Room to grow

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I am quite interested in the idea of rooftop and vertical gardens.  For me they epitomise invention and forward thinking while at the same time offer scope for the possibilities of the future of food and the opportunity to make value out of waste. 

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Wooden pallets become gardens in Sheffield

The items needed to support rooftop and vertical gardens are both complex and very simple. Along with a suitable building space–either a flat roof or a vertical wall that is largely empty, faces the sun, and is structurally sound–really all the materials needed are some containers, some soil, some seed and some water. The containers may be things we throw away already, such as plastic bottles, or Styrofoam or wooden crates. Even plastic guttering or wooden pallets can be repurposed into planters. Or one can get fancy and buy decorative pots or high technology planting systems.  The choice is down to labour and aesthetics.

This is where it gets political and cultural.  Once the difficulty of finding a suitable space upon which to install the garden is overcome, those who do rooftop and vertical farming find that the next big hurdle is that of dealing with building and planning restrictions that limit access to roof spaces or that have aesthetic codes about what “should happen”.  Often, within the rules, there is just not room for thinking about growing stuff–food–off of the places above our heads or on the side of our workplaces.  There is only very limited space from which to argue that our rooftops and our walls have potential to become farms to feed us and act in ways that are more than just purposeful locations of commerce and exchange. People are resistant to the idea that we can multi-purpose the empty, and as a result discarded; the vertical and horizontal spaces of our urban landscape.  But, the potential is there and occasionally despite these resistances it is being used for food.

Often the argument against rooftop and vertical gardening is that no single farm of this type, or even a network of farms of this type, will feed the 10 billion.  As such, we really should put our efforts into technologies that work on a massive scale, say the naysayers. Yet this is local food. This kind of farming has the capacity to de-fetishize our food because it is growing on our very work and home places and we can look at it. Our children can know what a carrot looks like before it is washed and trimmed into a mini-carrot snack in a non-biodegradable plastic baggie. Farming where we live and work allows us to see and understand what the difference is between a fruit and a vegetable and know what the above and below ground bits look like. We can learn that when the tops of the onion plants fall over they are ready to be picked and that the death of the plant signals the life of the food (unlike garlic, which must be dug prior to all the leaves dying). We can learn to recognise the smell of perfectly ripe fruit.

IPC Foodlab has established a vertical farm in an old industrial building in Fanling, Hong Kong.

IPC Foodlab has established a vertical farm in an old industrial building in Fanling, Hong Kong.

Vegetables are better when eaten the day they are picked.  They are sweeter and have more vitamin content.  Large scale, industrial farming does not aim to exploit this aspect of the food. Instead fruits are picked early and then ripened by radiating the seed at an appropriate moment (ever wondered why avocados get that dark ring around the seed?).  We know, from Haggerstrand and his time-space geographies that it takes time for things to travel to their destination and when they are travelling, they are ageing.  While Haggerstrand’s model does not obviously configure multi-tasking into spaces (e.g., only one thing happens at a time in a particular location), and certainly it is difficult to map multiple-use onto cartesian co-ordinates, GIS technologies have enabled us to think differently about our mapping imaginaries such that it is possible to represent multiple uses simultaneously, which in turn enables visualisations of forms of co-presence not envisioned by Haggarstrand in the 1960’s.  We need to invoke these possibilities when designing, regulating and visioning our urban space. In short, there is potential to be made out of creating room for farming in the city. If we do so, we enhance our capacity to make the most of the foods that we grow and the spaces within which we dwell.

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The primary photo was taken at Island School, Hong Kong, where the Geography students are learning about food production.

I have written about the possibility of urban rooftop and vertical farming in a number of other posts, most notably:  A Positive Word About the Future of Food.

You may also be interesting the the post Five Food Problems that people in the US, Europe, and China could work on together.

Along with IPC Foodlab, who are making urban farming technologies work in a commercial way, there are also a number of examples from the US where similar interventions are being employed with commercial success.

This post was entered into the Dailypost Weekly Photo Challenge on WordPress. The theme this week was room.  You can find the challenge here.

2 thoughts on “Room to grow

  1. Pingback: The Future of Urban Farming | Museum of the City

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