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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


UCL’s Urban Agriculture Society – A Green Champion in the Making

By ucfuwil, on 2 May 2013

Written in collaboration with Iwona Bisaga 

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London is a sprawling megacity. Sadly, its ecological footprint of more than 34 million hectares is also outsized. The area required to provide for services and resources as well as waste locations to support the city’s functioning is thus over 200 times the size of London, (UK Environment Agency). This provides striking evidence that London’s sustainability issues are critical challenges that urgently need to be addressed. A group of passionate and ambitious DPU students with green ideas are determined to become part of the solution by introducing urban agriculture to UCL. It is the clear way forward!

The Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security Foundation defines urban agriculture as “the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities.” It not only advocates food production to enhance urban food security, but is also an integral part of the city’s economic and ecological systems. Many cities in developing countries have preserved small-scale food production: the streets of many African cities, such as Accra, are still enlivened with goats and chicken. Residents of large urban centres in the developed world, on the other hand, rediscovered urban agriculture a few decades ago. Here, urban agriculture is developing alongside more traditional urban development patterns. In regions around the globe, urban agriculture awareness has spread and the number of practitioners has been rising dramatically. This growing popularity comes at a time when global food crises are occurring at a greater rate threatening both developing and developed countries.

In London, the concept has captured the attention of government departments, local authorities and businesses stimulating the introduction of programmes to tackle climate change and unemployment by the means of urban agriculture. Some Crouch End supermarkets for example have started growing vegetables on their roof terrace and numerous schemes have been introduced, including Cultivate London (a farm with an innovative approach to urban agriculture) and Good Food for Camden (a strategy developed by the NHS Camden). In fact, urban agriculture has become so successful that new urban farmers now, ironically, have to venture outside of London to find plots of available land.

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“They were waiting for a group of students to start doing this!” (Maria Neto)

With the above successes in mind, a group of DPU students have taken action and created the Urban Agriculture Society (UAS). With the knowledge of similar initiatives at fellow institutions such as LSE, UAS have a clear vision (and an even stronger determination) to ensure that UCL participates in confronting London’s food challenges and in developing greener and improve sustainability strategies.

 But what does it take to make students want to dirty their hands growing food they could find in the any supermarket?

When asked about the reasons why they have decided to focus their efforts on bringing the idea of urban agriculture to life at UCL in an interview, UAS members Maria, Martin and Thomas unanimously answered: because there is something in it for everyone!  Some, such as Martin, find it important to increase food autonomy in urban areas and import less agricultural products from overseas, especially since the diet of about 2 billion people does not contain sufficient nutrients or calories and the exported food is needed elsewhere. Naturally, this would also have a positive impact of CO2 emissions. He says: “potentially, every lettuce that you do not import from Spain and just grow in your backyard is a contribution” to alleviate these issues of the global food production system.

Additionally, Thomas and Maria, emphasise that urban agriculture is not just about farming in an urban setting or making effective rooftop insulation, but also about the social benefits.

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“Urban Agriculture has social implications and provides an opportunity for community building as well.” (Thomas Chung)

Many feel a lack of connection with their urban space, the concrete and cement, and are looking for a way to connect to their urban surroundings. It is a hobby, but also educates citizens on the possibilities that exist in their surroundings. Thus the three interviewees agree: the UAS is not only an attractive way to reduce UCL’s CO2 footprint, but has the potential to change the university through the creation of green spaces in which staff and students can work to connect with themselves, the city or the world.

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“Let’s take over the rooftops!” (Martin Lichtenegger)

For an initiative conceived during a fire alarm evacuation and created with as much enthusiasm as sense for urgency, the UAS has filled a conceptual gap in UCL’s sustainability strategy. It is prepared to overcome the numerous expected challenges such as fighting for space – a rooftop or other patch of land at UCL. Action will be taken must be taken soon to obtain this land after the lengthy winter has delayed plans and the UAS founders are eager to finish what they have started and leave an urban agriculture legacy for a new generation of students to build upon in the next academic year.

If you have ideas, want to stay informed or get your hands dirty, join the Facebook group: (Growing UCL – Urban Agriculture Society)