Between home, work or study and transportation, many people spent the majority of their time indoors. Henry Gordon Smith explains why — in a phase of a changing climate and a more urbanised society — we need to bring the greenery to us in the city, and how to turn that into an opportunity to change our food system.
The importance of restoring how cities used to engage with agriculture
Henry Gordon Smith is the founder and CEO of Agritecture, a global urban agriculture consultancy firm on a mission to help bring more agriculture to cities. According to Henry, the single biggest misconception about urban farming is that it can’t be commercial or profitable. “When people hear “urban farming”, they tend to think of community gardens and school gardens, and they’re less likely to think of high tech greenhouses, high tech vertical farms or all of the numerous ways that you can grow food in cities. What’s more, they don’t seem to think that it can be a meaningful contribution to the food supply. I think it’s really important that we restore how cities used to engage with agriculture. When humans developed cities, we would develop them near where people need the food to survive. But then we started to separate agriculture from cities. We said: “Farming? That’s not for cities. That’s for rural areas.” But now, because of climate change and other shocks in the system, such as the pandemic, we’ve realised that we need to bring agriculture back into cities.”
Urban agriculture and the smart city movement
Henry is excited about the smart city movement, which makes cities more connected and intelligent through technology and data. But, he argues, we have to ask ourselves if a city really can be smart without agriculture? Being smart means thinking long term. It means being prepared. “If we look at Singapore as an example, they import 90% of their food, so they represent cities on the most extreme edge of having a food security issue. They lack space. So they also represent a city that isn’t going to be able to grow food by just planting outdoors. They’re going to need to use high technologies for that.”
Singapore, argues Henry, is a good example of how cities can grow food, even when space is limited. “The first step Singapore took is recognising urban agriculture. They’ve developed policy and zoning and incentives around urban agriculture that say: this is allowed to be done on top of a parking garage or allowed to be done in a vacant area. They have a grant program which is very mature, significant millions of dollars for international companies to set up pilots in Singapore as part of the grant. They also are investing in talent. We need talent in the city to be able to operate these farms and to help them scale. When you’re covering talent, policy and funding, that’s when you’re leading the way in that category. And Dubai is doing some of that. Paris is doing some of that. New York is doing some of that. But I’d say Singapore has moved into a front runner of having all of the available infrastructure needed.”
A custom approach for every city
The approach of Singapore cannot be simply copy-pasted to other cities, explains Henry. Every city has its own challenges when it comes to feeding its citizens. He Dallas as an example. While there’s enough food in Dallas, it’s not readily accessible to those who are most vulnerable. “In the context of Dallas, you need more community aspects to the urban agriculture program. So low tech greenhouses on vacant lots, outdoor plots and pathways to create access to the land. More farms in schools, so that students are getting fresh food on a daily basis. These are the initiatives that have more focus on the community aspect and less on technology.”
Restoring our relationship with nature
“We have a society that’s growing up in cities”, concludes Henry. “I was born in Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong and in Tokyo. I did not have access to nature. And I think that I represent most of the future of society in the sense that they’re growing up in cities away from green spaces. But we need to have green space in our lives. And if urban indoor spaces are part of our future, then we have to bring the green into these indoor spaces. In addition to just greening our indoor spaces, why not create an output that we can consume?”
Were you inspired by the story of Henry Gordon Smith from Agritecture? Listen to his “Locally Grown In” podcast that takes you on a trip to some of the most inspiring urban farms around the world. Also, subscribe to our monthly newsletter and get more inspiring stories deliverd to your inbox.
Header image: Agritecture