Navigant Research Blog

Back to the Land, in the City

Eric Woods — December 23, 2014

Urban farming may sound like an oxymoron, but more and more cities are looking at the role of urban food production to reduce the embedded carbon cost of transporting food long distances (food-miles), to improve food education, and to regenerate run-down city areas.

In many cities, of course, there has never been a clear line between the city and country.  A new study, for example, indicates the degree to which urban farming has a significant role in city economies.  According to the report from the International Water Management Institute (IWWI), around 69 million hectares (around 6% of the world’s cropland) are being cultivated within cities.  Furthermore, 456 million hectares (1.1 billion acres), an area roughly the size of the European Union, is under cultivation in close proximity to urban environments.

Urban farming is widely practiced across the world: 87% of cities greater than 50,000 have some irrigated farming and 98% having some rain-fed cropland.  The report suggests that there is significant potential for the local sourcing of food for the growing cities of the developing world, but it also highlights the issues this presents in terms of water and wastewater management.  In particular, a lack of water treatment facilities means that there are significant dangers to human health from cultivation that uses unclean water.

Scaling Up

In Accra, for example, 10% of the city’s wastewater may be used for urban farms without adequate treatment.  Another study has estimated that 85% of cities discharge their wastewater without appropriate treatment.  Strategies to support and expand local food provision for growing cities must, therefore, be closely aligned with improvements to water distribution and water treatment systems. Developing cities need to find ways to integrate existing urban farming sites with their water management and land use policies if they are to retain the benefits of local production.

In the developed cities of North America and other parts of the world, urban farming has been recognized since the 1970s as an important tool to help community regeneration programs in areas like the Bronx in New York.  Now cities are looking to technology to make local production viable at a commercial scale.

To Feed the Center

For example, Lufa Farms is running two rooftop gardens in Montreal using hydroponic technology, which provides nutrients to plants through an integrated water system rather than soil.  They have also been reassessing the sales and distribution issues that are equally important to make urban farming commercially successful.  Other technologies to enable large-scale urban food production include aquaponics, which integrates fish and plant farming, as practiced by Urban Organics in St. Paul, Minnesota. Urban Organics is located in a former brewery and is part of a broader, city-supported urban regeneration program.  In Europe, LokDepot in Basel, Switzerland is the first commercial aquaponics farm.

Any true measure of a city’s total energy consumption, its environmental footprint, or its economic resilience needs to consider the relationship between the urban center and the resources on which it relies.  Food production is one of the most important of those resources.   In different ways the community gardens and high-tech vertical farms of North American and European cities and the farming enclaves of Accra and other cities in Africa and Asia all show how cities need to think more locally about food production.  As droughts and expanding urban populations put pressure on water supplies and food costs, an intelligent approach to food production will become a critical issue for many communities.

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