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Urban Farming and All About Agritecture

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Henry Gordon-Smith
Urban Farming and All About Agritecture

What is Urban Agriculture?


Humans today face a host of environmental challenges, most of which continue to aggravate because of the rising concentration of population levels in urban areas. Problems such as excessive carbon emissions, high levels of air pollution, the dire need for substantial rainfall absorption, waste management, and the general lack of biodiversity result in a complex set of adverse effects for almost all of the urban population.

As things stand, the numbers and statistics make for a grim reading. Most of the world’s population resides in an urban setting, especially in the developing countries. And while the urban areas account for just 2-3% of all land area, they consume upwards of 75% of energy and generate almost 80% of all carbon emissions as per a UN study. And while these urban areas continue to draw in even more population over the next decades, the consequent climate changes are all set to cause even more environmental stressors. 


The required transition would not only require increased flexibility and better adaptation of urban environment, sustainability will be the underlying theme for the use and re-use of all resources, including the most basic of them all - food. 


And while there was a ton of focus on infrastructures such as electricity, water, drainage and transport in the city planning process, there was extremely little focus on food production, which continues to be neglected. Though there is an argument for globalization owing to the abundance of food and better farming practices over the years, what is often missed out is the fact that most of these practices are not in the slightest bit sustainable - the industrialized system overproduces, pollutes and depletes natural resources at an alarming rate, damages biodiversity and in some cases, aids obesity and malnourishment. And while agriculture and food systems were supposed to be localized and circular economy based, they are, in fact, heading in the opposite direction. 

In an attempt to solve these problems presented by traditional agricultural methods, and to offset some of the enormous climatic damage our cities around the world are doing, urban agriculture is a practice that has evolved over time, which by definition is mostly context dependant, but can be described as the practice of cultivating, processing, and distribution of food resources in an urban or peri-urban region. There are a ton of different approaches to urban farming and agriculture, some of which include ground level farming, rooftop  farming, vertical farming, hydroponics, greenhouses etc. Urban agriculture has enormous potential to fulfill the food security requirements in cities, especially the perishables and high value crops. Not only does it add to the fight against climate change immensely, urban agriculture is also an emerging business opportunity in urban areas.   


Urban agriculture is often mixed with community gardening or subsistence farming. And while the ideas may sound alike from a bird’s eye view, the reality is that urban farming is a different animal altogether, simply because the activity of urban farming assumes a level of commerce - that the product is grown to be sold as opposed to the produce being grown for personal or community consumption. One does not need to have huge swathes of land or be a corporation to practice urban farming. Anybody in an urban setting can set up and operate an urban farm, and move the produce from the grower to the buyer. 

History


Urban gardening is all the buzz right now, but it is interesting to note that it is not a new concept. Fact of the matter is that Urban gardening and agriculture has been around as long as human civilization itself! Ever since humans started dwelling in large numbers in cities since prehistoric times, urban agriculture is a thing.

Some of the first evidence of urban agriculture being practiced in ancient times comes from the civilization of Mesopotamia (present day Egypt) estimated to be as far back as 3500 BCE. Farmers set aside small parcels of land for farming within the city walls in ancient Babylon, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that elaborate gardens and irrigation systems were a common feature of many Mesopotamian citadels.

Fruit and nut trees, especially dates, were a major feature of urban gardening practices in ancient Egypt. They provided extra subsistence and greenery within bustling cities, and were also a common feature in sacred places too. Around 1100 BCE, the Aztecs championed the concept of urban agriculture when they built a complex garden plot and canal system, and tied it to their irrigation waterways. Though this started on a small scale initially, it soon scaled to cater to the urban areas as the Aztec empire grew.

Fast forward to modern history, and by around the 1800’s, post industrialization, not only had London become a global hub of trade and commerce, it had also become a hotbed of slums, poverty and inequality. Around the same time, Germany along with the UK saw the rise of organized allotment gardening. The importance and necessity of these allotment agricultural practices grew tremendously during the World Wars, when most supplies were prioritized for the war effort, and people back home had to deal with the scarcity. Urban agriculture, especially the Victory Garden Program, not only reduced the strain on the public food supply mechanism, it also became a way to boost morale.

After the second world war, urban agricultural practices saw a decline in the US. Part of the reason may be the symbolic association of the practices with wartime austerity. The post war boom and prosperity left little need for Urban Agriculture, though it did remain a necessity in the developing world.

Until very recently, there has been little change in the attitude towards Urban Agricultural practices, and consequently it has not been given much policy attention. But now with the constant overlap between realms of people, cities, ecology and the economy, Urban Agriculture is slowly becoming the mainstream, with 15% of the world’s food now being grown in urban areas, supplying nearly 700 million residents of cities across the world.

Recently, Japan is at the forefront of innovation in urban farming and agriculture. With the practice of Urban Farming growing by upwards of 36% in the last decade, it is not uncommon to find rooftop paddy fields, bee farms and vegetable gardens in Tokyo.

Types of urban agriculture


The most concise definition of Urban Agriculture may very well be the one given by Wagstaff and Wortman in 2013, who define the practice as “all forms of agricultural production occurring within or around cities.” This definition is still pretty contextual and open to interpretation, simply because urban agriculture includes a broad variety of agricultural production systems with a common location in and around urban areas, which means the definition of “urban” is crucial to defining “urban agriculture”, which is more often than not, a function of population density and land use.


Urban agriculture comprises a very broad spectrum of production methods and business models, such as rooftop gardens and farms, landscaping and nurseries, ground-based outdoor urban gardens and farms, urban livestock and hydroponic/aquaponic indoor production methods. Those doing urban agriculture use a variety of terms to describe themselves and the work they do, but the most common differentiator between farming and gardening is the fact if money changes hands. As soon as a produce is sold for money, it comes under the ambit of urban farming, thereby creating supplemental income by means of a micro-enterprise. Urban agriculture empowers urban dwellers to become entrepreneurs, and their food production may include:


  • Vegetable and fruits
  • Livestock, especially poultry
  • Hydroponics or Aquaponics
  • Beekeeping
  • Making preserves, etc.


Urban agriculture and farming may be undertaken on a variety of sites, such as 


  • Private gardens
  • Land managed by private institutions
  • Rooftops, and vertical gardens
  • Vacant plots awaiting development
  • Schools, child-care centres, aged care facilities, universities, hospitals and similar institutions. 


As and when more and more people begin to understand how our current food production and distribution systems work, they want to make their voice heard about how food is grown, harvested and distributed in society. Previously, even as consumers, people had no say in how food is grown. But now with the advent of efficient urban agriculture practices, all that is fast changing.  


Impact


Historians and other people who document the progress of human civilization often describe the 21st century as the first “urban century”. Unprecedented rural to urban migration all over the world has led to explosive globalization and growth, and while back in the 1900’s, a mere 13% of the world's population lived in urban areas, that figure now stands at a whopping 60%.

This concentration of population in small pockets all around the world comes with its set of unique problems and challenges. To begin with, there is enormous stress on resources in urban areas, with numerous adverse impacts on both the ecology and the economy. For instance, the most pressing need of any growing urban settlement is the question of food security and the right to food, which in turn depends upon a myriad of factors such as consistent availability, affordable and convenient access and poverty levels/food prices to name a few. 


Urban agriculture in this regard has presented itself as some sort of a magic bullet to solve all the problems plaguing the typical urban food system - both ecologically and economically. Urban agriculture ticks all the boxes to usher in a global green revolution, and at the same time improving the economy, sustainability and the health of our communities. 


With the removal of the voice of communities in their food production and distribution practices has led to the global inability to address food injustices on the micro scale, this problem could potentially be solved with ease with urban agriculture in play, given the volume of vacant land and real estate spaces in most urban areas. For instance, one study by the city of Cleveland shows that optimum usage of vacant real estate could result in them meeting up to 100% of the city’s fresh produce need, which roughly translates to around $115 million worth of food annually. Another study highlighted the fact that NYC would also be able to provide roughly 2 times the amount of real estate required to supply the city with its green vegetable needs. And with the usage of aquaponics, hydroponics and indoor factory production of food, urban agriculture within cities would also cut down on the amount of food waste. Urban agriculture also represents a unique opportunity for people and communities living in an urban environment to get actively involved with ecology in a sustainable manner.  


In addition to these impacts, another domain where urban agriculture can make a massive impact is - food security. There are a lot of factors that determine the food security levels in an urban setting, like consistent availability, convenient access, poverty levels and food affordability to name a few. And more often than not, urban regions with food security issues have very limited choices which are extremely high on calories but low on nutrients. These kinds of processed foods often lead to elevated rates of lifestyle induced chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension etc. Urban agriculture is a massive step in the right direction to bridge the divide between sustainable agriculture, food security and environmental justice. 


Benefits


With roughly 800 million people around the world being involved in urban agriculture and producing nearly 20% of the world’s total food requirements, urban agriculture has an extensive and well-recognized role in modern urban settlements. The benefits are multi-dimensional, ranging from security for low income groups, employment and training opportunities for disadvantaged groups of the community, better access to fresh and healthy produce and reduced environmental damage through less transport, packaging and storage. Urban agriculture plays a massive role in enhancing urban resilience, urban food security and adaptation to climate change. 


Today, urban agriculture aims to position itself at the front lines of the current food system. They also aim to reintroduce to the general populace, the many aspects of growing and distribution of food. The idea is to get the community connected with how they grow their food, where they grow their food, and what seasons do they grow it in - so they have a better idea of what they feed themselves and their families with. Urban farming has a ton of benefits, not only for the practitioners but for the whole community as well. Here are just a few of them:


Urban agriculture leads to food security


Organic food items are all the trend these days, and while they are indeed very healthy, the reality is that organic produce isn't exactly economical. Food security implies that nutritious food is safe, sufficient and abundant for all people within a given community. Urban agriculture accomplishes exactly that, and not only does it give people greater food security, it also provides people with an avenue to supplement their income. 


Urban agriculture creates a sense of community


Life in urban cities is fast paced, and everyone is always on the go. In this context, urban agriculture is the perfect way to bring city dwelling people together. Urban agriculture gives a sense of community for even the most isolated people in the community, and it is also a very good way of bringing like-minded people together for a cause.  


Urban agriculture enhances community health 


Urban populace today is riddled with chronic lifestyle related illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension etc, and it is common to find lifestyle and diet induced health problems in urban cities. With urban agriculture, people can eat fresh, nutritious, and healthy produce to keep chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart diseases and diabetes at bay. Urban agriculture is an extremely efficient driver of health and wellness in the urban population. 


Urban agriculture tackles climate change

The entire idea behind urban agricultural practices is to localize the source  of produce to help cut down the consumption of resources required to grow, pack, transport and distribute food and perishable goods. To reach from farm to fork, a meal travels roughly 2400 kilometres to make it to the food table. Besides increasing accessibility, urban agriculture massively reduces the carbon footprint of food and helps combat climate change. 


Urban agriculture creates jobs and fuels economic growth


Urban agriculture is a rapidly expanding industry, and it creates a wealth of job opportunities, especially as most urban agriculture setups are in areas where poverty and hunger are rampant. Small and medium businesses engaged in urban agriculture stimulate the local community, which in turn creates more job opportunities to improve the local economy and ecology of the community as well. 


Urban farming educates


Urban areas lack sufficient green spaces, which in turn has a great effect on the climate and weather of the area. Urban agriculture reconnects people with the environment, and most people have little knowledge and appreciation of the way their food is grown and how it reaches their table via supermarkets. Involving the local community in urban agriculture helps them appreciate how they consume their food, and boosts the local agriculture economy.  


Finally, the biggest benefit to urban agriculture is the potential impact it bearn on the future of our communities. Local urban agriculture ensures the future of sustainable agriculture practices in our communities, and helps reduce chronic hunger and lifestyle induced disease. 


About a fifth of all petroleum used in the US is used in agriculture, and by growing, sourcing and distributing food locally, our communities can do their part in reducing emissions and pollution, conserve massive amounts of energy used in packaging and shipping of food, and tackle climate change.  


Current implementation around the world


The core of a community based infrastructure for urban agricultural practices is an established local system to grow, process and distribute food and other perishable items for the grower to the consumer. All around the world, there are a ton of urban farms and gardens who are putting in a concrete effort to bring urban agriculture to the mainstream and grow organic products, cultivate food justice and security and revitalize urban spaces through urban agriculture. All across the world, from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, from NY to CLeveland, from Cairo to Montreal and Tokyo, urban farms and gardens are mushrooming as an alternative solution to maximize the use of natural resources such as solar, water, soil, energy etc, advocate healthy lifestyles and boost the local economy. 


Here is a small overview of some of the urban agricultural practices currently in play around the world, who are changing the way communities approach food production, sustainability and socialization. 


Alternatives’ Feeding Citizenship


They are a nonprofit growing healthy food to fuel communities and to promote social and environmental justice in Montreal, Canada. The project supports schools and neighbouring community institutions, and engages them through horticultural training programs. 


Baltimore urban gardening with students (BUGS)


The BUGS program aims to provide children from low income households in Baltimore with a safe place for learning new skills and channel their entrepreneurial spirit.


The Brooklyn Grange Apiary 


Urban agriculture in a concrete jungle is transforming one of the world’s largest cities into a sustainable urban landscape. Rooftop and backyard farming is creating green belts out of unused or abandoned metropolitan spaces. The apiary, which is an extension of the farm in Long Island City, aims to provide natural, organic and flavored honey to meet the city’s local demand. 


Riverpark Farm in Manhattan 


Riverpark is a 15,000 square foot fresh produce haven in Manhattan that produces nearly every type of crop. The facility is sustainable, and the farm space is maximized with intercropping, and advanced seeding. The space is flexibly designed for aeration, drainage, efficient soil replacement and easy plant mobility. Materials for the farm are all produced and sourced locally. 


ReVision Urban Farm


They are a community based urban agriculture project which grows nutritious and culturally appropriate food for the local community. The group also advocates the benefits of a healthy lifestyle among the low income communities in the area, and provides them with vocational training as well.


The Argentine city of Rosario , under its Land use plan of 2007-2017 makes for special provisions to incorporate agriculture fully into its land use planning and urban development strategy. The city of Paris in France has also pledged to dedicate 30 hectares of land for urban agricultural practices in 2014. In 2015, an urban farm by the name of Kaicycle was set up in Wellington, New Zealand to process local food waste and recycling nutrients back into the local soil. 


These are just a few examples of successful urban agriculture practices being practiced all around the world, and contributing to both the ecology and the economy.



Challenges


Though urban agriculture is understood to have massive social, economic and environmental benefits for urban areas, however, urban agriculture is rarely integrated in urban planning. Therefore, the challenges to the adoption of urban agriculture are many:


  • Limited space and High land values - Most major cities worldwide are huge and densely populated, and the ever growing population gives rise to big issues as there is not much space and empty real-estate left to build. 


  • Contaminated soils - The soils, by virtue of being in polluted metropolitan cities, are consistently polluted with various means, and consequently become highly contaminated. This severely affects the yield of the crop, and as a result farmers need to purchase new soil to produce a good quality produce and carry out the farming operation successfully. 


  • Loss and damage of crops from birds and rodents - Managing damage to the crops from pests, rodents and other agents is a tougher job in an urban setting as compared to the traditional agricultural setups. This can be a potential kiss of death for new urban farmers if not checked in time. 


  • High costs, especially water - Urban agriculture has been documented to create water shortages in urban settings in case the supply is being shared. Overuse of the public water supply for farming can lead to water shortages in the community, which are often densely populated. 

Using wastewater treated for irrigation instead of freshwater is a potential solution to this problem, and low cost high efficiency water technologies can increase water efficiency and lower costs. 


  • Lack of experienced skilled labor and management - It can be extremely tough to find an experienced and skilled agricultural resource, especially in the urban setting. Most people who indulge in farming and agriculture tend to live far off from the urban centres, and the one who do indeed make the jump are insufficient in number to execute and maintain urban agriculture practices in the city.  


  • How Agritecture solves those problems with data-driven farming solutions


We like to define “Agritecture” as the art, science, and business of integrating agriculture into the cities. The term was first coined by our founder Henry Gordon-Smith, who, when researching how cities could use agriculture to address environmental, social and economic challenges to develop resilient food supply chains to combat climate change, first thought about applying architectural science to design urban agriculture infrastructure for a given environment. 


More often than not, architects end up designing unrealistic vertical farming and urban agricultural concepts that completely look over some of the foundational realities of a successful farming operation. On the flip side, most agriculturists and entrepreneurs often miss out on the design, aesthetic and social integration opportunities when they develop their urban farming infrastructure. 


The foundational theme behind Agritecture is about bridging this massive divide, and integrating the disciplines of agriculture and architecture so that all urban farming setups can be both well-designed and practical simultaneously. 


At Agritecture, we strive to cover a wide array of urban agriculture topics such as - greenhouse production, vertical farming, aquaponics, hydroponics, regenerative agriculture, ag-tech, and more broadly - food systems. At Agritecture, we strive to help entrepreneurs, developers, and cities plan and launch successful agritecture, urban agriculture, vertical farming, and local food system projects.   


What began as a blog way back in 2011 with the idea of discovering new forms of urban agriculture and advertising them to the world, Agritecture consulting sson followed suit in 2014 as a response to the challenge of helping entrepreneurs navigate the crucial planning stage for their urban farming business and  avoid costly mistakes. To this effect,we are proud to be technology agnostic - which means we adapt our game plan and strategies to be in sync with our clients objectives on a case to case basis, as opposed to being a ‘one size fits all’ organization. 


Agritecture is the undisputed global leader in urban agriculture planning services, and our portfolio of work is simply unmatched. With upwards of a 100 projects under our belt in 48 cities spread in 26 countries around the world, we serve a diverse set of happy customers across a wide variety of markets, climates and operation types. Our in-house team consists of experienced growers, agricultural engineers, sustainability managers and marketing experts, and our consulting services are backed up by a ton of operational data that stretches back to quite a few years.

The media platform boasts of 100,000+ followers and subscribers, giving us arguably the largest media presence in the industry. Our massive reach when coupled with our strategic involvement in events and conferences around the world, empowers us to amplify our clients’ reach as and how they desire. Check out a brief overview of our services:


Farm Design


For the designing of a new farm, it is absolutely crucial that neither form nor function are compromised. With our proprietary design methodology, we consider all possible models in a bid to figure out the best way to integrate a farm in a given environment. Open communication is crucial, and we like to walk you through key decision ans relating to system design, farm layout and other ancillary activities. 


Feasibility


With our mantra of “know before you grow”, we always conduct a thorough feasibility study before going ahead with the project construction, to help conserve both on time and money. The feasibility process is intense, and our team works very  closely with our clients to ensure the project brings the highest impact possible to the table, right from concept development to plan implementation. We are a group of seasoned professionals, adept at working in various market contexts, as is evident from our track record. 


Due Diligence


At Agritecture, we like to play in style with minimal risk. Our due diligence helps investors and other concerned parties minimize their risk in a project, and with our proven expertise when coupled with extensive industry knowledge and proprietary databases, we can identify key gaps in a business plan and propose concrete solutions to make the investment ROI positive. 


Support and Management

At Agritecture, we assist our clients with end-to-end project management services to efficiently execute their urban agriculture projects. For small teams that want hands on guidance, we also assist them in navigating the complex learning curve for urban agriculture best practices. 


At Agritecture, we aspire to create and support an entire ecosystem around the urban agriculture movement, and not only do we work with entrepreneurs wanting to start their own urban farms, we also work with a host of corporates, non-profits, tech companies, investors, real estate developers, economic development groups and city agencies in an attempt to assist the with our core expertise of controlled environment agriculture, and other creative projects such as rooftop farming and amenity farming.