“Rurbanization” could bring agriculture in cities

Good piece at WIRED, on scientists investigating how designers and planners can ruralize cities, greening roofs, and empty lots.

If we bring some of what we grow nearer to where we live, can we enhance our connection with food? Can we make food more accessible? Can we improve local ecosystems?

Called rurbanization, the idea is to blur the distinction between cities and urban areas while growing crops to be consumed locally.

An urban farm, by contrast [to commercial farms], can grow all kinds of crops packed closely together because they’re harvested by hand. That’s part of the reason why Bousselot’s tiny rooftop garden in Denver is so productive. That crop diversity also means you can harvest different plants at different times—tomatoes in August, pumpkins in October—so the supply of food is more broadly distributed. Even though Bousselot has already harvested over 200 pounds of food, she still has two months left to go.

The article might be kind of inverted. An attentive reader, seeing the above passage and going down the article, might immediately realise that there’s a problem; if urban farms are so dependent on being packed together and on manual work, how can they reach the scale of commercial farms? Part of the answer comes at the end.

No one is suggesting that urban agriculture will provide city-dwellers with 100 percent of the food they need to survive. Bousselot imagines it more as a collaboration, with commercial farmers churning out land-intensive and machine-harvested cereals like rice and wheat while urban gardeners grow nutrient-dense, hand-harvested vegetables like leafy greens—both creating jobs and reducing the length of the supply chain for perishable foods.

That doesn’t completely answer the question, but it’s definitely an interesting line of thought, balancing what is grown where according to how it might be best grown and while offering other benefits.

Speaking of benefits, urban farms done properly are a surprisingly good fit with cities. As planners stop making cities impermeable to water and transform them more into sponges, some of that water could be used for farms just around the corner. Compost from neighbourhood could be used as mulch in nearby farms instead of being shipped out of town. As more solar roofs are installed, roof-top farms can be grown in their partial shade. Greener roofs and more vegetation elsewhere help combat heat islands. As we make cities denser and less car-centric, parking and streets can be reduced and some of the space used for greenery, including some farms/gardens.

All-in-all, the main lesson from this, and from many other areas of research, is that monocropping, and single-tasking of anything, tends to bring new problems. Multi-tasking, mixing things up, and hybrid solutions are often more resilient and bring a host of other cross-benefits. Nature knows this, and we need to re-learn it.

Image: Chuttersnap on Unsplash.