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Farming Anywhere Near You

  Published: 19 March 2018
  Theme: Future Economy

Near homes, on rooftops, on water — designers and farmers are introducing new farming design typologies that are reconnecting the city and its city dwellers with food.

 

Innovators at the forefront of urban agriculture are proving that city farms can be a catalyst for communities, bridging people and food production in meaningful ways. When private and public sectors work together for a common food security goal, urban farms have the potential to contribute more than just good food, but jobs, education, community engagements, national security and environmental benefits.

Farming in cities

In China, issues in food safety have come to the fore, with public concern about the impact of pollution on farms and their crops. For centuries, agriculture has manipulated the landscape, resulting in mass deforestation and disruption of natural systems, according to Michael Grove, principal at US-based architecture and design firm, Sasaki Associates.

Urban farming can help, says Michael. “If we can move some agriculture to cities and allow the land to revert to its natural state, that's a positive benefit.” However, in cities, farms are typically relegated to a hodgepodge of plots and rooftops, limiting their productivity, he adds. To address this issue, Sasaki is designing an entire district in Shanghai that will integrate mass-scale vertical farming and agricultural R&D with homes, shops, restaurants and parks.

Sunqiao_SasakiAssociates

The Sunqiao agricultural district in Shanghai designed by Sasaki Associates will be a living laboratory for farming innovation. (Image: Sasaki Associates)

In Holland, Dutch firm Beladon also wants to move farms into cities. Beladon chief executive Peter van Wingerden says that urban dependence on transportation to deliver food from rural farms or overseas is unsustainable, increasing pollution, food spoilage and vulnerability to geopolitical relations. “Cities want to become climate adaptive for food production, but have little space.” In tackling this, Beladon has designed a floating farm that can produce dairy, eggs or vegetables over virtually any body of water.

According to Peter, as most of the world’s cities are located on coasts or along rivers, they are presented with large areas of untapped space. In Rotterdam, Beladon’s floating farms are part of a larger residential and commercial development that will help revitalise an area that was once occupied by port activities. In Singapore, Peter believes large reservoirs present an opportunity too.

Floatingfarm_Beladon

Beladon shows that floating farms are possible with their closed-loop modular floating platform, a first in the world. (Image: Beladon)

Retrofitting urban spaces

Here in Singapore, where land is precious and the environment is hot, wet and insect-ridden, traditional soil farming is impractical. But one local urban farm is championing the use of marginalised spaces to feed the city. ComCrop operates a vertical hydroponic farm on the roof of Scape on Orchard Road, and is ready to scale up with more rooftop farms. Co-founder Allan Lim believes that urban farming has the potential to do for food security what the Singapore water story did for water security – assuring supply while contributing to economic growth. “If we become a primary producer of food,” says Allan, “we can spin off multiple products up the value chain, which creates more jobs.”

When it comes to marginalised space, most plentiful would be on rooftops, but that presents another challenge to urban farming – retrofitting city infrastructure. When ComCrop began designing its farm on the Scape rooftop, co-founder Allan Lim says they were designing against an existing system of rooftop infrastructure that rendered a lot of square footage unusable. It is a problem in Singapore, he says, where there is no standard for rooftop design. To influence the design of usable roof space, ComCrop published a booklet suggesting practical design specifications and distributed it to architects and developers.

ComCrop

Allan Lim of ComCrop at the roof of Scape on Orchard Road leading a tour as part of the farm's outreach efforts. (Image: Chee Boon Pin)

It takes at least 4,000 square metres to make an impactful farm, he says. But rooftops built today that can’t support a farm are lost opportunity to make marginalised space productive for decades. One suggestion is to set production targets for rooftop farms to drive what he feels is a more practical approach towards national food security.

These ideas and others underlie a shifting paradigm in farming, where cities and city dwellers develop a closer relationship with food and the environments in which it is grown.

As farms move into cities, they have the potential to interact with residents and reconnect them with the food that is essential for their survival. The future of farming is one where urban farms form synergies with surrounding communities, businesses, childcare centres, schools and old age homes, providing not only food, but opportunities for education, employment, and a greater appreciation for the food we eat.

At your doorstep

“We do not know the smell of the countryside anymore,” says Peter, who muses about urban residents who accept the smell of emissions from vehicles, refineries and other industries yet find the scent of a natural farm foreign. His hope is to build floating farms as close to the city as possible, integrating them into the fabric of neighborhoods and designed in iconic ways to make them attractive, approachable and transparent.

Citizen Farm also has a vision for communities, to integrate the farm and food production with surrounding child care centres and elderly day care centres to provide opportunities for education and well-being. The farm has also developed prototypes for indoor growing facilities that can be installed in HDB estates and office buildings.

Education and outreach are a large part of Darren Ho’s work as head of Citizen Farm, where he conducts tours and talks, in part to inform citizens about where food comes from, but also to interest them to become consumers of locally-grown produce. So far Darren says public interest has been overwhelming in both numbers and positive feedback, but Allan Lim at ComCrop, who also conducts public outreach, says that there is still some way to go towards educating local consumers. It could also be a price point issue, as local produce is priced slightly higher than imports, however local farmers are hoping that will change as they scale up.

“I think AVA has done a good job to promote local produce,” he says, “but people simply don't trust that Singapore can grow things. It's a mindset issue.”

These farms were featured in URA’s Urban Lab exhibition in October 2017, “Growing More with Less”, to inspire new ways of farming for the future. Urban Lab is a platform that regularly presents the latest R&D and urban solutions for a more sustainable and future-ready city.

Writer: Jennifer Eveland

This article was adapted from Skyline Issue 8.

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