Every morning in London, bleary-eyed students turn up at le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Bloomsbury. As one of the most famous cooking institutions in the world, le Cordon Bleu has access to some of the best produce anywhere in the world, importing from every corner of the globe. However, the last few years have seen some dramatic changes in how the school sources some of its finest and freshest ingredients. Students can now harvest rocket, quinoa, kale, endive and others directly from the carefully maintained rooftop garden, all thanks to the growth of urban farming.
The last 200 years have seen perhaps the most significant population shift in human history. Until the 19th Century, the vast majority of the world’s communities lived a mostly rural existence away from large urban developments. Farming formed the backbone of both personal economy and subsistence. Today, we have witnessed a dramatic transition, with nearly 60 per cent of people around the world living in major cities. While this change has ushered in a raft of new opportunities, it has also brought new pressures to a depleted rural workforce, as they struggle to produce the food needed to provide for a swelling global population. In many cases, these pressures have been alleviated by the industrialisation of food production and a move away from traditional techniques.
This mechanisation has had both positive and negative effects. A greater variety of produce is more readily available than ever before, regardless of seasonality. But industrialisation has brought with it a load of environmental concerns over pesticides as well as global environmental issues over the efficacy of large-scale intensive farming. This situation has caused some people to turn away from the conveniences afforded by a modern existence and towards a more traditional approach. Today, many people are dedicated to turning their cities green.
There are many benefits to growing food in cities. Spending time in green spaces has been shown to be hugely important for mental and physical health. A more obvious example is the guarantee of great tasting fresh produce. Many top city-based restaurants, such as The Ham Yard Hotel and The Dairy in London, grow their own food to great effect and produce seasonal menus to reflect the changes in their gardens. Adopting this approach means that restaurants have total control over how their ingredients are prepared and maintained. Metropolitan food projects also help with waste recycling, increasing biodiversity and add some much needed greenery to what can be a grimly monochrome urban jungle.
Beyond the more surface positives of city self-sufficiency, groups around the world are showing how food projects can have a hugely positive impact on a community. Some of the most remarkable are taking place, perhaps surprisingly, in the home of industrialised food - the US. Some projects are solely food focused and designed to promote sustainable, healthy produce. Organisations like the SoCal Urban Farms, distributors of small-scale vertical farms in San Diego and the surrounding area, specialise in helping people grow fresh fruit and veg with minimal space and quality soil available. Other projects are as much about building bonds in communities as food production. Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS) provide a haven for children to garden, visit local farms and improve maths and reading skills, demonstrating how positive city farming can be.
Unique urban food projects are not just limited to America. Europe, too, has embraced the benefits that the approach can bring. Frisch vom Dach (fresh from the roof) in Berlin are an aquaponics project who have converted a rooftop into an irrigated haven for fruit, vegetables and, perhaps most astonishingly, fish. Grignon Energie Positive in Paris is dedicated to instigating a global green approach to farming, developing techniques to minimise the organisation’s carbon footprint while producing enough organic food to feed as many as 8,000 people. The success of large-scale projects such as this proves that city-based farming has the potential to be something more than just a personal source of food.
In some cities, communal food projects have become absolutely essential to the overall health of the whole city. This is particularly true in developing economies, where the population shift from rural to urban areas is often especially rapid. The Abalimi organisation in South Africa is committed to helping the residents of townships to improve their livelihoods through urban farming - crucial work in communities stricken by poverty. In Kinshasa, urban farms provide a significant portion of the city’s food in an effort to fight hunger. Perhaps the most successful example is the work being carried out by the Mazingira Institute in Nairobi, where more than 3,000 urban farmers have been trained to provide sustainable produce in the Kenyan capital. That urban farms are now integral in these growing cities is testament to how ingenuity can change people’s lives and alter our perceptions of how we can produce our food.
While the majority of city farming is focused on the production of fruit and veg, some farmers are being even more ambitious with what can be achieved. In the UK, it is estimated that there are over 750,000 amateur chicken keepers, many of whom are based in cities. Caring for animals in a limited space is a real challenge, but the success of urban chicken keepers shows that it can be done. Perhaps even more impressively, the last 10 years have seen an explosion in the popularity of urban beekeeping. Whether it be on rooftops or in back gardens, people in cities all over the world are revelling in the chance to produce their own honey and support an animal that has been under threat in recent years. The growth of urban beekeeping shows that the potential is there for expanding urban farming initiatives beyond more basic fruit and veg.
The variety of different projects shows that city farming has a lot to offer. From building communities to helping families become more self-sufficient, the move towards rediscovering humanity’s farming roots is helping people the world over. As more and more people look to make the transition to a city-based existence, it may be that urban farming moves from the periphery of food production to take centre stage.