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May 16, 2014 6:16 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: the rise of urban farming

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From Chelsea Barracks to allotments in New Orleans, the market garden movement is gathering momentum
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm©Michael Setboun/Corbis

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York City

Globalisation and advances in industrial agriculture may have increased food production over the past century, but they have also sparked a revival in small-scale food production.

Spontaneous urban farms in Detroit and New Orleans have colonised abandoned city land where the unemployed and dispossessed grow food.

In the 1990s, Havana was renowned for its urban vegetable gardens as people struggled amid Cuba’s economic stringencies and import controls.

With the advent of railways and the flow of cheap food into city centres, agriculture began to slip beyond the suburbs. Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes and even Le Corbusier looked at integrating agriculture with urban form in systems of market gardens, orchards and allotments. After the second world war, however, global food production and visions of sanitised cities made food growing and, to some extent, cooking remote.

It was not really until the early 1970s that Alice Waters in California spearheaded the movement to bring fresh food and cooking with local ingredients back into urban consciousness. With her remarkable restaurant Chez Panisse and her Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, she has helped to revolutionise attitudes in growing and preparing food. Similar enterprises include the Eagle Street and Brooklyn Grange rooftop farms in New York City and the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago.

Mudchute Farm, London©Dan Kitwood/Getty

Mudchute Farm, London

Education is improving too: The National Trust is pursuing a Plot to Plate programme; Oxford’s Botanic Garden has developed an area to demonstrate how to grow vegetables in cities; and the New York Botanical Garden is about to expand its ambitious new Edible Academy.

For years, urban ecologist Herbert Girardet has been drawing attention to the environmental footprint of a city – the land and resources it sucks into its ambit in order to survive. As populations become increasingly urban, the tentacles grow longer – even beyond national borders. But natural disasters, economic unpredictability and political fragility highlight the good sense of pulling some of that footprint back, for the sake of security and resilience as well as the environment. Cities are good places to grow food: they are warm; they have plenty of protected and forgotten spaces; they have people with time to tend plants; and they have mouths and markets within walking distance. And the great demand for allotments shows that energy and willingness are there. We like growing things, we like soil between our fingers and we like fresh, unadulterated food.

Urban agriculture cannot save the world by itself, but a surprising amount of salads, vegetables and fruit can be grown in cities, as indeed they used to be. Cheap, rapid transport has encouraged people to forget the distinctions between perishable foods (which need preservatives, refrigeration and special packaging), and storable foods, such as wheat, maize, soya and rice, which can be cultivated on a massive scale, stored dry and freighted easily. It makes sense, of course, to grow perishable food as close to where it will be eaten as possible.

The issue is as much how we buy our food as how we grow it. While supermarkets are convenient, farmers’ markets and allotment shops could expand our choice, independence and resilience given the chance. As with agriculture, a combination of scales and outlets could create the best of both worlds.

Vegetable garden, Detroit©Leynse/Corbis

Vegetable garden, Detroit

In 2008, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, set up London Food with journalist Rosie Boycott as its chairman, aiming to improve access to healthy food produced locally. Initiatives have encompassed new allotments, street trees, schools and major building projects.

Chelsea Barracks, one of the most expensive residential redevelopments in the world, is designed around growing food. The axial square leading up to the centre of the 13-acre site will be 100 metres of professionally grown vegetables and salads to be eaten in the main restaurant and sold on the square. Rotational planting will maximise production and companion rows of flowers will be used for pest control. The affordable housing will have allotments and adjoining squares will contain apple orchards, walnut avenues and hazel groves.

With exemplary foresight, Westminster council has given detailed planning consent to the landscape of the Chelsea Barracks redevelopment ahead of the building work. This means that the houses and apartments will be designed to fit around the productive squares.

Buildings come and go, but the spaces around which they are built can last for centuries. It is essential to get those spaces right and to make sure they are used as thoughtfully as possible. Public parks, however small, can be designed to absorb water, filter air, grow food, relax adults, exhaust children, promenade teenagers, give sanctuary to wildlife and still be beautiful.

Kim Wilkie is the landscape architect redesigning the grounds of the Natural History Museum

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