Discussions of regenerative agriculture often fail to take seriously urban farms, despite the fact that, when appropriately designed, they also have the potential to help us go beyond simple sustainability.
In this way, waste-streams that could otherwise incur a cost in both monetary and environmental terms can be used for nutrients, substrate, power, etc. A further bonus is that by sourcing their inputs in this way, they reduce the need for input transportation, just as they also do in terms of their outputs, when these are sold locally.
Urban and suburban farms and community growing spaces are generally smaller than their rural cousins but they can be far more efficient.
They have been reported to be 15 times more productive on a square metre basis than conventional horticulture and can produce one job for every 100 square metres of garden production. They also tend to have different material and energy requirements and employ different techniques.
They also utilise space and integrate into their surroundings differently. As a general rule, regenerative urban and suburban farms do not have exactly the same profile of benefits as regenerative rural farming systems, but there are many overlaps.
For example, urban farms can contribute significantly to food security and to reducing food poverty.
They can also help people access food that is healthier for them, e.g., by improving access to fresh food for economically disadvantaged communities.
They can, moreover, help bring other benefits of localised food systems to cities and their surroundings:– e.g. with shorter time from production to sale, thereby increasing the nutritional content of the food; with a reduction in travel costs; with a reduction – or even abolition – of the need for single-use plastics to extend shelf-life; and with shorter marketing chains with lower price differentials.
Although controlled-environment systems (vertical farms) are unlikely to do so in any meaningful way, some town and city farms can make a significant contribution to biodiversity – a factor that is often overlooked in relation to urban environments.
Regenerative urban and suburban agriculture operations would also diversify crops, focus their efforts on growing more perennials, and avoid synthetic-chemical inputs such as artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Their placement in an urban environment means that these systems are ideally positioned to utilise existing waste-streams to supply their needs.
A well-designed urban operation would also use space efficiently, producing more food from a much-reduced footprint, or using land where food production is stacked onto other functions of a building without increasing its footprint (eg/ rooftop farms, underground mushroom farms).
In addition to food production, urban agriculture also offers a wide range of other functions such as economic revitalisation, community socialisation, human health, preservation of cultural heritage and education.
By 2050, nine out of ten people living in the UK are likely to be in an urban environment and we need as many as possible to have an opportunity to grow their own food.
Currently one in eight households have no access to a garden. COVID-19 has taught us just how important it is to get outside and experience nature, both for our mental and our physical health, and there is evidence that this also encourages healthier diet choices.
More greenery in urban areas helps to reduce air pollution and the introduction of edible rooftops, walls and verges can also help to reduce flood risk and to provide natural cooling for buildings and streets.
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