Growing Spaces in Unusual Places: London’s Urban Agriculture and a Super Mini Garden

Seems like everyone is talking about urban agriculture these days, with innovative new ideas ranging from tiny little crowd-funded SF city farms to fantasy skyscraper-high vertical farms.  From pundits to policymakers,  foodies to farmers to futurists, a lot of people are starting to think about urban food production for the sake of local economies, the environment, community resources, jobs creation, urban design, potential food security issues. and many more reasons.  I’ve been reading this really interesting report by the London Assembly called Cultivating the Capital: Food Growing and the Planning System in London (big PDF here) about working with city planners to increase the growing potential of the city.

Nerdy, I know.  In case you don’t want to read the 93 pages yourself (almost half of it is just appendices!), the report looks at the current situation of urban food producers, the barriers they face in growing and getting their products to market, and potential innovative solutions.  It also analyzes the city land that could be used for food production and encourages the use of  unconventional growing spaces, from rooftops to parks to housing developments.  And in terms of specific action, the report recommends that the Mayor of London promote and support policy and planning to increase Greater London’s food production and distribution channels.  They’ve got lots of important reasons to back up their suggestions:

‘There is a good case to be made that commercial agriculture is one of the best and most productive land uses in the Green Belt [an undeveloped area around London, set aside primarily for agriculture, forestry and outdoor leisure, but mostly not actively farmed]. The benefits include: opportunities for local job creation, skills development,  regeneration, preservation and management of green space, potential for waste management, providing healthy locally produced food and so reducing food packaging and food miles and the potential for improving food security.’

One of the big points is how much unused space there is within London that could be directed towards food production. The UK has these small plots called allotments that are available to the public for gardening/farming, but there are also swaths of unused industrial land and vacant building sites that could be improved visually and put to good use by developing for small-scale agriculture.   And it can get really small.  The report says, ‘Almost any site, irrespective of size, location or soil conditions can be used for food growing operations by making use of raised beds, skips and builders’ bags filled with good quality soil.’  Why not use green roofs or land along highways or railways or unused office land?

And it doesn’t even have to be a profit-making food-growing enterpise – it’s just fantastic to be able to produce any of your own food. And then you can get reaaaaally small. Because it doesn’t really get any tinier  in terms of space and literal lack of land than living on a houseboat (shoutout to my friend Olivia living on a houseboat in Alaska right now). And yet, this creative houseboater has developed an innovative way to grow tomatoes in a space smaller than that occupied by our forlorn and all-too-neglected barbecue grill.

I always talk about how much I’d like to grow my own food (despite my propensity towards immediately and invariably killing every single plant I’ve ever owned, including the cacti).  But I always live in the middle of cities and never seem to have enough space or enough land.  Yet these boaters have taken a very unexpected site and turned it into a mini growing area.  How sweet would it be to go pick tomatoes off your roof while enjoying this view of City Road Basin along Regent’s canal?

And looking back towards my hood…

A bit of inspiration for those of us who support the idea of more local food production. Until I get my act together to actually plant something, I’ll continue to buy vegetables from my local CSA veg box (and a shoutout to Growing Communities for being mentioned as one of the best programs in the report!), but I’m glad that other people are doing lots of growing in unexpected places.

Someday, I’ll be able to walk outside and pick what I want for dinner. Someday, someday…

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2 thoughts on “Growing Spaces in Unusual Places: London’s Urban Agriculture and a Super Mini Garden

  1. olivia says:

    growing veggies on my boat: happening. now just hoping for a little sun this summer to make those tomaters swiggity sweet.

  2. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    Quick note on growing plants for eating in urban areas-

    If you are growing from soil bags, as seen in the pictures above, fine. But if your are starting an urban garden and not using exclusively store-bought soil, get your soil tested for Pb (lead).

    Unfortunately, since industrialization, there has been huge contamination of our environment with Pb. In many soils it will not soluble, but in even slightly acidic soils Pb will be in it’s soluble metallic (and toxic form). With acid rain problems in cities, more and more soluble Pb is showing up. Soil contamination levels of 100 ppm can give children who play outdoors 5 ppm blood Pb levels, the level where cognitive deficits begin to be measurable. Most older urban areas in the US have at least some areas 150-2000 ppm (mean for many studies I have seen lands around 300 ppm) that have either at some point made the zoning transition from industrial to residential, or are within 100 meter of highways and main thoroughfares (Pb in that instance comes from tetra-ethyl Pb from cars, which was in use in most of the world, including the US and UK until at least 1998!).

    When testing soil for lead, I know of at least one pitfall when buying commercial kits- some can give false positives when testing soil. They will test positive for Barium and Strontium, which is pretty much always present in soil.

    I believe that urban agriculture is a great movement. I really stinks that our parents and our grandparents used Pb so prolifically without knowing how bad it is for us, because all this lead that had been deposited isn’t going anywhere: old roman towns still have highly toxic soils from way back in the day- the Pb deposited then has sunk into the earth less than a meter.

    -Daniel

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