter, lowering overall energy consumption. Naturally though, in the foodie capital of the world many companies have taken to growing their own vegetables on their rooftops.
But while large scale projects are immensely important to the big picture and the future green spaces of our cities, what can an individual do to start their own urban farm? This is where micro farming comes into practice.
A type of urban farm, a micro farm is exactly what it sounds like, a small-scale farm. But don’t let the name mislead you, micro farms can have some huge benefits and they’re as varied as another form of farming.
Firstly, a herb garden. This is one of the most accessible micro farms for beginners to gardening (I’ve managed to keep mine going for a year nearly). There are a great deal of herbs suitable for micro farming, which ones will depend largely on the type of space you have to grow them in though (I’ll come back to this later), so it’s important to do your research and know your space before going forward.
The same applies for fruits and vegetables. There are very few things that won’t grow in a planter, so you could potentially have access to potatoes, onions, carrots, lettuces, radishes, micro greens, edible flowers and even peanuts, all from the wilderness of your own balcony. For species that find it challenging to grow in more northern environments, like tomatoes and chillies, it’s usually a good idea to nurture them indoors a little first, giving them time to establish themselves and properly controlling their growing environment before re-potting them outside once more mature.
But what if you don’t want to grow vegetables, what if you want something more exciting. Well, how about snail farming? Yep, you read that right, snail farming is big business, and not just in France. Aside from being delicious, snail’s mucin (their slime) is a minor ingredient in many beauty products, but if you want to keep it to the culinary, why not produce snail caviar? With a retail price of $100 per 50g, you would only need around 25 snails to make 100g of this slimy gold, meaning the snails more than pay for themselves (and the rest of your garden).
If snails aren’t your thing, consider a beehive. Bees can offer more than just honey; if kept in conjunction with plants, bees will dramatically increase yields of vegetable plants. What’s more, individual beehives are quite small, so they can fit just about anywhere. You can also gain products like beeswax, which can be used to make candles and soap, while royal jelly is considered a super food and can be sold for a high price. You can get everything you need to start a beehive for around $500 and benefits include ethical honey and a myriad of side products that cannot be overstated.
Setting up your farm
So, you’re interested, and you want to see if you’re a natural green thumb. Setting up a micro farm or larger urban farm is very much case by case and depends largely on the space available. If all you have space for is a window box, perhaps a small herb garden is for you. Likewise, if you have a whole rooftop, then you have the potential to have a fully-fledged urban farm.
There are a few basic rules and tips to follow though, regardless of which category you fall into. First and foremost, the legal stuff. While there’s unlikely to be laws regarding your window box, many city councils and homeowners’ associations have strict rules surrounding greenery in their neighbourhoods. A great deal of urban spaces are moving towards a greener future, but best to check before you invest. Likewise, if you’re renting, make sure your landlord okays it first.
Next, weight. Do your research, figure out what you want to grow and what you’ll need to grow it. There are dozens of weight-saving ways of growing, many specifically designed for urban farming, including lightweight growing soil, using fibre glass or plastic growers, and even using packing peanuts for drainage. Once you’ve got it all figured out, consult an architect. Even with all the weight reduction, some balconies or rooftops simply aren’t designed to cope with the extra weight of a rooftop farm, so be meticulous and don’t overreach.
Feeding into this is irrigation. Going back and forth to the sink and filling up a watering can isn’t a good use of you time and is incredibly inefficient on the larger end of the urban farming spectrum. Lucky, you can install an automatic watering system or a water storage unit (though be sure to factor the weight of the latter in once it’s full of water, not when it’s empty). A proper drainage system is also incredibly important, to avoid damage to the roof and ensure the plants remain healthy.
Then there is composting to consider. You can compost food scraps, grass, coffee grounds (called green compost) and dry plant matter, autumn leaves and even paper bags (called brown compost). You generally want a 50/50 split of these two and soon you’ll have your own compost for your burgeoning garden.
The final two main concerns go hand in hand, wind and heat. Rooftops get incredibly hot during the summer, especially if painted black, with roof temperatures in New York city reaching 170F (77C) in the summer. For this reason, be very careful with your plant choice. Your choices are broadened if you have a shaded rooftop or balcony (though this also presents a different set of challenges), but for Full Sun environments (more than six hours of direct, continuous sun per day) you will need rugged drought resistant vegetables and plants to cope with the extreme heat. Things like asparagus, rhubarb, chickpeas and peppers.
By their very nature, rooftop farms are far windier than those on the ground. Installing trellises and wind breakers to mitigate some (but not all) of this wind will ensure that your plants grow well and prosper. How windy the environment is will also dictate what you can grow, so be sure to properly research your plants. Higher altitude plants will fair far better in the long term.
Don’t do it alone!
All this may sound like more than you can handle. Or maybe you don’t actually have the space for what you want to grow. Very few of us do. But by its very nature farming is a collective activity. It brings people together. There may be a community garden local to you in your city already. Often, simply helping out their means you can improve the city around you, enjoy some fresh veg and maybe make some new friends in the process.
Aside from the new friends, be happy in the knowledge that you’re actively improving the city around you too. Urban farming reduces air pollution, green spaces improve people’s mental health, and plants can help mitigate water drainage issues faced by many cities. Additionally, they drastically reduce food transportation costs and the ensuing ecological damage of shipping food across the country or internationally.
As we increasingly fit ourselves into the urban spaces surrounding us, we need to do the same with our farming. Farming, and the food that it provides, helps bring people together and urban farming helps both the planet and our own mental health in our ever increasing, ever expanding cities.
Bonus fact: The upper estimate of parking spaces in the US is 2 billion, meaning that every driver has approximately 4 parking spaces, a 4:1 ratio. If just half of the land reserved for parking was turned over to farming, we would gain roughly 4,132, 231acres of farmland, an area about the same size as the entire country of Kuwait, or a little larger than the state of Connecticut.
Bonus fact 2: Your allergies are getting worse, it’s not in your head, and it has to do with city planners. Dioecious trees (where a tree is either male of female) are often planted in cities, but because the ‘female’ trees produce messy fruit and seeds, city planners often only plant ‘male’ trees. The problem that arises from this though is that when said ‘male’ trees release their pollen, there are no ‘females’ to catch it, leading to an overabundance of pollen in the air and the allergies that plague many of us.