RPP: Guest post Reply

RPP is our code for the weekly blog post, op-ed by the School’s celebrity economist / pundit / opinionista, but he will probably only start writing in August, so in the meantime we are filling in with some guest posts.

This week: Riaan Rossouw on Green goes up! Or, Who says trees don’t grow on roofs?:

A recent article written by Brian Clark Howard and published in National Geographic, titled “Urban Farming Is Growing a Green Future”, has sprouted some discussion in the School of Economics. The general idea is that, for a sustainable and greener future, maybe we should look to the skies. Here’s why we need to take a leaf out of this (sustainably produced) book.

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, finding a sustainable means of feeding them has placed a tremendous burden on our planets’ natural resources. Growing out of this ‘need to feed’ and an ever increasing desire for sustainable solutions, ‘Urban Farming’ is becoming an increasingly common approach, ranging from something as simple as planting vegetables in a container on a back porch to growing entire gardens on empty rooftops.

Most urbanites’ food makes an environ-mentally-costly journey by plane, train or automobile before it lands on the local supermarket shelves and trucking in the necessary amount of food isn’t a sustainable process for any city. ‘Urban Farming’ means to change this by cultivating food in the heart of a metropolis, growing ‘local’ produce and ultimately decreasing the ‘food kilometres’ associated with long-distance transportation. “This ensures that the freshest produce is supplied on ones doorstep, and people are encouraged to eat in season.”

‘Urban Farming’ also holds a whole heap of benefits. For one, it is a lot of fun to get your hands dirty and remember that food comes from the ground—not just from supermarket shelves. It can help offset one’s carbon footprint and make for a greener city, “… reducing harmful runoff, increasing shading, and countering the unpleasant heat island effect.”

Rooftop gardens create relaxing havens for would-be-tree-huggers, where they can practice morning yoga sessions and contemplate life (or the fate of the world economy). It can help people to meet others from the other side of the economic divide and can bring jobs to underserved and depressed urban areas.

Although in its infancy and with numerous problems and challenges to weed out (e.g. renovation costs and associated rising rents, toxic soil issues and replacement costs, limited space, and access to water and sunlight), ‘Urban Farming’ seems to hold a lot of potential benefits. And if this kite can fly, ‘locally produced’ will have a whole new meaning.

The future of ‘Urban Farming’ depends very much on the right mix of “new technology, community support, and economic incentives.” One of the earlier examples of ‘Urban Farming’ is the rooftop garden on the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel, which also has a beehive. “The Midtown bees produce honey used in the hotel’s kitchen, and they fly to pollinate plants as far as five miles away.”

Roof-top olive trees in Porto

Interesting stuff but these are not the only examples of ‘Urban Farming’. According to an article by CH Editors in Food-Drink, several cities across the globe, including cities in the United States (Brooklyn, New York, Milwaukee), Canada (Montreal), Egypt (Cairo), Germany (Berlin) and Hong Kong, have taken to urban farming as an increasingly common approach to supplying urbanites with ‘local’ produce. Also, during a recent visit to Portugal, staff from the School of Economics spotted a new train station in the city of Porto with olive trees being grown on the roof. This is obviously one way of ‘greening’ a city.

Even in South Africa there is much focus in agricultural development on food gardens for household food security—not so much ‘urban’ but a step in the right direction. Another local initiative to take note of is GreenPop—a fast growing South African social enterprise that runs urban greening and reforestation projects in sub-Saharan Africa and which is on a mission to make tree planting mainstream.

Ultimately, while cities may lack wide-open spaces, they are rich in rooftops. Every building has one and most of those do nothing more than bake in the sun. We often here that there is only so much ‘square footage’ available for agriculture, but why not look up? Who says a ‘sustainable’ green future can’t grow on our roofs? But rather than focus too much on the detail, maybe South Africans should see the forest for the trees. Just a thought…

For more on ‘Urban Farming’, visit RooftopFarms.org.

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