In recent years, a trend has emerged for rooftop vegetable gardens and greenhouses in North America; a trend which is now spreading to other cities around the world. Yet this is more than just a passing fad: urban agriculture offers people a chance to reclaim the city and conserve natural resources, on an economically important scale.
This new form of agriculture relies on the know-how of the urban gardener, and involves much smaller plots than rural farming. It stems from a greater awareness among people who share a growing interest in the provenance and quality of their food. Short food supply chains mean that producers are closer to consumers.
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Urban farming begins with individuals, committed citizens who grow vegetables on their balcony or tend a community garden. According to the United Nations, one square metre of land can yield 20 kg of produce a year. Montreal, for example, has set aside 128 hectares for agriculture and has no fewer than 367 hives, producing three tonnes of honey a year.
This is replicated across other towns and cities, where architects and planners design urban farms suited to the urban environment. The main obstacle to the spread of urban agriculture is that rooftops and reclaimed brownfield sites are not enough, hence the idea sprouted of building proper high-tech vertical farms. It was the American Dickson Despommier who first came up with the theory behind this: he believes that the rise in urbanisation will lead to a growing demand for this vertical farming model. A single limitation remains: the urban environment is unsuitable for growing cereals and grazing, both of which require large expanses of land. The best crops for urban farming are vegetables and plants that lose their nutritional qualities during transportation. This is why Chicago’s FarmedHere, the largest vertical farm in the world (8,400 square metres), mainly grows basil, salad leaves and rocket (arugula).
The concept has crossed the Atlantic: Paris City Council recently committed to investing €8 million in urban farming initiatives. An estimated 230,000 Parisians could one day be eating fresh vegetables grown in Paris. And while urban farming will never replace rural agriculture, it can certainly supplement it and make it a more sustainable resource.