Why growing food in cities goes far beyond calorific value.
Updated: Jun 12
Today, 4.3 billion people, over half the world population, live in cities. By the year 2050, that number could be more like 6.8 billion. That’s a lot of mouths.
Currently, our cities take up only around 1% of the planet's land surface. Agriculture takes up 34%. So if we estimate, given that cities are more affluent and more wasteful, that 65-70% of all food produced is going to feed city dwellers right now then that’s about 23% of all land surface being used to fill those urban plates (and bins). London alone needs an area 100 times its size to feed its population.
So, what role has urban farming really got to play? Can it significantly contribute to satisfying the appetite of the city? Or does its value lie elsewhere?
Here are some of the reasons why growing food in cities has so much more than calorific value.
It feels great to grow food.
Anyone who has experienced the joy of seeing their little seed grow into something they can then have the immense pleasure of EATING can testify to this. It’s liberating, life-affirming and empowering. It’s a natural part of who we essentially are and it brings us back to the connection we all should have with the land. Getting your hands dirty isn’t only soothing in the very act of it; there are even microbes in soil with antidepressant properties. Soil makes you happier.
It’s a powerful educational tool.
For many inner city children, who otherwise would never have much opportunity to experience food growing first hand, city farms are essential educational spaces. You can even grow food inside in classrooms with vertical systems if you don’t have access to land. For all of the reasons discussed here, getting young people engaged in food growing should be mandatory. The lessons to be learnt are endless, from understanding food and nutrition, to learning the reward of physical work, to challenging the systems that create food injustice, to finding peace in nature, and so much more.
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It gives us a sense of power and sovereignty.
The feeling of pride and liberation of being able to provide for yourself and your loved ones is no small thing. When you sit down to eat something you have nurtured from seed, harvested and cooked you reconnect with something so incredibly basic and integral to the human experience: providing from the soil. Knowing that, come armageddon or the zombie apocalypse, you could still feed yourself is a pretty empowering feeling.
Indeed, in history it has been the growers that we recognise as some of society's most valuable people when crisis hits. Whether that be now during the COVID outbreak, in Greece during their severe recession in the early 2010s or during pretty much every war in history when supplies and imports are disrupted.
Day to day, for those of us whose finances leave no option but to buy food that we know was produced unsustainably, unfairly and inorganically, growing your own gives you more control over what goes in your body and allows you to spend less of your hard earned money supporting a rotten food system.
It keeps essential skills alive.
In the USA in 1870, 50% of the workforce were farmers. Today that number is 1.3%. Industrialisation and intensification, alongside a number of other factors like urbanisation, means less and less people are producing food. We know our food system is crumbling and we need a return to smaller farms and more farmers. So urban farming is key to keeping horticultural skills alive and laying the groundwork to inspire the farmers of tomorrow to return to the land.
It strengthens communities.
These therapeutic, productive, natural spaces are breeding grounds for community spirit. The value of strong social networks cannot be understated, especially in these modern times where community is a shadow of its former self and loneliness is rife. There are endless stories of folk, young and old, all around the world, finding peace and meaning in joining a community of growers. If we measured our national success with Gross Domestic Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product, how valuable do you think urban growing spaces would be?
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Just witnessing food growing makes us value it more.
For some people, the idea that the food they eat comes from the dirt is gross. Trying telling them rotted manure is used to make it even better.
If you don’t witness where food comes from, and only consume it as a polished, uniform, packaged product, you can’t connect to it or value it in the same way. You can’t appreciate the effort that goes into growing it, or understand how the vast volumes we consume and waste shape our planet and our environment.
And when you wander past a group of volunteers growing food in the middle of your city, might you stop to ask them about what they are doing? Starting the conversation is the first step to winning hearts and minds.
It acts as crisis prevention for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Every city is home to citizens in crisis, dealing with addiction or poor mental health. For many cities, crisis support services are stretched to the limit. Urban growing spaces and community gardens are often home to programmes that work with vulnerable people who are at risk of falling into crisis. The grounding and rewarding nature of community food growing can be the very thing that keeps them from crossing into that space. The importance of this should not be underestimated.
It makes our cities more resilient to climate change.
Gardens and plants absorb heat, carbon dioxide and rainwater. A city with no green space is far more prone to flooding and intolerable temperatures. There are many fantastic designs for the cities of the future that use food growing as a way to regulate building temperatures, filter rainwater and to slow and mitigate the effects of climate change. Not to mention, to produce lots of delicious food for residents.
Oh, and also…
It does, of course, have great calorific value. Bristol could potentially produce 5% of its fresh food needs in the city if all of the available allotments were used productively. And as much as 15% if other available, cultivatable land was turned to food production. No insignificant amount. Not to mention the role peri-urban farms have to play. And this highly localised food mean less transportation, higher nutrient value and less chemicals. Growing food in parts of cities where food deserts exist can be the only opportunity for residents to access fresh, healthy food where there is none. What's more it can provide opportunities for entrepreneurship and extra income, particularly important in low-income communities.
So, in conclusion, what kind of a future doesn’t include urban food growing? Let’s get to it!
"Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do,
especially in an inner city.
Plus you get strawberries."
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