Andreas Späth

The edible city

2011-09-28 07:25

Andreas Späth

Urban agriculture is the next big thing. One of the reasons why our cities are increasingly unsustainable is that so much of the food their citizens consume isn’t produced within or near their municipal boundaries or even in their hinterland, but very far away. Having been grown on energy- and water-intensive industrialised farms hundreds or thousands of kilometres away and transported to our cities by petroleum guzzling planes, trucks, ships and trains, much of the food we urbanites eat these days comes with substantial environmental costs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Cities provide many opportunities for growing healthy, fresh produce, from fruit and vegetables to herbs and even livestock, with a much-reduced ecological footprint.

This is not a new concept, of course. Urban agriculture has been particularly important in times of crisis. During World War II, for instance, many large European cities, including London, managed to increase their local food production substantially. When conventional farming collapsed in Cuba, largely as a result of the shut-down of Russian oil imports after the fall of the Soviet Union, Havana produce most of its fresh produce itself. Bulawayo is reported to be home to over a thousand urban farmers and in the USA, industrial cities like Detroit, which were ravaged by the decimation of the American automobile industry, are now the focus of a burgeoning city farming movement.

Urban agriculture can take a variety of forms:

• Private, intensively cultivated urban farms ranging in size from tiny suburban family gardens to larger peri-urban plots, run by individuals or groups and densely stocked with everything from herbs, vegetables and fruit to poultry, rabbits, bees and more.

• Community food gardens using public, abandoned or otherwise unproductive land from traffic islands and derelict plots to school and church grounds allow people living in the neighbourhood to grow food collectively.

• Most cities have vast areas of unused flat and sunny roof space that are perfect for public and private agriculture projects. Supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and apartment dwellers could use much of it to grow produce for sale or their own consumption. Commercial-scale rooftop greenhouses already exist in Montreal and New York, and Toronto, a city that introduced legislation to make green roofs mandatory in 2009, is famed for its many rooftop gardens.

• Although vertical city farms, where food is grown indoors and on various levels rather than on a flat piece of ground, still exist largely as futuristic architectural designs, some are in operation in the Netherlands and Japan. In Manchester, a disused office building is in the process of being converted into a vertical fruit and vegetable farm.

With some noticeable exceptions, we in South African are behind the curve when it comes to urban agriculture. One of them is Abalimi Bezekhaya, an amazing organisation based in the Cape Flats that has worked miracles in the area for years. Here’s a beautiful short video clip from Green Renaissance that tells you a bit more about what Abalimi Bezekhaya does:

THE SOIL IS A DIAMOND from Green Renaissance on Vimeo.

The enormous potential of urban agriculture is increasingly being recognised by researchers. A recent study by scientists from Ohio State University suggests that rooftops as well as private and vacant land throughout Cleveland could generate as much as $115 million in produce annually – enough to supply almost all of the city’s demand for eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables and honey. Others have shown that city farms in Detroit could raise $200 million in sales while creating 5000 jobs.

Other benefits include the potential to:

• significantly reduce a city’s carbon footprint by reducing “food miles” and increasing the amount of carbon captured in plants and soils;

• make cheap, fresh, healthy food more widely available;

• uplift impoverished areas in informal settlements and inner cities;

• reduce a city’s maintenance costs for vacant land;

• contribute to the food security and self-sufficiency of urban families and communities; and

• facilitate intercultural and intergenerational interaction and integration through community food gardening projects.

Promoting urban agriculture is a great way to encourage the much talked about green economy on a local level and it’s high time our various levels of government helped to facilitate its growth.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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