September 25, 2017
Arthur Wyns & Mariah Sampson
Cities are centres of action and innovation, where ideas blend and combine like exciting flavours in an exotic soup, they are centres of development and education, and now, with increasing urbanisation and exponential population growth, the role of cities is becoming increasingly important in the implementation and development of sustainable policies.
From Concrete Jungle to Urban Eden
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), 75% of the EU’s inhabitants live in cities, although large European cities are not a new occurrence, with air and noise pollution reaching new heights and environmentalism on the rise, there is a marked shift towards increasing green spaces in cities. Poignantly for Europe, where much food is imported from every corner of the globe, urban agriculture – in the form of micro gardens, community gardens, green walls, and hydroponics to name a few – offer holistic solutions to the pollution and carbon footprint of cities. With carbon and heat absorption as key benefits of increased green space, the outdoor production of fruits and vegetables also encourage insect species such as butterflies and bees to return to the urban landscape, and local food production reduces the energy requirements of transportation and storage.
“Cities have become the drivers of change and innovation.”
Julia Panny, Program Officer for Climate KIC, Europe’s largest innovation network.
The city of Berlin is home to an exemplary project when it comes to the reclamation of discarded urban areas for urban agriculture. One of the first of its kind, the Prinzessinnengarten (the Garden of Princesses) has turned an abandoned industrial site into a lush garden of easy-to-move units. Over the course of 8 years, it has turned a patch of abandoned concrete into a vibrant green space that supports a large community in their nutrition. “Bringing gardens into the city has a universal appeal. Producing food, being part of a socially conscious project, and creating a green space … all add to the cultivation of a better city,” states co-founder of the Prinzessinnengarten, Robert Shaw. Projects such as the Prinzessinnengarten, as well as others including the well-known London Farm, and rooftop beekeeping in Brussels have been popping up in all major cities across Europe as a part of the green fever that has been sweeping Europe since the early 2000s.
With just over half of the global population living in urbanised areas, and two thirds being directly dependent on cities for their livelihood, daily life is shaped by the urban landscape.
This increasing dependency on cities is placing enormous demands on urban food supply systems, particularly in developing countries. Despite the efficiency of food production the highest it’s ever been, urban food shortages are common in most cities. To compound this issue, small-scale farms, the traditional source of food for communities, are in decline. With the rising frequency of extreme weather patterns and the price of modified crops, small farms are slowly being weeded out. Although Europe is in some ways an exception, with family farms having protection under EU regulations, on the global stage food production is increasingly monopolised by large international corporations.
As a result there is a growing need in towns and cities for quantifiable self-sufficiency in food production. Subsequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, urban agriculture is booming; it provides fresh food, generates employment, recycles urban waste, creates greenbelts, and strengthens cities’ resilience to climate change.
Driven by urban planning in the form of the intensive cultivation of food products in places such as rooftops, balconies, city gardens, and parks, as well as individually worked micro-gardens, urban agricultural initiatives are proving to be easily managed and highly productive. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that per square meter of cultivated micro-gardens an average of 25kg of vegetables can be produced.
Moreover, the greatest beneficiaries of urban agriculture are low-income households, with micro-gardening and other green practices that encourage the production of vegetables at home, resulting in improved nutrition and food security to the segment of the population that is usually deprived from it.
Many European organisations have taken initiative to promote these practices around the world. European lead projects such as the Belgian initiative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which operated in five cities, the results of which are exemplified by development in Kinshasa where 65% of the vegetable supply is now grown in urban and peri-urban horticultural systems. Another example is a ground-breaking project by OXFAM Italia and the RUAF Foundation, in which they are developing an Urban Agricultural Platform along the full length of the Gaza Strip, potentially helping thousands of people isolated from outside food supplies.
Knowledge and Innovation Community
By founding capacity building and empowerment projects in urban agriculture across the Global South, the EU is positioning itself as a world leader in driving urban solutions for tackling food shortages, pollution, and the promotion climate resilience. Also within its own borders, the EU strives to continuously foster the innovation needed for the long term sustainability of its cities.
Climate KIC, the Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community, has developed itself into Europe’s largest innovation network by providing mentorship to young green start-ups. As an incubator they have helped dozens of initiatives to transform the urban landscape in an economically viable way, and with 13 of the ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ most successful start-ups being Climate-KIC alumni, the KIC concept seems to be robust. “Even more than producing pragmatic solutions to current issues, Climate KIC is trying to capture the imagination: how do we want our future to look like and what are the necessary steps to be taken to get there,” states Julia Rawlins, Education lead at the organisation.
The success stories of urban farming within and outside of Europe, and the amount of organisations backing this change, indicate the possibilities for sustainable and self-sufficient urban communities, the positive implications of which might eventually change the way we view food production, value city planning, and understand the full magnitude and potential of human influence over our own environment.Arthur Wyns