By Laura Puurunen
In the past, every family had a vegetable patch in the back yard. When the shift to an industrial society took place and people moved to the cities, producing one’s own food became unnecessary. Today, however, population growth especially in the cities sets many challenges for us, food security and pollution not being the least of our worries. Even though today more than a half of the world’s population lives in urbanised areas, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that only 15 percent of the world's food is grown in cities. How is it then possible to feed such a huge, constantly growing mass of humanity sustainably?
Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters. Original photo
Urban farming, community gardening, urban agriculture - no matter what you call it, is suggested to be one of the solutions for local food production. The loose terms generally refer to farming in an urban area in a small space, usually on an allotment that you share with a group of other farmers, but can also mean simply growing your lettuce on your windowsill in an urban setting. Rooftops are said to have the most future potential of all sites in the cities because of the huge amount of underutilized space they possess.
In the western world today, a few urbanites are farming out of necessity, but an increasing environmental awareness and an interest in back-to-basics lifestyle among city-dwellers has led people to embrace farming in cities as a relaxing pastime and a way of having fresh, local, additive-free produce on the table.
As the benefits of putting wasted space to a good use are becoming evident and urban farming is gaining more popularity, local governments are starting to show some interest in allocating public land for city farming. Companies too, are getting involved: green roofs are being established on top of their corporate HQ’s and other buildings, where employees can take care of the communal veggies and forget about work every now and then. As an example, the former Nokia headquarters’ rooftop garden can be viewed here. Even a high-class restaurant, Savoy, in Helsinki, established a rooftop garden a few years ago to grow fresh, local ingredients for their own use. The garden has become an icon; since its opening in 2010 it has been expanded, reviewed in many media and turned into a sight in itself, promoting local, urban food production. An impressive example of how an urban garden can actually become very productive in many ways.
The urban farming list of positives is in fact long; not only do urban gardens produce food out of land which would often otherwise be underutilized, but it has a huge impact on people’s well-being and on their perceptions about the urban environment. The carbon footprint of locally grown food is obviously much lower compared to things grown far away and as we all must eat anyway, growing your own veggies is the ultimate green choice! Green areas also help reduce run-offs of rain water and create small scale carbon sinks in the cities, purifying the air and mitigating some of the vast greenhouse gas emissions cities produce. According to a National Geographic article, community gardens even have a positive impact on the property values.
With all these benefits for human health, the environment and for the liveability of cities, why is this movement then not embraced everywhere? Unfortunately the land in cities is scarce and thus expensive, and in the end it’s often the euros that count. In Finland we have had quite a bit of land to “spare”, and therefore in the past, city farming might have been considered silly, if not pointless. In some major European and US’ metropolises where the situation is quite different, urban farming as a movement, its benefits and possibilities are much more acknowledged and supported. Around Tampere there have been public community gardens also during the past summer arranged by an urban gardening non-profit organisation Dodo, but a lot more could be done.
The future of cities? Original photo
So how about a proposal to your landlord to launch a gardening project in the possibly unproductive, dull yard? Or then you could just make use of those scarce square meters in your balcony, like here and grow a few lettuce leaves. The internet is full of interesting articles on how to use your space wisely to grow yourself some inexpensive food with very small carbon emissions – just the way we like it.