The Blog

The Future of Food: Urban Farming

I am hugely frustrated. Frustrated by a species slow to grasp new concepts, content to doggedly hold on to the status quo, with a terrifyingly strong grasp.

I am hugely frustrated. Frustrated by a species slow to grasp new concepts, content to doggedly hold on to the status quo, with a terrifyingly strong grasp.

Four and a half people are born every second, forty-five new lives have started since you began reading this column. Forty five people looking for space on our planet.

The earth beneath our feet has been fought over for as long as we've been capable of combat. Finite, delicate, yet incredible - we were quick to appreciate it's a keystone of humanity. Subsequently utilising it as the building blocks for homes, smartphones, diets, energy, life...

However, more people equals less land to grow food, but more mouths that need feeding. The scope of traditional agriculture to feed the world is limited, land is at an increasing premium and the answer isn't to farm it even more intensively.

Scientists from Sheffield University warned this week Britain's farmland is becoming increasingly barren and unproductive and may only have 100 harvest left, unless we rapidly rethink how we manage the landscape.

Urban soils, according to the same study, are significantly less compacted with 32% more organic carbon and 25% higher nitrogen.

So why aren't we growing more food in cities?

Cities are heat islands, warmer than the countryside and promote longer growing seasons than rural counterparts and if like London, they're also awash with pollinators. The number of bees in the city has doubled in the past four years.

Changing weather has caused more urban areas become flooded as concrete jungles do little to absorb precipitation. Green spaces growing food, or rain harvested to water plants, intercepts the issue and puts it to good use before damage can be done.

Growing plants in urban areas makes the environment healthier. In Baltimore, researchers have discovered the city's trees remove 14 tons of pollution annually, preventing one premature death, nearly 140 asthma attacks and 240 cases of laboured breathing every year.

It's also where the people are. So why not grow food above their heads, alongside car parks or in city centers? Reduce food miles, storage requirements, degradation of the product and at the same time connect people with the source of their food.

However, when people suggest growing urban food they're all too often seen as mavericks or idealists. The narrow minded are of the opinion that as cities can't grow enough food to feed everyone why bother?

Because nothing is perfect.

Urban agriculture can't grow enough food to feed the world, but it can play a supporting role to traditional farming. Why put a greenhouse on the ground when you can put it on the unproductive roof of a building?

The proposal here isn't to reinvent the wheel, but to add another. Every point of contact with the ground equals greater stability; whether that's climbing, walking or a vehicle.

Humanity is the vehicle and urban farming is the supplementary wheel: absorbing pressure, smoothing the ride, giving greater longevity.

Urban farming does work, take LUFA Farms in Canada for example, they have two huge roof-top greenhouses feeding thousands of people with fresh fruit and vegetables. Incredible Edible in Todmorden has transformed an entire town into a food producing and appreciating space, not forgetting inspiring a global movement.

It's these projects that we need to look towards and build upon. Urban primary food production has to be seen as a requirement, rather than option. Housing estates, car parks, shopping centres, rooftops should be built with growing areas included.

Ditch the pointless prickly plants and provide people with the potential to propagate produce perpetually. Give then more than just a mouthful of words...

We can continue to hold on the dock leaf but we must also grasp the nettle. To see cities solely as hubs for finance, trade, housing and transport is incredibly two-dimensional. Let's add a third.

Gareth Barlow presents food and farming topics for the BBC, writes about food production at and previously ran his own farming and butchery business.