Urban farming, a future scenario

By: Jörg Hronek

Urban farming is a social movement where people form communities to cultivate vegetables, plants, spices and fruits within the city, on places that are not used by anybody else. The values behind those communities often are making the city a greener place, community activity in general, farming vegetables for their own and enjoying the whole process. It is practiced in various cities around the world, but usually it is only a small percentage of the inhabitants who are doing it and their values are the ones I described. But what would happen if something changes, if urban farming is practiced by almost all inhabitants in a city that are able to do so? What does it mean for the city? Is it really possible in terms of space and what would it mean to the farmers around that are usually delivering their harvest to fulfill the needs of the city? Therefore we analyze a future scenario by going through different factors that seem most important and that would be most affected by a significant change in urban farming towards the goal of self-sustainment.

The City

Whether it is possible or not to extend urban farming to a level where a city can sustain itself strongly depends on the structure of the city and its density. In general the space that is used by the urban farmers at the moment is around old industry buildings that are abandoned, somewhere in between buildings where no space is left to fit in another building or on balconies and rooftops. The problem with industrial zones is that they are usually still owned by a company or the city and that it can happen from one day to another that they demand it back. If urban farming is really to sustain a city itself then the city needs to play the role of a supporter to make certain places permanently available to urban farmers, so that they do not have the fear of being removed one day. Rooftops and balconies alone do not deliver enough space to do so. Furthermore cities around the world are so different in density and structure that each case needs to be examined individually to come to a conclusion. But the point is that in order to make it work people as well as the city and politicians have to stand behind the project to minimize blockades.

The climate

Urban farming is not possible everywhere around the globe or at least not throughout the whole year. Most of the cities in the northern hemisphere experience winters with minus degrees that would make it impossible for them to farm in winter. Only within greenhouses this would be possible and greenhouses are meant to be for bigger areas and require special workers to take care off. This would definitely go beyond the possibilities of urban farmers, especially on an individual level. Some places in the world also don’t offer enough rain throughout the year. These factors limit the number of cities where it is possible at all and they cannot be influenced by human action.

The necessity of self-sustainment

What is it that actually needs to happen that would require urban farming to become a tool of importance? Cities with a high population density and insufficient space around the city that can be used for farming could use urban farming to balance this deficit. Importing vegetables from foreign countries is expensive in certain cases, also depending on the time of the year. Practicing urban farming could help especially the poorer half of a cities population to decrease spending for basic nutrition. But in general a whole city will never feel the pressure of being forced to sustain itself, it would rather hit people on an individual level.

The markets and farmers

What would it mean for supermarkets and professional farmers that are usually supplying a city with vegetables, fruits and so on? Urban farming mainly aims at vegetables as they grow in the soil and do not require as much time and space as fruits do. Of course as it is with every product, whenever demand goes down you either have to find another range of products you can offer or you can try to offer other attributes of value. Farmers would have to focus on products like meat, exotic vegetables or find another purpose for their fields and supermarkets do not have to worry as much because they focus on processed food that cannot be produced by individuals. They would definitely feel the impact when urban farming goes big but they have the powers to compensate.

From a systems thinking point of view

We can take a look at a city as a system, embedded in a wider range of systems and host for smaller systems. Those systems are never closed as there always is a connection point to other systems. It is very difficult to analyze a system of this size and to figure out what a change in one factor would cause to the others, especially as we cannot identify the points of leverage because they require deeper forms of analysis. And as the great Jay Forrester already said, “systems behave counter intuitively”. But some paths can be tracked when it comes to urban farming. When people start producing their own vegetables they become less dependent on the supermarkets, they would go there less often and therefore also buy less stuff they don’t need. It would cause a change in trade, consumer behavior and also need-creation, but further impacts again require deeper research. In general it can be said that power relations in consumer-retailer relationship are affected the strongest. Apart from that stronger relationship with nature could be an outcome of urban farming. The importance of communities and human relationships could be emphasized which could counter the existing consume delusion in our capitalistic system.

A conclusion

A city can and will never sustain itself completely. There may be only a few cities in the world that even have the capabilities to do so in terms of space, climate and willingness of the people to do so. Apart from that there are always needs that a local community cannot fulfill and therefore imports the products that fulfill their needs from somewhere else. To sum up urban farming would kind of lose its community factor when it becomes too big and also it could create competition among the urban farmers and this would change the original values that urban farming created. Sometimes things are not meant to become a game changer, even though people like to see their projects go big. The good things that urban farming brings with it can too easily get lost on a mainstream level and therefore it should stay as it is.