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.

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Ecotherapy in practice: nature based mental health care

Ecotherapy, also known as nature-based or green care is an alternative therapy for people suffering from mental health issues. It can be delivered as an individual treatment or in combination with traditional medicinal and talking-based treatments. Charities and research has suggested that it can reduce depression, anger, anxiety and stress as well as improving self-esteem and increasing emotional resilience.


The mental health charity MIND emphasises the positive health benefits, commenting that ecotherapy:

  • is accessible
  • can take place in both urban and rural settings in parks, gardens, farms and woodlands
  • works through people either working in nature or experiencing nature

It can be structured or more informal, with some areas providing therapist led classes while elements of ecotherapy, such as taking walks or gardening, can also be done without specialist supervision, on your own or with family members and friends.

AAT and AAI (Animal Assisted Interventions and Animal Assisted Therapy)

This form of therapy uses guided contact with animals such as horses or dogs. It is becoming increasingly popular in university settings, with dog cafes or dog rooms during student mental health weeks or during exam times to help alleviate student exam stress. Pet therapy has also been shown to be effective with children and young people who suffer from anxiety or who have experienced trauma, and for elderly people suffering from dementia.

Therapy could be one to one or in a group and could also be delivered to people who are in residential care setting. AAT can also be used to assist mobility and coordination or simply to spend relaxed time with animals where patients can feed or pet them. This interaction can promote bonding between the individual and animal which has been found to reduce stress and anxiety.

Nature Arts and Craft Therapy

Nature based art therapy takes inspiration from nature to create and provide materials to create art work. This type of therapy can also include social and therapeutic horticulture (STH). This can be a particularly effective form of nature based intervention as it can be adapted to suit a wide range of mobility and abilities and could potentially lead to work experience or the sale of goods created, which in itself can build self-confidence and transferable skills.

Adventure Therapy

This therapy focusses on using physical activities to encourage psychological support, It includes activities such as rafting, rock climbing and caving. Often done in a group, this type of therapy aims to build trust and raise confidence. While it can be strenuous, less able individuals can take part in green exercise therapy, which largely includes walks and rambling, or wilderness therapy (which includes physical group and team activities such as making shelters and hiking).

Effectiveness of ecotherapy

In February 2016, Natural England published A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care, which considered the benefits and outcomes of approaches to green care or ecotherapy for mental ill health.

One of the main challenges the report highlights is to increase the availability of green therapies in order to make the practice more normalised within treatment. The authors also speak about the importance of standardising the use of terms such as ‘ecotherapy’, ‘green care’ and ‘nurture based interventions’ to allow people to fully understand what different interventions entail. The report makes nine recommendations, including:

  • expanding the evidence base around green therapy
  • increasing the scale of commissioning of green care initiatives
  • increasing collaboration between the green care sector and health and social care practitioners

Ecotherapy is still not widely accepted as a mainstream approach to mental health treatment. However, it is increasingly being offered as a combination therapy alongside traditional drug-or talking-based interventions. Advocates of ecotherapy hope that this will lead to wider acceptance of the approach and the positive effect it can have on people who suffer from mental ill health.

Advocates emphasise the holistic and person-centred benefits of ecotherapy, which has been shown to improve physical health as well as mental wellbeing. As the video below demonstrates, it increases social skills and in many instances can help people build new or develop existing skills which can help them enter, or re-enter employment. Potentially this may also reduce the burden on care and community mental health services.

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Growing Places: Sustainable design at the Chelsea Flower Show

spring flowersby James Carson

Throughout this week, the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show has been in full bloom, and a number of exhibits are showcasing good examples of sustainable design.

One of this year’s gold medal-winning gardens is from debutant Hugo Bugg, whose waterscape garden shows how water management features that occur in the natural world can be replicated in bold and innovative ways. Mimicking the watershed, water is directed through the garden at different gradients and speeds. Bugg believes that Chelsea is the perfect platform to highlight water conservation and present solutions: Continue reading