How urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

This guest blog was written by Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.

Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about US$6.9 billion worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

As with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.

Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

If you enjoyed this blog, why not read some of our other blogs:

ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 


‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.


‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.

If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

Growing places: community gardens are rising up the policy agenda

TUQ2UK6G75 (1)

In April, a study by Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) reported a significant increase in community growing between 2010 and 2015. The results of the study found a rise of 79% in the number of sites devoted to community gardens, taking the total to 84, with land coverage rising to 29 hectares.

The increasing popularity of community gardens is also reflected elsewhere in the UK. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) estimates that there are now around 1000 community gardens around the UK.

What are community gardens?

Community gardens are defined by Greenspace Scotland as:

“locally managed pieces of land that are developed in response to and reflect the needs of the communities in which they are based.”

They differ from allotments in that the focus is on communal, rather than individual growing space. Most community gardens concentrate on cultivation of fruit and vegetables, although they may also promote complementary elements, such as recreation, biodiversity and education.

Last year, our Idox Information Service briefing on community growing highlighted a number of these projects, including the Incredible Edible community growing project in West Yorkshire and G3 Growers in Glasgow. Further examples include the Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, north London, and the Grove Community Garden in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in Streatham, south London, a patch of waste ground next to a health centre has been transformed into a community garden by a group of patients with long-term health conditions. The garden is now supplying enough produce to sell fruit and vegetables to patients and visitors at a nearby hospital.

Benefits of Community Gardens

A 2009 report from the FCFCG identified a range of social, economic and environmental benefits stemming from community gardens. These included:

  • social interactions and inclusion
  • healthy eating
  • natural therapy (feelings of relaxation, appreciation, happiness, achievement)
  • skills development, training and development
  • environmental awareness and activities

More recently, a 2015 report on community gardens in Glasgow indicated that participants enjoy physical and mental health benefits, make new friends and develop community empowerment.

In addition, community growth projects have a role to play in the local economy, providing stepping stones to employment and generating income through the sale of fruit and vegetables.

Community gardens: the policy challenges

As the benefits of community gardens have become more apparent, public policymakers have come to view community growing as a vehicle for delivering policy goals in sectors as diverse as health and the environment, business and planning.

In Scotland, a number of community gardens are being supported by funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, administered by Keep Scotland Beautiful. Other public funders of community gardens include the Big Lottery Fund and Scottish local authorities.

Earlier this year, research findings highlighted increasing support for community gardens from policymakers in Scotland at national and local levels, and the widening range of funding policy initiatives:

“There is no doubt that national and local government policy agendas are changing in response to the mounting evidence linking urban greenspace with a range of positive health, social, economic and environmental benefits and that increased support will be available for community gardens in Scotland in the future.”

However, the authors also identified a number of challenges facing community growing projects, including planning and legal issues, land availability, funding issues, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages.

Tackling these issues, the authors argued, will need support at local and national levels, but they went on to highlight problems encountered by community gardens in Scotland when applying for grant funding:

“…because the policies relevant to community gardens span such a wide range of concerns across a variety of sectors (including health, land use, social regeneration and the environment) and because funding tends to be located within individual sectors, they often feel pressured to fit in with social policy agendas and associated grant funding criteria which are not entirely suited to their original aims or the needs of their users in order to be eligible for grant money.”

As an example of this, one of the research participants recalled a local health group meeting where the direction of their community garden was pushed from a “therapeutic mental health benefit” agenda to a “back to work” agenda in order to fit in with a recent policy change.


Looking ahead

It’s likely that prevailing policy will continue to affect the way community growing projects organise and develop. In 2015, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, which includes provisions giving communities the right to take over land in urban and rural areas, enabling, for example, the transformation of waste ground into community garden. And in its 2016 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party pledged to work through the Community Empowerment Act to increase access to land for food growing purposes to develop allotments and community gardens.

If community gardens are to grow further, it appears that organisers will have to explore inventive ways of navigating a complex funding landscape, while satisfying the objectives of policymakers at national and local levels.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may be interested in some of our other posts on community development:

The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

SURF Awards winners: success stories in Scottish regeneration

The potential of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to strengthen community planning

Eco-Cultures: blending arts and the environment

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the "Concrete Antenna"

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the “Concrete Antenna” Image: John Lord via Creative Commons

By James Carson

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.
Wendell Berry

The worlds of place and imagination came together last weekend at EcoCultures, Glasgow’s festival of environmental research, policy and practice. With over 40 presentations covering topics as diverse as land reform, poetry, sculpture and urban ecology, the festival provided numerous opportunities to learn how artists, scientists and community activists are responding in very different ways to their environments.

Sharing a sense of place

For Rebecca Crowther, exploring shared experiences of nature is important for understanding notions of belonging. Rebecca’s PhD thesis is based on collecting and truthfully representing stories, watching people interact with the natural world, and collaboratively documenting experiences using journals and photographs. As Rebecca observed: “The stories people tell about places reveal which places matter to them, and why.”

Community gardens

Blair Cunningham’s presentation also highlighted the value of places for collective sharing. As part of a larger body of research looking at Glasgow’s growing network of community gardens, Blair was commissioned to create an artist book to explore some of the issues raised by the research, such as community empowerment and social inclusion.


Blair Cunningham’s Artist Book. Image produced by permission of Aye-Aye Books

He described the process of identifying these community gardens, some of which are hidden from view, but still very-well used by their communities. As well as providing spaces for growing plants, fruit and vegetables, community gardens are also meeting places, with many offering learning opportunities, such as cookery classes. However, they are also engaged in a battle to survive. While some are dependent on grant funding, others rely on the good will of landowners, which may be withdrawn if the land can be sold for property development. Even so, the numbers of community gardens in Glasgow continue to grow.

Environmental policy

Growth of a different kind was under discussion at the environmental policy session.  Luke Devlin, from the Centre for Human Ecology, noted that the consumerist way of life had emerged as a significant measure of growth, and that very little policy was challenging that narrative. Growth, at any cost, he argued, means people and natural resources have become expendable. With 2015 likely to be the hottest on record for the planet, Luke held out little optimism for the outcome of the UN climate change talks next month in Paris.

However, Patrick Harvie MSP, from the Scottish Green Party offered some signs of hope. When the Green Party was established in 1973, he observed, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. But now, he said, recycling is seen as imperative for households, companies and local authorities. Every political party in the Scottish Parliament supports climate change targets, and MSPs are held to account for their environmental policies. Another measure of progress, he suggested, was the recent speech given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, warning bankers and insurers on the risks of climate change, something unthinkable a decade ago.

All of this, Patrick argued, was still not enough, but politicians had to remind people that further progress was still possible:  “We cannot engage with the public on the basis that we’re all doomed.”

The artist’s response to climate change

Throughout the day, artists provided evidence of creative responses to environmental change. Rob St John showed a film about the “Concrete Antenna”, a sound installation at Newhaven, near Edinburgh. The antenna evokes the site’s various histories as a blacksmith, a railway siding and now a thriving creative workshop beside a wildlife-rich cycle route.

Later, Marlene Creates explained the development of her Boreal Poetry Garden in six acres of forest outside St John’s, Newfoundland. During the summer months, Marlene leads visitors on a walk through the garden, pausing to read site-specific poems. Sometimes, special guests, such as geologists or musicians will add further dimensions to the walk.

The garden is Marlene’s way of raising awareness about the threat to the Boreal forest, which covers a vast area across Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and a small part of Scotland. As Marlene observed, its immensity is no guarantee of its protection from climate change and deforestation. Even in her own neighbourhood, she reported, parts of the forest are being converted to lawns.

Like many of the contributions to the EcoCultures event, Marlene’s poetry garden served as a reminder that individuals and communities are finding ever-more creative ways to describe, protect and live with their ever-changing environment.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Pocket parks: making cities friendlier, greener and more resilient

derbyshire street pocket park 2

Derbyshire Street Pocket Park, London. Image: Greysmith Associates

By James Carson

Last summer, a report for the Heritage Lottery Fund offered mixed news on the state of public parks in the UK. While increasing numbers of parks were reported to be in good condition, and visitor numbers and levels of satisfaction also rising, the study found evidence that public parks are now facing many significant challenges:

“As public spending has fallen parks have faced large cuts in their funding and staffing over the last three years, and these cuts are expected to continue over much of the rest of this decade.”

It’s heartening, then, to see that a project aiming to create new green spaces is now bearing fruit. This month, the Mayor of London announced the successful delivery of 100 pocket parks across the capital.

Pocket parks are small areas of public space with trees and greenery, places to sit and relax and spaces for people to socialise. They also contribute to making the city friendlier, greener and more resilient, and have been instrumental in contributing to public health in low income areas.

Pocket parks in London

London’s pocket parks scheme, taking in 26 boroughs, has benefited from £2m in funding from the Greater London Authority. The programme has supported local communities and volunteers in rejuvenating and transforming small patches of uncultivated and overlooked land into lush green spaces for everyone to use and enjoy. Some examples give a flavour of the varied and inventive nature of pocket parks:

  • The edible bus stop
    London’s first pocket park provided a blueprint for making small-scale green infrastructure interventions a reality across the capital. The park was created beside the bus stop on Landor Road, Stockwell, by a team of ‘guerrilla gardeners’ working with the local community. This once forgotten space has now been transformed into a thriving garden and neighbourhood hub.
  • Derbyshire Street Pocket Park, Bethnal Green
    This project transformed a dead-end road that attracted anti-social behaviour and fly-tipping into a safe and vibrant community space, incorporating a rain garden, seating areas, a cycle lane and permeable paving.
  • Canning Town Caravanserai
    The current plot of this project, near Canning Town station, is due to be reclaimed by a developer, leaving the community without a permanent space. In response the Pocket Parks team has embraced the idea of moveable growing spaces. The resulting ‘mobile parks’ will provide areas that have limited park access with gardening space and activities.
  • Hackney pocket park
    Residents of Hackney’s Trelawney estate generated many of the ideas that has resulted in this new pocket park, including a space for local people to meet and improved wildlife habitats. The planting scheme acknowledges the site as the location of what was in the 19th century the largest hothouse in the world, with an unrivalled collection of palms, orchids and ferns, which helped influence planting in the rest of the UK.

Pocket parks beyond London

The pocket parks approach is not confined to the UK capital. There are good examples elsewhere in the country and overseas.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the city council and business development company NE1 have been working together on pocket parks. One original idea is Quayside Seaside. Complete with deck chairs, palm trees and buckets and spades, creates a space where the visitors can unwind, build sandcastles and enjoy a free game of volleyball. Originally opened in the summer of 2011, the installation has proved to be so popular that it has become an annual fixture in Newcastle’s calendar of events.

Further afield, pocket parks are providing residents and visitors with oases inside the concrete jungle.

Complementing, not competing

The growth of pocket parks shouldn’t obscure the need to look after our larger public parks. As the Heritage Lottery Fund report observed, “they are deeply rooted in the physical fabric, spirit and identity of thousands of places across the UK”.  Pocket parks should be seen as complementing rather than competing with these bigger green spaces, in helping to make the pressures of urban life a little less stressful for us all.

Enjoy this article? Read our recent blog on Designing new wildlife-friendly housing developments.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

We’ve made some of our member briefings freely available. View a selection of our environment publications on our website.

Going green together: regeneration through shared spaces

Allotment holders in the Wirral

Participants in the Green Together project in the Wirral. Copyright Riverside and used with permission.

by James Carson

Good housing isn’t just about good houses. Residents of all ages need local spaces that are safe, and accessible, for leisure, to socialise, or to enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits provided by the natural environment.

Well-designed local spaces promote social cohesion, bring communities together and reduce anti-social behaviour.  Housing associations already understand this: a 2011 good practice guide to green spaces from the National Housing Federation and Neighbourhoods Green (a partnership promoting  open spaces for residents of social housing) reported that £41.5m was invested annually by housing associations in England to improve shared spaces in neighbourhoods. At the launch of the guide, Nicola Wheeler, Neighbourhoods Green project coordinator, highlighted some of the other benefits of green spaces:

“Local open spaces provide volunteering and employment opportunities, facilitate civic action and mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Neighbourhoods Green has also been working on a project with social housing associations and other partners in the Midlands. The Birmingham Active Neighbourhoods initiative is exploring how increased participation in housing green space can contribute to improved health outcomes for local people.

Another ambitious shared spaces project has brought together three of the UK’s largest housing groups: the Riverside Group; Places for People; and Peabody. Supported by a £15.6 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund, Green Spaces for People has transformed poor quality open spaces into well-designed areas for local people to enjoy. Projects include the introduction of parks and community gardens, as well as the creation of sports facilities, play areas, wildlife habitats, sensory gardens and green social enterprises. The aim of the five-year project has been not only to physically transform over 70 neighbourhoods around England, but to improve the quality of life for their residents.

One of the Green Spaces for People projects was “Steps to Sustainability”, delivered by the Riverside Group and its Merseyside partner Lairdside Communities Together between 2008 and 2013. The project has been generating a number of environmental improvements in the Tranmere/Rock Ferry area, which is home to 10,500 people. Once a thriving shipbuilding community, it suffered a body blow in 2001 with the closure of the Cammel Laird shipyard, from which employment in the area has yet to recover.

The Green Together project aimed to redevelop the area and to rekindle the community’s sense of pride in its surroundings through a number of different strands:

  • Green Together Schools (eco gardens created at nine schools across the area as well as the launch of a junior neighbourhood warden initiative);
  • Green Together Neighbourhoods  (new green spaces, allotments brought back into use, and a range of youth engagement activities to improve the environment);
  • Green Together Food (a food co-op run by the community as well as a healthy eating initiative);
  • Green Together Services (focusing on the delivery of the overall project as well as exploring opportunities to create social enterprises where local people run their own environmental projects).

As with other successful regeneration projects, Green Together put local residents at the heart of the planning process. Volunteers living in the area helped to guide and monitor the project and to develop skills so that local people can continue to run the projects they have helped to create.


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles, case studies and evaluations on community engagement and regeneration. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Edible estates: a good practice guide to food growing for social landlords

Space to grow (sustainable regeneration), IN Holyrood, No 322 7 Jul 2014, pp63-64

Summerfield Eco Village, Birmingham: a leading sustainable community (Cities in Action case study)

Tree testament, IN Horticulture Week, 13 Jul 2012, pp22-23

Gallowgate redux (sustainable urban form in Glasgow’s East End), IN Urban Design, No 122 Spring 2012, pp36-37

Catalyst for change (green spaces and social housing estates), IN Green Places, No 81 Feb 2012, pp36-39

Green investment (investment in green space by a housing association), IN Horticulture Week, 2 Sep 2011, pp18-19

Community gains (green space improvement), IN Horticulture Week, 18 Mar 2011, pp20-21

Weed ’em and reap (improving open spaces), IN Repairs and Maintenance (Inside Housing Supplement), Jan 2011, pp14-15,17

It’s Craigmillar time, IN Prospect, No 132 Autumn 2008, pp20-21,23

Urbanism (shared spaces), IN Prospect, No 128 Autumn 2007, pp59,61

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service. For more information on the service, click here.