Urban sprawl around the world has created an agricultural epidemic due to the decreasing space available for farmland. Ideas about how urban farming can improve the agricultural sector, as well as the sustainability of the produce, has become more apparent within the last ten years. Recently, an urban farm was built under Clapham, London, showcasing the possibilities for urban agriculture.

Thirty-three meters under Clapham is a network of tunnels that have been partially converted to grow a range of different vegetables. Originally, the tunnels were built as World War II bomb shelters that could accommodate 8,000 people. The company behind the urban farm is Zero Carbon Food, founded by Steven Dring and Richard Ballard.

Photograph of Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, Zero Carbon Food

Photograph of Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, Zero Carbon Food

Over the next decade, London’s population will grow by 24%. This will increase the real estate price, hence urban farming above ground will become too expensive in London and an alternative will need to be found. The underground tunnels are another matter. Owned by the Transport for London, the tunnels are dark and eerie spaces and therefore cheap. The Zero Carbon Food originally used the tunnels under a testing trial to determine whether the space is viable before they signed a 25-year lease.

Some comments have been made about the concerns with the energy usage of the light, as the tunnels are so dark. Configurable LED lights that can be adjusted according to the specific light requirements of the crops provide the lighting of the underground farm. Even though the LEDs stay on for 18 hours every day, Zero Carbon Food argues that the LEDs used are energy efficient and last for nine years. Also, the founders point out that many vegetables farmed aboveground are grown in greenhouses that require either energy-intensive lights or heating systems. The company is also exploring the idea of recycling heat from the underground tube line into energy to power the lights.

Photograph of the Underground FarmPhotograph of the Underground Farm in Clapham, London

Another argument against underground farming is that the vegetables will be artificial-tasting, or bland. This is believed because the farming system used is hydroponics, which relies upon artificial conditions, in turn creating the perception of artificial food. Hydroponics is an area of agriculture that is increasingly being experimented with and funded. Another example of this farming method is the Manchester Biospheric Project, which a group of my fellow peers were involved in, that integrated a hydroponics system into an abandoned warehouse. To counteract the argument of artificial-tasting food, celebrity chef Michel Roux endorsed the company. He claims that the produce will be used in his Michelin starred restaurants. Additional benefits with using an hydroponics systems are that it uses 70% less water in comparison to traditional open-field farming methods, it provides year-round production, can be controlled without the use of pesticides, and the food miles are reduced because the produce is only delivered within M25 (a five mile radius).

Photograph of Manchester Biospheric ProjectManchester Biospheric Project

To operate the farm up to full capacity, Zero Carbon Food is raising £300,000 on Crowdcube. If they achieve their target funding, the farm should go into large-scale production by September 2014.

Will urban farming, such as the underground farm in London, be able to cope with the urban sprawl of cities? Are there any similar projects happening near you?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.