Shortening the Food Chain: Re-integrating Food into Cities

by Lucy Purdy

The High Line: Bruce McVean

Lucy Purdy, journalist and enthusiastic gardener with a keen interest in food-growing and the environment, investigates the possibilities of urban greening.

Imagine the scene. You’re walking along London’s Oxford Street. Tumbling through the gaps between buildings are fruit trees – apples, pears and nuts spilling out from cracks in the concrete, food plump and ripe amidst the bustle of the capital. Either side of the road, raised beds stretch away from you in beautiful, arcing shapes – squash, leeks and pumpkins sitting atop crumbly, black compost, smaller versions of the allotments and city farms which are just visible in the distance. The roofs above your head are green too, kissing the sky with flowers, wildlife happily humming and buzzing in peaceful co-existence with the workers and pedestrians below.

This is urban greening taken to an extreme. A utopian vision of course.  But with food security becoming ever-less stable in the resource-beleaguered future we’re staring into, is it really so far-fetched?

“Cities are the defining artefacts of civilisation,” wrote John Reader in his 2004 work Cities. “All the achievements and failings of humanity are here. We shape the city, and the city shapes us.”

Reader’s book documents his fascination with cities and their parasitic relationship with the countryside around them. After all, cities drink more water than they collect, eat more food than they grow and produce more sewage than they are able to deal with, but today, more than half of the people on the Earth live in them.


Living wall outside Edgware Road tube station

The possibilities offered by urban greening were explored at a recent event “Shortening the Food Chain: Re-integrating Food into Cities”, hosted by architecture planners Farrells in London.

Bee Farrell is the founder of Anciens Foodways, a consultancy which focuses on achieving sustainable, secure and healthy food practices. She outlined why increasingly long food chains, and the separation implicit in them, play a central role in what has become a hugely problematic relationship with what we eat.

“Being able to grow and store surplus food, established our first cities, and communities decline or develop depending on their independence in land, food and water. Until the nineteenth century, most food chains were short; we knew the farmer, the herdsmen and the miller. Their reputation dictated the success of their livelihoods and trust between consumer and producer was built on first-hand knowledge of their safe and healthy food practices. But, the long food chain of growers, processors, packers, traders, distributors and retailers has made us vulnerable. Short food chains are more secure, safer and may also be healthier and more economical.”

food now and then

Food now and then courtesy of Bee Farrell

There is much evidence to back up Farrell’s theory. Growing food in or nearer to population centres would cut transport costs and pollution, could increase yields and return a degree of control to consumers. It could also actively improve factors like biodiversity and soil quality – after all, you can’t grow potatoes to eat in heavily contaminated soil.

So at a time when millions are already suffering from food poverty or poor quality food, what might the solutions be?

“We need food which reconnects us”, said Farrell, outlining her passion for produce which challenges and repairs the detachment from place which characterises the global industrial food system we currently operate within. “More place-specific living food production is needed, alongside greater recognition of the ascendency of soil and our dependence on its health.”

This doesn’t have to be a survival agenda but a quality of life agenda,” added Jonathan Smales, former Managing Director of Greenpeace UK, Executive Chairman of Beyond Green and self-styled developer of ‘remarkable cities’.

He pointed to Seoul in South Korea where planners recovered a lost river, transforming it from a pollution-choked road into a green, urban park, and also to the High Line in New York City – a raised park built on a disused spur of rail line.

“We need to make greening a joyous and exciting movement,” he enthused. “Niche planting, transforming urban infrastructure into beautiful environments – all these can add up, in the scale of a city, into something very significant. The urban landscape is so much more productive than we imagine. We need to create a culture about it, release the roofs of buildings for example. When you look down on London you see the waste of space – acres and acres of land – which could be transformed into energy generation, leisure, and food production.”


Image courtesy of Beyond Green

The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn NY, an organic vegetable farm atop of a warehouse, Smales offered as an example of just one of the many rooftop schemes in a city where limited ground level space remains a problem. Projects have sprung up at hotels, galleries and even a women’s prison in Manhattan.

Havana was cited as another potential blueprint. Fresh fruit and vegetables are grown in abundance in the city; there are plots almost everywhere you look, from lettuce sown on former parking spaces, to plots the size of several football pitches, with stalls next to them visited and manned by local people. What was a national system of intensive, specialised agriculture from the 1960s onwards fell apart when the country’s reliance on cheap oil from the old Eastern Bloc was thwarted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US trade embargo which was also in place meant the country had to go back to basics – growing locally, with few imported resources.

Simplicity seems to be key. Sustainably-built environments in cities are better for us and, some say, better for the economy too.

“They are radically affordable and will drive remarkable innovation: they should be at the heart of politics and business,” say the team at Beyond Green.

And innovators and designers are ready to go. Gary Young, a partner at Farrells, together with Hannah Smart, has developed plans for a Market Garden City, a beguilingly feasible plan, based on the market garden model – a traditional, local source of food supporting a city population. Having market hubs in villages, towns and cities would offer many more benefits than the current globalised monoculture, they say, and such schemes encouraging community food-sharing should be commonplace. Architects and planners need to ratchet up food production in their list of priorities.

In London, where it’s difficult to walk ten metres without coming across a fast food outlet, just think of the effect seeing a vegetable bed instead would have on people. Consider the transformational impact of reconnecting with the urban landscape, which so often seems beyond our control or influence. What empowerment would come from designing our urban spaces around how we want to live, and what we want to eat?

Sprawling, seething, voracious: our cities can be seen as a frightening, futile resource challenges, or an opportunity to channel innovation and dynamism into sustainable design. A snapshot of urban greening today, shows a heartening number of people, communities and innovators working toward the latter.

It’s already happening: we are hungry for it.

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