City Greening & Urban Agriculture

Roof tops, vertical walls, and open spaces, what is the attraction?

RDA Sydney in partnership with Bayside Council has had the opportunity to supervise a cohort of multidisciplinary students from the University of NSW through the Practera Future Radar Program.

Their research has highlighted the economic and social value of urban farming and has provided some insights into the financial commitment required by both the private sector and council in delivering projects of this nature. This research has spurred us onto exploring Urban Agriculture more generally as described in the following article. City farms, community gardens, urban agriculture, rooftop gardens, vertical green walls, green belts, hobby farms, sky gardens, balcony gardens, footpath gardening – all very interesting and topical.  So why do our communities find them so interesting and do they make a positive contribution to our cityscape and local economies?

It is fairly easy to explain the economic benefits of large scale peri-urban farming along the outskirts of our cities (for more information visit https://www.rdasydney.org.au/agribusiness-in-the-sydney-region) and it’s evident that “green-belts” can help combat the impacts of the “heat island effect” in our outer suburbs in particular.  However, the expanding number of “urban farms” and investment in metropolitan “greening projects” warrant an examination to better understand the benefits and opportunities these endeavours contribute to a community.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at Urban Agriculture (UA) in our region commencing with a ‘geospatial lens” and define what we mean by UA?

Research scientist, Nicholas Clinton et al, in an article published online @ Future Earth 10 Jan, 2018, states that globally there are three types of mutually exclusive urban areas available for agricultural pursuits in our metropolitan environments. They are rooftops, vertical walls, and open spaces.

FUN FACT: Using two geospatial methodologies Clinton and his team estimated that on a global scale there is approximately somewhere between 641,000 km², this is regarded as an intermediate estimate of urban “extent”, and at the lower end an estimated 367,000 km² of urban land available for agricultural activity. By comparison, the Sydney Region is 12,368 km².  Now that is Food for thought!

At a local level and throughout Sydney’s LGA we can see many opportunities for rooftop, vertical and open space UA.  For the purposes of this article, UA is simply defined as the practice of growing and distributing food in an urban region as opposed to growing plants for ornamental purposes. For an in-depth discussion and a nuance, definitely check out the Urban Agriculture Forum.

Roof Tops – although roof-top “farms” are not that prevalent in Sydney (most rooftop gardens tend to be ornamental and for shading) there is no shortage of green rooftops and councils are starting to develop guidelines to better manage rooftop conversions. This follows Melbourne’s lead and quests for more sky gardens.  However, rooftops can be designed to accommodate commercial UA.  In Vancouver for example, the Fairmont Hotel rooftop garden grows to produce for its kitchen and reportedly saves $30,000 on fresh produce every year.

That said, the Eveleigh Industrial Park in Sydney is home to the first indigenous rooftop garden successfully growing over 30 different species including finger limes, saltbush and Warrigal Greens in a 500-square-metre garden.  Dedicated to the production of bushfood the founders have successfully established Yerrabingin Indigenous Rooftop Farm; hopefully the first of many.  And whilst there are not too many commercial enterprises growing edible produce this is likely to change as indicated by the number of new firms specialising in rooftop conversions and sky gardens. 

Vertical walls – think indoor, high tech and protected cropping, it’s certainly what the Future Food Systems CRC has in mind for the proposed Liverpool Food Hub. Why? Because the production of high-value vegetables such as leafy greens, herbs and plant seedlings using vertical multi-level modular systems is rapidly expanding around the world.  Whilst they might not be very visible YET there are a number of start-up companies such as Invertigro and Blakthumb, housed at Cicarda Innovations, that are promoting the conversion of disused warehouses and urban industrial lands into fertile and productive spaces suitable for vertical farming. Not dissimilar to what is happening around the world in places like Dubai.

Think also modular structures like shipping containers; an Australian company recently introduced, to Brisbane, the city’s first portable vertical farming system that is currently located in the city’s Eat Street precinct providing fresh on-demand produce.

 

Open Spaces– these open forms tend to be the most common and have proven to be extremely popular with residents, young and old, in urban centres such as the Sydney City Farm in Erskineville and Pocket City Farms in Camperdown and of course Calmsley Hill City Farm in Abbotsbury.

So what is the attraction?
It can be demonstrated that greener cities and in particular Urban Agriculture (UA) create positive environmental, social and economic benefits.  Sometimes UA is referred to as “natural capital” because it provides benefits beyond food.  For example, UA contributes to our wellbeing, our infrastructure and it improves amenity, ecology, habitats and can stimulate local economies.

Most of the talk around UA focuses on the need for better food security, reduced food miles and to be more sustainable.  This is no surprise as it is estimated by the United Nations that by 2050 around 68 % of the world’s population will be living in urban areas and this means an additional 2.5 billion people to feed.

And whilst it is difficult to put a dollar figure on the economic value of UA in Sydney in NYC “Gotham Greens” a local rooftop enterprise generates eight figures revenue on an annual basis suggesting a healthy future for urban agriculture.

People want a connection to the natural environment and to better understand how food is produced. This is becoming increasingly so as more of us shift towards apartment city living and higher densities displace our peri-urban fringe.  This is not a new idea.  Architects as early as 1930-40s like Frank Lloyd Wright anticipated a future interest in “agrarian urbanism”. He thought about the impact of UA activities on our city forms and in particular the potential of infrastructure and industry to impact urban shapes and spaces.  What we see now is a landscape of retrofitted and repurposed spaces.

Community engagement is high and rising visitation rates recorded at popular locales such as Randwick Sustainability Hub, Sydney’s City Park and the city’s 20+ community gardens are a testament to their success.  These “green spaces” provide relief from our “grey spaces” and present opportunities for social engagement, networking and participation in workshops to learn about topics such as micro-farming, horticultural production, permaculture, and beekeeping. 

Whilst there is a lot of excitement and expectations associated with UA and clearly, the start-up sector is awash with innovative solutions we are also seeing growth in city greening projects and through the “Liveability lens,” it’s easy to see why investment is growing.

First, greener cities are better for our health and wellbeing – vegetation and canopy cover can keep us cooler, clean the air, improve our urban ecology and create outdoor spaces for exercise, recreation, and active transport.

Second, commitment to an energy-efficient lifestyle as evidenced by the rise of properties within sustainable precincts.  These are multipurpose mix-use built forms, offering residential, communal and commercial spaces that generate their own power, recycle water and waste.  Examples such as Central Park in Sydney’s Chippendale offer state of the art, sustainable SMART residential living quarters and a mix of retail and amenities.  Public spaces such as Green Square and soon to be completed Parramatta Square illustrate more is to come.  

FUN FACT: Central Park was recognised in 2019 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and won the overall category award for Urban Habitat.  Its vertical ‘green walls’, roof top gardens and rotating solar roof panels are living examples of what “greening the city” can look like.  

Third, when it comes to visual and aesthetic values vegetation and colourful flowering plants deliver; and the investments are impressive.  Melbourne City Council recently announced an ambitious $19M+ project to create a “green forest” in the city.  In recognition of the value of “green streets” and canopy cover, all 33 LGA’s in Sydney have or are in the process of developing their Urban Forest Strategies; and they are revealing.  For example “green infrastructure” both Mosman and North Sydney LGAs contributed significantly to the value of local properties and in some cases adding up to 20%.  Using “iTree” a reputable e-assessment tool, North Sydney Council estimated that the replacement cost of its 17,000+ street trees is around $500 million dollars and the benefits are significant.

Conclusion
We know that access to green space is essential and a key element of highly liveable cities.  As more people live in our cities demand for fresh food will continue to grow.  If we embrace the concept of urban agriculture, collectively we can turn unused space into productive pocket-farms and in doing so contribute to “city greening” and reap the benefits of the natural environment.

It is not always about economic value. That said, trees, community gardens, and green walls, as we have seen can add value.  Not only that but according to Luke Fontes etc at, the Green Industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors.

So if you want to stay healthy, improve your wellbeing and contribute to a sustainable community it’s time to invest in your region’s greening projects and consider turning unused space into a green and perhaps edible oasis. For more information please contact Julie.mcalpin@rdasydney.org.au.

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