Feeding Food Security: Why Smart Cities Invest in Urban Agriculture
Agritecture, the word as we define it is the art, science and business of urban agriculture.” While the term isn’t yet recognized by Webster’s Dictionary, to Henry Gordon-Smith, the Founder and Managing Director of Agritecture Consulting, its meaning is more relevant than ever in a world facing the challenges of urbanization.
“What’s happening is that cities are encroaching onto arable land. They’re also growing, increasing in demand and we have a changing climate,” explains Gordon-Smith in an interview with Xtalks.
As a result, more and more cities are turning to Agritecture Consulting as they begin to explore how they can incorporate farming into densely packed urban neighborhoods to create local food security.
So far, the firm has consulted on over 85 urban agriculture projects in over 21 countries.
“We see there are cities around the world that could leverage that social entrepreneurial fuel to accelerate sustainable urban development,” he says. “This can be an economic opportunity for investors, for resilience, sustainability, but it also is an opportunity for cities to create jobs.”
Cities typically offer little in the way of land for traditional farming, so urban agriculture looks to find innovative and non-traditional ways to cultivate, process and distribute food in these areas. Integrating the practice into city spaces can take on many different forms, including things like indoor vertical farming, community gardens, rooftop farming or living walls.
“Suddenly agriculture isn’t something that develops far away from the urban centers,” Gordon-Smith continues. “Now it’s an urban thing. Now we can have silicone valleys of ag-tech.”
He also notes that the smartest cities are the ones that have already begun investing in sustainable agribusiness initiatives. Here are three cities that took the urban agriculture torch and ran with it:
The capital of France is also leading the country in the way of its sustainability efforts. In 2014, the city’s mayor Anne Hidalgo declared her intention to make Paris a greener and more sustainable place and since then the city has flourished with urban agriculture projects.
Two years later Paris launched its Parisculteurs initiative, a project which aims to cover the city’s rooftops and walls with 100 hectares (247 acres) of vegetation by 2020, with one-third of the green space dedicated to urban farming.
Although 100 hectares is no easy feat in a time span of 4 years, according to Gordon-Smith the city is steadily improving, “They’re about 16 hectares into their goal. It’s really amazing to see their progress,” he says.
With many Parisians eager to participate in the movement, projects like rooftop and basement farms have increased in popularity. These urban farms have also benefited the city through increased economic and job growth, as well as green spaces in an otherwise bustling metropolis.
Atlanta, United States
Several sustainability initiatives are currently underway in Atlanta, as the city continues to battle what has been controversially dubbed as “food deserts.” These are defined as neighborhoods or areas with limited geographic access to fresh meats and produce, and according to Feeding America’s report ‘Hunger in America 2014’, nearly 2 million Georgia residents live in food deserts.
Atlanta set a citywide sustainability goal to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020. The city also appointed its first Urban Agriculture Director, Mario Cambardella, to support all farms and gardens within the city limits. Cambardella is tasked with cultivating partnerships with local non-profits to assist organizations and individuals to start their own urban farms.
“I think they’ve done an amazing job. They’ve improved access, education,” says Gordon-Smith. “They also have a grows-a-lot program that allows people to use vacant lots without the typical tax or lease implications.”
Other projects include exploring the use of land under power-line easements for high-level urban agriculture and developing a potential food forest on the site of a former farm surrounded by development.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
In recent years, the UAE has made it a priority to implement green strategies that support sustainability, particularly as the country deals with concerns surrounding potential food and water shortages. Currently the UAE imports around 85 percent of its food from abroad, with projections that food consumption will reach 59.2 million tonnes by 2021, according to the country’s government.
Even more troubling, the UAE has one of the highest per capita water usages globally, with consumption estimated at 550 liters per person per day, according to export.gov. The country is also listed as one of the 10 most water-scarce countries in the world.
To feed the country’s growing population in a sustainable way, the UAE has turned to vertical farming. The UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment announced a deal with Shalimar Biotech Industries to build 12 vertical farms in Dubai. The company will construct the farms and develop infrastructure facilities, such as a water desalination plant, climate-control air conditioning, LED lighting, and automatic irrigation systems.
Vertical farms grow produce by stacking the plants using shelves suspended on a wall or fence inside of another structure. Most are either hydroponic, which means plants are grown in solutions of nutrients that are essentially free of soil, or aeroponic, which involves growing plants with no soil and very little water.
Because farmers can control the climate of these spaces, food can also be produced year-round, protecting valuable crops from unpredictable weather and natural disasters. In addition, vertical farms use no pesticides and no fungicides, so the food is considered healthier and safer to consume.
French start-up Agricool also has its hands in Dubai’s urban agriculture projects. The company, which has already seen success in France growing strawberries in self-contained hydroponic grow rooms or “cooltainers”, also has a farm operating in Dubai. Agricool uses a closed-loop water system during the cultivation process, which uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming, a feature that would greatly benefit the bone-dry deserts of the UAE.
As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and poverty and food insecurity rises, urban agriculture has an important role to play in the future of the global food system. Policymakers in cities around the world have the power to contribute to the development of a more sustainable and greener future.
“It’s really about adaptation to climate change and it’s really about making sure we have a fighting chance to exist in the world that will exist based on the consequences of our irresponsible decades of environmental impact,” he concludes.
Gordon-Smith has also been invited to speak at the upcoming Agri Tech Venture Forum in Toronto, where he will discuss how vertical and urban farming can fulfill consumer demand for local food. Register to catch his talk on May 15 here or listen to Agritecture’s Podcast ‘Locally Grown In’ which is available on iTunes here.