The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm has been greening the skyline of Midtown Manhattan since 2008 and is the first commercial rooftop farm in New York City.
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The edible city

Cultivating fruit and vegetable patches makes residents happy and has many positive effects on sustainable urban development. A look at how urban farming is changing cities around the world.

Growing tomatoes, sowing lettuces, harvesting strawberries and weeding kale beds. You can taste the difference between organically and conventionally grown vegetables. Digging around in the soil, putting your feet up when your work is done and watching the honey bees. The Neuland community garden brings the joy of gardening and country living to the city of Cologne. Here, anyone can learn how farming and self-sufficiency work – even in the middle of the city. This trend is known as urban gardening, even in Germany. But what do people find so fascinating about it?For many years, the people of Cologne have been bothered by the view of a huge wasteland, falling further and further into disrepair and merely exuding sadness as just so much dead, unused space. The worm first started to turn in the summer of 2011 when around 170 people came together to conquer the area (peacefully) in a “smartmob” and then to cultivate it. A little later, these new community gardeners founded the Cologne Neuland Association (Verein Kölner Neuland). It describes itself as an ecological farming project in the city. All the planting is in movable boxes, tubs or sacks. If the land is ever built on, the garden can simply move on. What may sound like the whim of a local urban eco-warrior has also taken root elsewhere. 120 German community gardens have already signed the urban gardening manifesto, published last year under the title “Sie Stadt ist unser Garten” (the city is our garden). 

This public declaration of aims and intentions is gaining ground. With nearly 500 community gardens in Germany, this collective movement “offers a new approach for the future of our cities,” explains Munich sociologist Christa Müller. The managing director of the Anstiftung research organisation is the publisher of the German-language book “Urban Gardening. Über die Rückkehr der Gärten in die Stadt” (Urban Gardening. The revival of city gardens). In reality, farming is experiencing an unexpected popularity in many cities around the world. People are digging, planting and harvesting in all manner of likely and unlikely places. Growing healthy foods, getting back to nature, cultivating intercultural encounters, it all means participation and meaningful employment. It seems that people are looking for new roots in urban soils. The concept of urban food production is in no way a new one. City dwellers have been small farmers since the earliest times, with kitchen gardens forming a key part of the city landscape. In Germany, small gardens and allotments were common in the suburbs and garden colonies in the 19th century. Above all, urban farming is a means to fight poverty in many developing and emerging countries today. For example, there are more than 2,000 community gardens in Buenos Aires, reports Indra Jungblut for the non-profit organisation Reset. 

For some three years now, the humanitarian organisation Welthungerhilfe has been funding city farms and supporting a range of projects, such as in Cuba. The urban gardening movement, which has been growing steadily since the 1990s, is probably rooted in the New York community garden projects. In the early 1970s the city’s new community gardens flourished amid the asphalt and concrete no-man’s-land, regardless of ownership, interlinking horticultural, food, economic, social, artistic and urban development issues, and developing into an alternative way of living. With its 600 gardens, the New York Green Thumb programme is not only the oldest but also the largest community garden programme worldwide. Many cities such as Toronto, Paris and London have developed their own programmes based on this model, reports the urban planner Ella von der Haide in a study, published in 2014, entitled, “Die neuen Gartenstädte” (The new garden cities).

Fertile ground for ideas

The idea of intercultural gardens, city farms, neighbourhood gardens, children’s farms, and school gardens was first sown in North America and has spread to Europe. The guerilla gardening movement also started its march to victory. The Toronto Public Space initiative in Canada, for example, promotes itself with a provocative slogan, “Join us as we vandalise the city with nature!” Zurich’s longest-serving guerilla gardener has been roaming the streets armed with a small bag of flower seeds since 1984. Maurice Maggi is a veteran of the movement and has spent 30 years turning the Zurich city landscape into a wilder and more beautiful place. Floral graffiti is the fruit of his labour. Last year, this passionate herb gatherer published his own cookbook. He called it simply “Essbare Stadt”(Edible City). In Andernach, Germany, a garden project with the same name, “Die Essbare Stadt”(edible city) has been implemented so successfully that the city authorities have won a number of awards for it. 

“Andernach has shown in an extraordinary way how agriculture can thrive in a modern city. At the same time, the project has fostered a sense of community and made the city both more livable and more lovable,” according to the jury. The community of 30,000 inhabitants had a simple and brilliant idea: they turned their parks into accessible gardens. Instead of “Keep Off”, the signs here now read “Feel Free to Pick”. Flower beds have given way to vegetable patches, with the crops available free of charge to residents. These same people help to look after the beds and work together to harvest courgettes, chard and other vegetables. There is another benefit, too: this project offers fresh prospects to Andernach’s long-term unemployed citizens. 


of all insect-pollinated plants are pollinated by bees. Urban beekeepers say that a bee’s optimum flight radius is less than 1 kilometre.

British garden activist Pam Warhurst’s efforts have attracted worldwide attention: she has literally dug all around her home town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire. With the “Incredible Edible” programme, Warhurst has proven that it is possible to make an entire town self-sufficient by growing its own produce. Todmorden has gained independence from the food industry, improved social behaviour and reduced crime rates. This has created a new appreciation for the value of foods and their production, finding admirers and imitators around the world. “We call it propaganda gardening,” says Pam Warhurst of her urban food strategy. It’s no wonder that urban gardening is now supported by many cities. For example, Vienna has backed neighbourhood and community gardens in the densely built-up city area since 2010. The first neighbourhood garden was established in 2008; there are now around 60 such community gardens. Alongside “Grätzelinitiativen” (neighborhood initiatives), there are also associations that combine community gardening with social, integration or educational aspects. 


The name of the American food trend coined from the words “local” and “vorare” (devour) that favours produce raised, grown or made within 100 miles.

The motto “Gemeinsam garteln verbindet” (gardening together brings us closer), was recently adopted by the Vienna property company Buwog. The investor created a roof garden with raised beds and a greenhouse for tenants. Climate protection goals also encourage roof projects in many cities. Since 2015, newbuilds in commercial areas in France have to include roof gardens, among other requirments, and there is financial support for roof gardens on residential and commercial buildings in Hamburg. The Hilldegarden project, whose name is formed from the words “hill” and “garden”, in the centre of the Hanseatic city in northern Germany is a spectacular planning example. The roof of an old bunker, 39 metres tall, is to be developed into an 8,000-square-metre city garden. The load-bearing capacity of the five-metre-thick ceilings should allow plenty of room for horticultural creativity.

Cabbage harvest outside the castle in Andernach: Picking is definitely allowed on the green spaces in this “edible city”.
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Cities benefit from cultivating fruit and vegetables

However, for shrinking cities in particular, the new urban garden culture can be a blessing. Since the collapse of the car industry, for example, the US city of Detroit has had to face a population decline of around 60 percent and has consequently had to deal with extremely high vacancy rates. Countless large and smaller inner city plots have been abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Fresh ideas such as urban gardening can help to resolve this problem: all over Detroit, private individuals, churches, schools and organisations have transformed wasteland into vegetable patches and community gardens. With an estimated 1,500 cultivation plots and 185 organisations, Detroit is the country’s frontrunner, reports Lu Yen Roloff in the economics magazine “Enorm”. Whether a rapidly growing city, unlike Detroit, could also feed its own inhabitants, or even should, is a completely different question. 

Many futurologists and agricultural experts believe that growing fruit and vegetables in the middle of the city is the only solution to the problem of feeding the world in the future. According to a report conducted by the German Foundation for World Population (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, DSW), in mid-2014 the Earth’s population was around 7.2 billion, a figure set to rise to more than 9.6 billion by 2050. Megacities will arise, especially in developing and emerging countries. How will the city dwellers of the future feed themselves? Local communities are pinning their hopes on modern city farms as a way of ensuring effective, healthy and sustainable self-sufficiency. The aim is to commercialise the ecological model and to implement it on a regional scale. New legislation also improves the prospects for urban agriculture: in San Francisco, for example, the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act has recently granted tax benefits to property owners if they permit food production on their urban land. Caitlyn Galloway, the co-founder of Little City Gardens in San Francisco, sees this as a great opportunity. She experiments with the commercial production of market vegetables in a small way, and says, “For businesses like ours, the potential for having a much longer-term arrangement with a property owner could completely change the playing field.”

Will salad soon come from the 15th floor?

Innovations are already being tried on a commercial basis in some countries. One such example is aquaponics – a hybrid process that combines aquaculture fish farming and the cultivation of agricultural crops in an automated and closed water and nutrient cycle. Researchers are also looking at the incredible opportunities offered by vertical farming, a futuristic technology that could enable the commercial mass production of plant and animal products in high-rise buildings, known as farmscrapers, in urban areas. Whether urban agriculture really will take off remains to be seen. However, there is one thing that many experts agree on: “Agriculture has to conquer the cities,” as Tilla Künzli, garden activist and spokesperson for Urban Agriculture Basel, recently demanded. It’s not about leisure gardening for her, but about using urban agriculture as a potential solution for a number of imminent future problems – especially population growth, scarcity of resources and climate change.


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