Farming the City

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in small towns, or the countryside. Life in the metropolis is tough, and people are feeling the need of finding a better connection between their fast-paced lifestyles and their habitat. This seismic shift is also re-inventing the way we will grow, farm, and harvest our food in the future. From urban bee-keeping on city rooftops, to acquaponic systems designed in shipping containers, as well as growing crops in underground tunnels using cutting edge LED technology, London is leading the way in the new world of sustainable growth. No metropolis can match the british capital in terms of the sheer number of ingenious projects pioneering new approaches to food production. Each of these projects is supported by it’s own motivation, from selling food with zero food miles to using existing technology to create self circulating nutrition systems for plants and animals, but they all share one common objective: the one of providing a sense of belonging to the community and well being for the people who live in the city. Supported by the local government, or in the form of private enterprises, a small but growing circle of Londoners, no matter how big and fast their city is growing, are marking a clear path leading to sustainable cities. They are not only growing themselves the food they need in the hardness of the urban landscape, but are going back to the rural roots of a community, and are re-establishing a bond with the local fauna in the research for a more balanced and better living environment. 

Mr. Dale Gibson at his recently planted fruit plot at Leathermarket gardens, Bermondsey, very close to the European Union’s tallest skyscraper, The Shard, by reknown architect Renzo Piano. 

Dale Gibson is Head of European Equity Sales at a major bank. In essence, he sells a research product on European shares to institutional investors like pension funds, insurance and fund management companies. Although his financial commitments take most of his time, Mr. Gibson has managed to raise two sustainable initiatives: a fruit garden and a rooftop beehive project. Both sites are close to his home, in Bermondsey.“I approached Bankside Open Spaces Trust for a grant in 2013. In 2014, I was offered the resources to make the project happen, and we immediately executed the planting with volunteers over three mornings in late spring 2014. The fruit trees are still very young, but to walk by the Leathermarket Gardens and see our fruit planting is for us already an invaluable experience. Previously, I succeeded in gaining a substantial Southwark Council ”Cleaner, Greener, Safer” Grant in 2012, for the provision of pollination-friendly flower beds in Bermondsey Street’s church’s graveyard (St. Mary Magdalen). My simple intention is to put sustainable planting in the ground in Bermondsey to help keep my bees and other pollinators healthy. In finance, as in beekeeping, the best long term results are achieved by combining a high knowledge base with a restrained level of activity!”  

Mrs. Rona Davis with her daughter Ruby at the garden allotments the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea  as part of the Council’s kitchen community 

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has transformed under used, neglected or disused areas of land into kitchen gardens, funding so far over 50 garden sites with over 500 raised plots, which in turn are used by over 1000 local residents. “Each plot is approximately 3 squared metres, which provides a small but manageable size plot. Between 5 and 10 new kitchen gardens are installed each year”, says Terry Oliver, Environment Manager at RBKC.“I find the community Kitchen Garden a great place to relax whilst growing my own produce, which is extremely satisfying. It is also a great learning experience for my 2 and a half year old daughter Ruby, as well as a nice occasion to meet my neighbours. With my neighbours, together with the Community gardeners, we also share growing tips and secrets."   

Kate Hofman and Tom Webster, founders of the first commercial aquaponics urban farming business in London.

"The GrowUp Box is an upycled shipping container with a greenhouse on top, which is the highest productive demonstration of aquaponic urban farming we could design. We built the first Grow Up Box thanks to an incredible group of more than 300 supporters who helped us raise over £ 16.500 through a Kickstarter crowd funding initiative. In the shipping container, we farm tilapia. Tilapia is an omnivorous white fish which tastes great. We farm the tilapia at the right stocking density so they have enough room and are in a comfortable sized shoal, which means their stress levels are kept low and we can ensure that we are producing the best tasting fish. Inside the greenhouse, using vertical growing techniques, we can grow 400 salads and herbs at any one time as well as producing delicious microgreens. During the summer we were harvesting an average of 50 salads from the box on a weekly basis, and selling it to local restaurants." 

Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, in front of the entrance of their farm in the underground tunnel below the Northern Line, Clapham, London.

When these two guys go about digging a new idea, they dig deep.  Richard Ballard and Steven Dring are the creators and founders, together with Chris Nelson and other partners, of the first underground farm in the world. “ We discovered that 33 meters under the City we are able to grow healthy, sustainable salad leaves and herbs, as well as using 70% less water than conventional open-field farming through our hydroponic system. We also have a lower energy consumption than glasshouse growing, as well as, being the farm underground, there is less carbon emission polluting our crops while they grow. London’s population will grow by two million people over the next decade, and they will all need food, so the threat to the environment is real. “We believe that Zero Carbon food has huge benefits for London, along with the environment in general.”  

Camilla Goddard, preparing the bees for the harvest, on the rooftop at the St. Hermins Hotel, London.

Camilla Goddard runs several ethical and sustainable bee-keeping sites throughout the city of London, all of which are positioned on rooftops. Among them are the hives at the University of London in Russell Square, at Cannon Bridge Station, at the Old Bailey Law court in the City, and the one on the rooftop of the St. Hermins Hotel, right opposite Scotland Yard. The hotel, in turn, receives this high quality honey and is able to serve it to it’s clientele at the hotel’s restaurant and cafè, branding it as a unique and niche high quality produce from it’s own rooftops. For those who wonder about the quality of a honey produced on a city rooftop in London, Miss. Goddard had her honey tested in several labs, where they found out that her bees had been pollinating over 70 different species of crop, fruit and flower plants, travelling as far as 35 kilometres. Because the city spans on such a vast territory, and due to its multiculturalism, her bees have been found to pollinate very exotic species of plants, that one would think could only be found in other parts of the world, such as the Peipujinun, a variety of minuscule watermelons from Peru, or japanese water lilies, making her honey truly unique. “Bees are not only able to travel for long distances - they are equipped with the most astonishing orientation system, which comprehends a very complex form of communication between animals, known as the waggle dance. The dance, performed in the hives by the returning bees, is a way to communicate to the other bees the directions towards and back from the plants to be pollinated, that can be located many miles away. This very intricate and sophisticated way of exchanging information is still today one of the most studied communication systems between animals. The returning bees, infact, through the dance, are able to give the other bees detailed information about distances, wind direction, wind strength and travel time as other important factors that could influence their itinerary.” Camilla Goddard is also one of the most prominent promoters of bee-keeping. “Ten years ago, people started worrying about bees because they heard about the colony collapse disorder that was spreading in the U.S. Still today many people do not know the fundamental importance of the existence of bees: if bees go extinct, the same would happen to our species, as we depend entirely on bees for the pollination of all of our plants, including crops and fruits. Bee keeping is a poetic way of living in the city: you have to be entirely in the moment, otherwise it is dangerous. When you become good at it you start to feel the hives, and you are very in tune with the seasons, so you are in the city but you live like a farmer. It’s not about building sustainable cities, or sustainable businesses, it’s about living sustainable lives.”

"It’s not about building sustainable cities, or sustainable businesses - it’s about living sustainable lives.”

Richard and Jeanne Elize Marshall on their house boat “Tigermilk”, moored on the Regent’s canal. 

Richard and Jeanne grow courgettes, eggplants, 3 different varieties of tomatoes, seven different herbs, spring onions as well as many types of leaf salads.Richard works in the drinks industry and music management, and Jeanne studies tailoring and makes things. "We met just over 3 years ago on a night out in east London and were married 5 months later on a harbour pier in Kalk Bay in Cape Town. We bought our boat in reaction to the routine of London apartment living. Boaters have to work hard to maintain a comfortable standard of living.  Growing food is a reminder of nature and its power, easily forgotten when living in the city. It brings a greater awareness of the seasons, which goes hand in hand with living on the water. Less time wasted in supermarkets. Beautiful ingredients like courgette flowers in abundance and tomatoes that taste suspiciously like the real thing." 

Paul Kitson, real estate agent, Senior Negotiator at Draker Lettings, stops at the Vauxhall City Farm on his way to work.

Paul Kitson, real estate agent, Senior Negotiator at Draker Lettings, Chelsea, stops at the Vauxhall City Farm on his way to the office. "I love nature, to be able to be so close and in tangible reach of nature and its energy while commuting to work is a real treat and concept that must be enhanced, especially in this city’s fast paced lifestyle. I honestly feel nature and animals bring us back to just being, our true selves, simplistic and raw."

View Tube volunteer gardeners at the Friday morning gardening session, Olympic Park, London.

 The View Tube is a social enterprise and community venue located on The Greenway adjacent to the new Olympic Park in east London.Funded through a partnership project between Leaside Regeneration, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, the Olympic Delivery Authority, Thames Water and the Olympic Delivery Authority, the structure includes a covered cafe terrace, extended cafe kitchen, new bike store, a viewing gallery and office meeting space.It was built using recycled shipping containers whose construction and installation was delivered by Urban Space Management.  

Teacher and writer Tom Moggach, with the kids at the Rhyl School, Camden.

Tom is the author of the “The Urban Kitchen Gardener”, a successful book on gardening in the city."Growing food is different in the city: life is faster and space is tight. So it is vital to focus on only the most rewarding edible plants”.Tom is considered to be an authority in urban crop growing, and for his projects he carefully selects the best city crops, from the familiar chillies and strawberries to the more unusual Japanese shiso and Mexican mouse melons. “My intention is to give people an inspirational guide to help them make the most of thei urban plot, whatever the size.”"Growing Ideas” is an innovative project based in Rhyl Primary School, North London, that I created together with the school. This inner city school built an urban farm in their staff car park and sell a wide range of crops, including coriander to parents, mixed salad to a local coffee shop and green shiso, a Japanese herb, to a sushi restaurant. A recent sideline is selling pizza from their wood fired oven - the kids love growing up their own vegetables and making their own pizza!  

Mrs. Lutfun Hussain, Chief Gardener and Project Coordinator as well as Founder of The Coriander Club, is standing next to poly-tunnels at the Spitalfields City Farm. One of the poly-tunnels hides Hussain’s secret collection of over 70 different varieties of chillies.

Lutfun Hussain’s involvement with the farm began when she replied to an ad on the Bangla Newspaper.Tower Hamlets has a large Bengali population and word of Lutfun's success in growing traditional vegetables quickly spread. In response Lutfun set up the Coriander Club in 2000, which not only provides the opportunity for women to grow organic vegetables for their family, but participate in healthy cooking classes. "The Club provides local Bangladeshi women with a space in which to exercise, socialise and grow traditional Bengali vegetables, and what they learn and grow; they bring home to their dinner tables. To garden and grow your own vegetables is an important part of Bengali culture and the Spitalfields City Farm provides a space to  cultivate traditional produce as a community.”TheClub began to have a number of additional benefits:  the cooking class and gardening were important in helping members feel less isolated: many of the women, having just immigrated to the U.K., were homesick and scared, but felt safe in the club, speaking Bangla, socialising and laughing together."The Coriander Club is a small project, but working with such a diverse group of people and seeing the positive benefits that cooperating on the farm brings them, is incredibly rewarding”, says Lutfun, “and seeing the happy face of a child who has grown even a single marigold - that is something money can't buy.”This broad approach is mirrored in other projects run from Spitalfields City Farm where the overriding aim of all activities is to teach people where food comes from, provide skills training - such as animal care and horticulture, and provide a space for developing sustainable and healthy approaches to living. Lutfun and the team are particularly keen to see the farm develop as an education hub, a place for learning and the exchange of ideas. In particular the farm provides opportunities for disadvantaged people to develop life skills, and different programmes target the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders, young people with learning difficulties, and those with mental health issues. Spitalfields City Farm provides an ideal space for creativity and a holistic approach to sustainability. "As a London Leader I will work with the Coriander Club in creating a 'Spitalfields Green Quarter’, taking the holistic aspirations of the City Farm out to the community. Working with more partners and sharing knowledge I will work to demonstrate and encourage inner city sustainable living." 

Damion Thomas, from Bootstrap Company, with a sample the vertical growing aquaponics leaf salads, installed on the rooftop at the Dalston Roof Park, Dalston, London.

Dalston Roof Park, a project started by Bootstrap Company, is an urban utopian oasis over looking London's skyline. With a £5 donation for the whole summer, anyone can get a membership which includes free film screenings and music events, plus pop up street food stalls. The aim is to let anyone use and enjoy the park, whilst contributing to the garden and its growing. “We actively encourage young people to engage in the garden and we try to get in touch with as many budding gardeners, photographers, painters, and sound engineers as possible.” By leveraging the creative enterprises that are part of the Bootstrap community we develop programs that focus on creative learning and career building. Striving to push borders on re-imagining space and creating unconventional experiences are vital to our enterprise, and the Dalston Roof Park.

Barnaby Shaw, bee keeper, getting ready for the honey harvest at the National Theatre.

Barnaby defines himself an “urban holistic bee keeper”. He runs several beehive projects in London.One in Kennington, one in Southbank, one at the National Theatre plus two estates projects in Camberwell, called Subterranea.“The site at Kennington park and the estates especially were created with the specific intention of involving people and children from the local area, and have therefore strong educational purposes. Environmental projects are excellent for the bees but also fundamental for the crops around the area. So a true holistic approach should also involve gardening, and all good beekeepeers should at the same time be good gardeners and crop growers. Ultimately, every project that we accomplish has a complete environmental impact, so every project is an environmental project. The building is constructed with an ecological dimension – it has a living, intensively planted green roof, and has been built using sustainable reclaimed materials and plants. In the long term we aim to install renewable energy sources. All planting has been designed to be nectar rich according to RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and BBKA (British Beekeepers Association) guidance. We also have an anaerobic digester and solar water heater.” Barnaby reminds us that 80% of plant species require bees, to be pollinated: “Without bees, there is no pollinization, and fruits and vegetables could disappear from the face of the earth.” 

Lady waiting for 322 bus at the Edible Bus Stop, Brixton, London.

The Edible Bus Stop (EBS) transforms neglected urban public sites into design-led, community growing spaces. “Our vision is to produce gardens that promote harmonious meeting areas for people to come together for the good of the neighbourhood and to get to know each other. By gardening and enjoying these community growing spaces, conversation is encouraged, barriers are broken down, skills are shared and a vested interest in a neighbourhood is nurtured. The aim is to move away from the usual stereotype of community gardens where the emphasis is mainly on function over form, instead exploring designs that create landmarks of pride, demonstrating that good design is not socially exclusive. Our project has been recognised by the Mayor of London’s Pocket Park programme and was awarded funding for two Pocket Parks. Our Stockwell garden was the first in the scheme to realised in May 2013. Our second Pocket Park in West Norwood opened in the beginning of June 2014 and is predominantly planted with Native Edibles & Wild Flowers. We work with existing community groups to provide them with the necessary framework to utilise neglected public spaces in a productive fashion. Our objective is to create an Edible Bus Route, using the existing 322 bus route through South London.” 

Mitch Steprans of InMidTown with chicken "MEgghen", of international law firm Mischon de Reya, together at Coram Fields during the lunch time break.

The Chicken Coop at Coram Fields forms part of inmidtown’s ongoing programme of Lunchtime Farming initiatives, which aims to give something meaningful and useful back to the Midtown community of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St. Giles. This includes its vegetable roof gardens and beehives, which provide food and honey to kitchens across Midtown.The objective of InMidTown is to make all Midtown a quality environment in which to work and live, a vibrant area to visit and a profitable place to do business. A number of businesses in the area have been inspired by our beekeeping and vegetable growing projects but do not have the space to run a similar scheme. Infact, the Grange Holborn Hotel, was the first hotel in the Midtown area to take produce from the Chicken Coop.Mary Doogan, CSR & Group General Manager of the Hotel says: “Grange Hotels are delighted to take part in the inmidtown Chicken Coop as we are committed to buying locally and supporting local businesses. Not only does this fantastic initiative reduce our carbon footprint and impact on the environment, but it gives us the opportunity to offer the freshest organic produce to our guests !”"We are proud to sponsor our chicken 'Meghen de Laya' at Coram Fields City Farm. Meghen is specialized in Eggployment, Liteggation and Real Eggstate law”, says Lisa Tremble, external affairs Director at international law firm Mischon de Reya. It is one of several projects we are involved with as part of our new Mishcon Green Fund, which was set up to support local environmental and social projects. Tending to the chickens is a great way for volunteers from Mishcon to take time out of their work schedule and give something back to the community. Employees take an hour a week to feed the hens, collect eggs, as well as tending to the vegetable beds around the chicken coop, providing also the perfect place for them to wind down.”Caring for chickens has also proven to have a positive effect on a person’s health and wellbeing, according to latest findings. Georgia Martin, of the charity Pets as Therapy, says that the physical benefits of animal contact include, “A reduction of high blood pressure, depressive symptoms, physical and psychological stress, and increased motivation and confidence. Interacting with companion animals is becoming increasingly recognised as a valid therapeutic intervention and is supported by the World Health Organisation.”

Amy Cooper with supporters of the Secret Seed Society at the garden plot created from a carpark in disuse, Dalston, London.

Secret Seed Society was setup in 2009 by mother-daughter team Shena and Amy Cooper with one purpose: to send children on adventures with vegetables. Their commercial offering, which aims to outlive government health programmes, celebrates vegetables and promotes organic, fair trade and local production. At the heart of Secret Seed Society is the world of the illustrated story books for children called "Seed City”, where over 40 imaginary vegetable characters, such as "Rudi Radish and "Peter Parsnip", reside. "The illustrated storybooks come with: seeds to grow, a lead character, and recipe to eat what is grown! We also offer an online club where children  and parents can share their experiences, and  our books are printed in the UK on FSC and recycled paper with vegetable inks and the vegetables seeds are organic." 

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