Nov 17, 2020
AgTech Inspiring The Redesign Of Cities
Written By: Dhwani Laddha
Editor’s note: The following information is derived from Henry Gordon-Smith’s keynote at “Food in the Capital”.
Agritecture’s Founder & CEO, Henry Gordon-Smith, gave his keynote address on “City planning around the world for sustainable food” at Food in the Capital in Canberra. Food in the Capital is the brainchild of the Canberra region’s Rural Development Australia committee that is closely working with surrounding local governments to grow regional business opportunities across the ACT. The food conference brings together people from across the industry including farmers, food businesses and manufacturers, community groups, thought leaders, and policymakers, to draw attention towards real ideas that could boost the local food production market.
Henry’s keynote focused on global case studies and strategies that can be utilized by Canberra and the ACT to develop their local food market, and by budding entrepreneurs in the region to decide which path is best for their particular needs.
Framing Urban Agriculture
In setting the scene for urban agriculture, Henry claims Agritecture’s working philosophy to be “No One Size Fits All”. Nor is any one solution in urban agriculture the best. The most fitting type truly depends on the city and the culture. It needs to be driven by the needs and wants of the population. For instance, in Kyoto, there is great concern over protecting forests, so vertical farming makes sense. At the same time, Parisians prefer organic produce over hydroponically-grown, so traditional soil-based farming on rooftops is appropriate.
In looking at the spectrum of urban agriculture that is placed on a technology gradient, we also see that each type of urban agriculture brings with it different levels of impact. Community soil-based gardens have more of a social impact whilst rooftop hydroponic greenhouses have more of an economic impact. So, no one is truly better than the other.
The challenge for cities, however, is even more difficult. Henry says that “when thinking about developing a business or operation producing food in the city, we actually have to consider the social, environmental, and urban planning aspects – factors that we don’t have to consider when planning farms outside of the city context”.
Furthermore, the “urban” component of urban agriculture is essential to the context because it “is about more than just what food is produced. Urban agriculture can impact society, the environment, and even the entrepreneurs running and operating these farms to unlock the food and water nexus”. Urban ag is truly key to the future development of sustainable cities, and thus requires a more cross-disciplinary and holistic approach.
Why should we transition towards more urban agriculture?
Henry lists numerous reasons as to why now is the perfect time to build more urban agricultural projects. For starters, “there is a rising demand around the world, but especially in the United States, for fresh and local food. It has started to compete with the organic when looking at consumer data”. With racism and increased food inaccessibility in marginalized communities being a huge strain in cities, community gardens are bringing people together to provide free produce. “Urban farming can thus create some opportunities to equalize inequalities present in urban environments, to integrate societies together, to create affordable food”. The aging population is another concern as “people are moving to cities and the farmers are getting older. So there is a greater need to protect this knowledge and our food security”.
As with all matters, climate change is disrupting the existing ecosystem. Gordon-Smith reflects that “the climate is changing, creating fragility in our supply chains. Urban farming builds our resilience, allowing us to potentially grow some of our own food, and reducing the dependency on outer farms”. With the huge loss in outdoor agriculture due to hurricanes, floods, and drought, agriculture is being driven indoors.
And, on a positive note, Henry is thankful that “policy is starting to catch up with investments and the interest of entrepreneurs to develop these types of farms”. He references major US cities that have created Offices of Urban Agriculture in the recent past, and global cities that have inspiring initiatives for urban agriculture. The mission is truly global.
Data Supporting The Mission
Agritecture’s annual CEA Census revealed that in 2019, “41% of entrepreneurs had no prior agricultural experience, while in 2020, we found that 49% of respondents had zero years of experience”. Agritecture Designer’s survey results showcased likewise as 68% of respondents stated that they were beginners or had light experience in the field.
Given that so many entrepreneurs are inexperienced in the field, capacity building is essential. Agritecture provides a range of resources to support these budding entrepreneurs: our site-specific podcast “Locally Grown In” speaks to the drivers of the market, our Commercial Urban Farming courses help educate on everything from the financials to the marketing and planning, our workshops and events bring together industry experts and drive connections with the newcomers, and our ‘Know Before You Grow Guide’ that has been found to be incredibly helpful to entrepreneurs in their farm planning stage.
Additionally, Agritecture Designer’s survey results indicate that most farmers who used the software were able to receive a payback in 4.85 years. Henry paired this with the annual global economic opportunity of urban farms being between USD $80 - $160 billion, “showing us that there is an economic case for urban farming”. Additionally, he prompts the audience with: “if cities are to consume 80% of food in 2050, shouldn’t they be part of the system that feeds them?”
Learning from Global Case Studies
Henry took inspiration from major cities to list out steps for regions like Canberra looking to expand their local food production efforts. Atlanta targeted marginalized communities with their urban agriculture plans, bringing in outside investors to support the growth of the region. With heat waves killing 15,000 people across France in 2003, Paris plans to use one-third of the city’s green space for agricultural production as a means to limit the urban heat island effect.
In NYC, even though the city is brewing with entrepreneurial spirit, and has numerous investors and school farms, policy is slow to respond to encourage urban farming. 1 in 4 children in the city relies on school meals, Covid has reduced this access, leaving these children without food sources. Gordon-Smith claims that “if the city were to open more urban farms, there would be more food that they could contribute to these communities”.
On the flip side, “Dubai has taken a dramatic leap from the policy and leadership perspective. They’ve made bold statements wanting to build 12 vertical farms by 2030, and the biggest vertical farm in the world partnering with AeroFarms. There are big investments going in. But, unlike NYC, there is a lack of community of urban farms working together, sharing data, and lobbying together”.
Looking to the future, Henry prompts us with “can a city be smart and resilient without adequate food?” He explains that we should look back in time to when we thought it to be unreasonable to live so distanced from the food we ate, and to find a balance with this past to create our future.
For cities in general, the goal should be to: (1) survey their landscape’s limitations and the population’s needs, (2) target the key impact areas, (3) commit to budgets and specific policy leaders, (4) create pathways for entrepreneurs by limiting barriers, (5) foster community by encouraging diverse communities to join and engage, and lastly (6) track performance using data and surveys whilst creating transparency in practices.
Such invigorating panels are getting us excited for Agritecture Xchange’s 3-day virtual conference. Henry Gordon-Smith will be giving his keynote address on “How Entrepreneurship is Fostering a New Age for Climate-Smart Agriculture” on December 1st. Join us for this conference connecting key innovations in the field of AgTech to the future health of our cities.