What if
all our food could be grown in the city?

When we think of our urban environments, architects, planners, urbanists and the general public typically focus on the cities themselves.  We think of cities in terms of their organisation, occupation and formal characteristics….. whether they are desirable places to live. 

However, the cities we live in are supported by vast hinterland that supports their existence. For every square metre of occupied land in a city, a global network of productive land produces, food, resources, consumer goods, energy, water and absorbs our waste and carbon outputs. The amount of land required to support a city varies, but it is invariably more than the land itself.

Cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which are in many ways models of the physical and social management of extreme density, are exemplars of cities that rely heavily on supply chains that stretch well beyond their borders. Hong Kong imports up to 90% of its food from as far afield as Brazil, while Singapore has effectively colonised Johor and the south-eastern areas of the Malaysian peninsula to provide resources for its growth.

While urban density and compact cities are generally understood to be more sustainable than sprawl, to what extent does the close settlement of cities result in an expansion of terrain and resources to support them? Do dense cities require more to enable their existence, and how does behaviour and patterns of consumption impact that potential for density to be sustainable?

One of the solutions to this could be the folding of agricultural food production back into the cities they serve. Intensive industrialised food growing processes make better use of maximum use of land and other resources. They use less water, no pesticides and are significantly more efficient in land use than traditional models. While not yet practical, or economically feasible, this future might include high density vertical farming. 

Greater Melbourne requires land nine times the size of its metropolitan footprint to feed itself.  What would happen if we could no longer rely on national and international supply chains, and all of the cities food came from within its border?  It is possible to accommodate the entire agricultural footprint of Melbourne, vertically within a one hour drive of the city centre. Using existing agricultural and brownfield sites, a network of large scale and vertical ‘sheds’ could be developed to feed the city.  

Cities are directly and indirectly responsible for more than two thirds of global carbon emissions. While many of mechanisms to mitigate climate change are beyond the domain of architecture and urban design, the tightening of our cities is one of the greatest contribution we can make. However, it is not enough to simply build dense places to live and work. We must look to a future in which cities integrate all elements of the production-consumption cycle within a tight urban culture.

John Doyle