Urban Growth Patterns

A farming renaissance is energising some of the world's most desolate urban zones

Text by Matt Mellen

Illustrations by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

As the asphalt foundations of modern cities mushroomed throughout the industrial revolution, they effectively sterilised the land below. Ground that once sustained forests, fields or farm animals became devoid of ecological function. Food supplies now had to be delivered along the network of arteries that connect the city with the land beyond. Donkey carts gave way to motorised vehicles and food travelled increasing distances, ultimately encompassing the entire planet. Peruvian asparagus, New Zealand lamb and cod from the Arctic can now be purchased in any city centre with food miles an awkward reminder of the ecological impact. These vast trains of food are kept rolling with the steady flow of oil pumped from distant lands, secured with guns stained with the blood of resistance. The spiralling cost of this fuel is contributing to shifting attitudes. Local food allows cities to become more resilient and less dependent upon foreign imports. It can also be fresher, cheaper and more enriching.

But today's resurgence in do-it-yourself agriculture is not being driven by government edicts. Swathes of grassroots enthusiasts are filling earth tubs, composting food waste, collecting rainwater and growing lettuce, tomatoes and herbs on balconies, terraces and any available space because it satisfies primeval urges that the globalised economy fails to.

In São Paulo's favelas, the Cities Without Hunger organisation utilises urban agriculture to reduce hunger and unemployment. A network of 700 gardeners supplies food to 4000 residents. In Detroit, the collapse of the car industry left the poor abandoned in a derelict wasteland. Their subsequent transformation into urban farmland has produced a quality of life that rivals the heady years of peak automobile productivity. Seed swaps, shared allotments and city farms are uniting people from all walks of life to refamiliarise themselves with nature's abundant gifts. Since 1984, east London's Hackney City Farm has offered educational programmes to local students and the community. New York's Eagle Street Rooftop Farm sits atop a 6,000 square foot warehouse. The onsite market delivers fresh produce to local restaurants. Nearby, Professor Martin P. Schreibman and colleagues from Brooklyn College intensively produce animal protein in building basements. The Brooklyn Fish Farm may well revolutionise food production, easing shortages and the pressure on overfished wild stocks. The urban fish farm is a potential model for futuristic vertical farms that intensively stack different agricultural layers into dense space.

This blossoming interest in horticulture is part of a broader trend of people replacing excessive consumption with pursuing quality time amongst friends and communities. As they begin to eschew supermarket, high street and imported goods, a dependence on shared local intelligence binds each other to the supporting land. The new breed of urban farmer stands alongside the creative rebels who reject society's prescribed roles as workers and consumers. Their preference is to conduct life apart from the mainstream. They are living beings and, deep down, they want to grow.

  • Urban Growth Patterns