How is urban farming taking root in European city streets?
Paris, the most densely populated city in Europe, is going green – or greener at least – thanks to urban farming. Across the French capital’s twenty arrondissements, tomatoes and herbs are growing on bright rooftops, mushrooms are sprouting in shady abandoned underground car parks and hops are winding their way up walls.
The urban agriculture drive is part of a concerted effort by city authorities to make the city greener. It has a number of aims, including reducing emissions, slowing the decline in biodiversity, getting city dwellers back in touch with nature, forging social links and boosting the local economy within neighbourhoods.
Paris is far from alone in its push to encourage urban farming. Across Europe and around the world, entrepreneurs, NGOs, community associations and local authorities are making efforts to make their urban spaces greener, whether that’s through a return to traditional community gardens, setting up vegetable plantations watered by hydroponics systems, or installing high-tech vertical farms.
Since the Paris authorities launched the Parisculteurs project in 2016, with an ambition of turning 100 hectares of unused city space green, other important benefits of promoting urban farming have come to the fore.
The COVID-19 crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the fragility of supply chains and the issue of food security like never before, and extreme weather (temperatures have topped 40 degrees Celsius in Paris in recent summers) highlight the benefit of green spaces which can help naturally lower the temperatures of their surroundings.
After the success of Parisculteurs, the city authorities launched a new project, Paris Sème (which translates as ‘Paris sows’) in 2021, choosing an initial 17 urban farming projects in the city and the surrounding suburbs.
Food security is an important consideration, and one that has been thrown into sharp relief in recent years as COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine led to shortages or drove up prices. One way of addressing the situation is for France’s 100 biggest urban areas need to grow more food, says Pascal Mayol, ecologist and president of the environmental group of the CESE, an assembly that advises the French government. He is cautious about predicting how much food urban farming can grow, however.
“In the best-case scenarios, urban agriculture could perhaps feed 10% of cities, never more than that,” Mayol says. “But it will raise awareness with the public about the fact that a leek or a carrot does not grow in a supermarket, it grows in a field.“
Raising awareness is also one of the main aims of the Le Lopin project, one of the winners of the fourth round of the Parisculteurs project.
The Croque Ta Ville (Eat Your City) association successfully tendered in 2021 for the chance to install its kitchen garden at the Centre d’Excellence des Professions Culinaires (CEPROC), a prestigious school for chefs and other food industry professionals in the north-east of the city.
The Croque Ta Ville installed reclaimed wood planters at the site and uses waste such as oyster shells and coffee grounds to grow mini-vegetables (for faster harvesting in a small space), herbs and edible flowers. Its initial harvest totalled 250kg from 100m2 of growing space and plans are underway to cultivate more space.
Food waste from CEPROC’s kitchens and canteen is also transformed into compost by a partner, food waste recycling specialist, Les Alchimistes, and returned to the garden.
“We wanted to bring together urban nature and gastronomy,” says Nina Loup Cravic, co-founder of Croque Ta Ville, who has a background in urban planning and also runs La Casbah, one of the Paris restaurants that made use of Le Lopin’s first crops.
“Our objective was to encourage eco-responsible attitudes in the next generation of food professionals,” Cravic says. “The students sort their rubbish in the canteen and know that their food waste will help the garden grow. In the future, when they run their own restaurants, we hope they will keep those instincts for local and seasonal produce. Cookery schools and food professionals are really powerful ambassadors for the food transition.”
Le Lopin has also come up with an innovative way to get around the fact that the majority of Parisians go on holiday in the month of August, so Paris empties and many of its restaurants shut just as the vegetables at its urban farms begin to ripen.
Making use of CEPROC’s industrial kitchen, it has teamed up with other urban farms in the French capital, including Nature Urbaine, the biggest urban rooftop farm in Europe, to can tomatoes and make ketchups and pickles. The idea is to offer those local, high quality products at a low price to students to help solve the problem of food poverty among them.
Cravic agrees that urban agriculture in Paris, a city with only around 5.8 m2 of green space per resident (compared with 45m2 in London), remains symbolic. But she says “We could create something bigger by working with the wider Ile de France region, which is still around 50% farmland. For that, political will is needed.”
Even if the quantities remain small, urban harvests can also play a direct role in improving the security of the food supply, says Laura Vickers, Senior Lecturer in Plant Biology at the Agriculture and Environment Department of Harper Adams University in the UK.
Urban plantations cannot compete with large-scale rural horticulture – huge fruit or vegetable farms – but even small quantities can usefully supplement larger scale food production, Vickers says. “Whether that’s a garden in a school supplying the canteen or more of a business model, for instance through an underground system, any extra food added into the supply chain is a benefit when we look at the strains it is under at present.”
However, that logic makes more sense for some crops than others.
“Arable crops such as barley and wheat have such small margins and such a long growing time that it wouldn’t make sense to put them into an energy-intensive system, which is what urban agriculture systems often are,” Vickers says.
But for crops that are high-input and high-value anyway, and grown in closed environments such as tomatoes or peppers, supplementing supply through urban cultivation does make sense, especially as urban areas are naturally warmer than rural ones anyway.
Vickers cites the Agrotopia rooftop greenhouse in Roeselare, Belgium, built on top of the huge REO Veiling fruit and vegetable distribution centre, as a good example of a circular model. It recycles heat and CO2 from a city incinerator to help cultivate vegetables, which are then channelled straight into the distribution centre below.
“Urban agriculture is really important for future cities,” Vickers says.
In Portugal, NÃM Mushrooms is currently growing two to three tonnes of mushrooms (mostly oyster and some shiitake) every month in containers filled with coffee grounds provided by Portuguese coffee producer Delta.
The containers are located in and around Lisbon and neighbouring Cascais, in unused spaces earmarked for the project by local authorities.
NÃM hopes to increase production to 6/7 tonnes per month by the end of the year as it opens up new sites.
“I wanted to do something that would combine entrepreneurship and having a positive impact on the planet – I was looking for a way to reconcile economy and ecology,” says founder and CEO Natan Jacquemin. The project does just that. Producing mushrooms in the city and selling them locally cuts down on CO2 from transport and NÃM follows a circular economy model meaning nothing is wasted. Used coffee grounds are used to grow the mushrooms, and once they have been picked the leftover waste can be used as fertilizer for local gardens. But that’s not the biggest positive impact, Jacquemin says.
“Growing mushrooms in the city is a good way to educate people about the mushrooms themselves and ecology in general. The biggest impact from growing locally, especially inside of the city, is the connection you’re able to create between the food and the people.”
Sara Ceraolo, president of ORME (Orti Metropolitani Torinesi), which brings together a network of urban farming and horticulture associations in the northern Italian city of Turin, also sees valuable educational and therapeutic roles for urban farming and gardening.
“Within ORME, most of the associations are quite small in size. In reality gardens are of course important from the point of view of greenery in Turin but ORME is much more efficient from the point of view of community work, links with schools, education and supporting the services in place for vulnerable citizens.”
Vickers also highlights that social role. “It’s connecting people with growing, with natural spaces, it can be used to address social isolation, bringing parts of communities together round an activity that is a social leveller,” she says.
“There are also health benefits. We know that engaging in horticulture-type activities can be good for health, whether that’s through active engagement or even the passive engagement of just being out in green spaces – it is good for people’s mental and physical health.”