With more than half of the world’s population living in cities and three billion more coming by 2050, the carrying capacity of Earth’s agricultural real estate is going to be pushed beyond its limits. A revolution in the way we grow food is needed to satisfy all those mouths. Do cities provide new landscapes for innovating our food systems? 

Growing up, my little brother had a book called “Old McDonald Had an Apartment House” that has always stuck with me. The book tells the story of a building superintendent who, as tenants move out, starts moving in cabbages, carrots, corn, mushrooms, cows, and chickens to replace them.

I was always super intrigued by the thought of using building infrastructure to grow stuff in a city; I remember when I moved to San Francisco thinking that my rooftop was the perfect place to set up a garden given its shape and drainage.

Urban Farming

Some decades later, it seems the vision inspired by this children’s book is starting to take root in forward-thinking cities around the world like San Francisco—much like the chickens and plants in the story. Except instead of replacing the people, they are increasingly neighbors.

Millennials and the city

In my lifetime the world’s population has already nearly doubled, and is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050.  At a recent Stanford lecture, I learned that not only will we have to make space for all these extra bodies, we also have an urgent need to innovate the way we grow food.

An agricultural productivity revolution on the scale of fertilizer is needed as the carrying capacity of the land we use to grow food—most of it to raise animal feed, by the way—is maxing out as wealth and populations grow worldwide.

These populations, particularly among the millennial generation, are increasingly urban. Millennials as a group have different priorities than their forebears when it comes to consumption and lifestyle—a white picket fence in the suburbs is not what they’re working towards.

We’ve all heard about their passion for the sharing economy, their eco-consciousness, and their uber-connectedness to technology. Perhaps we can say that community is the central theme. They want to live in sustainable communities where they can go out for cocktails on a Friday night and grow the garnish too.

With the majority of Earth’s population now living in cities, just as the millennials themselves would have it, and agricultural land becoming rarer (particularly as the effects from climate change set in) the farm basically has to expand into the city.

The West Coast responds: “Grow food here”

Forward-thinking communities on the West Coast offer a cornucopia of examples of urban agriculture in practice. They range from using temporarily vacant property to grow food, to green roofs, edible parks, green office complexes, and small animal husbandry. There are too many to list, so here are just a few:

Can you really grow enough?

There are doubts about whether, even if we farm vertically in our cities, there is really enough area to produce what we need for those future 9 billion people. It’s hard to imagine urban agricultural on its own will solve that massive challenge.

Nevertheless I for one am happy to share a wall with a farm or a garden if it means fresh, local, healthy, and abundant food for my neighbors and I—and cleaner air to boot. Even if that means ever so gently swatting away the occasional honey bee. How about you?

swissnex San Francisco explores this question and others during the month of June in the series, Cultivating our Future.

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