An Experimental Farm on the River Thames Is Changing the Way City-Dwellers Eat

“Developers have to put green spaces in when they’re building but often, they’re not used,” says Heather Ring, co-founder of Farmopolis, a new urban growing space on a jetty jutting into the River Thames. “I’ve wondered how you could use that money for...

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Oct 3 2016, 8:34am

Imagine the city of the future and you'll almost definitely think of a Jetson-style landscape of towers and flying cars, or the smoggy urban dystopia of Bladerunner. But in the imaginations of Jo Vidler and Heather Ring, the cities of the future are full of green spaces, and not just green, but edible.

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Farmopolis, an experimental growing space on a jetty in the River Thames, London. All photos by the author.

On a jetty jutting into the River Thames, they've founded Farmopolis, a space to explore how this could work. The project forms the beginnings of a social, technological, and agricultural prototype for urban farming.

"We have to find a way to farm in cities," says Vidler. "We're running out of land, we've got climate change to contend with, the population is growing, and so we have to ask, 'How do we feed ourselves?'"

READ MORE: Future of Food on MUNCHIES

For Farmopolis, the answer to this question is not just about repurposing quirky plots of land, or employing novel technologies, although that is part of it. The future of food is bound up in community.

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Founded by a landscape architect and the owner of the company behind summer festivals Wilderness and Secret Garden Party, Farmopolis explores growing in urban spaces.

"We want to look at what it means to make a space that's productive and economically sustainable, but also social," explains Ring. "When we've looked at urban growing in cities, farming doesn't always stack up that way. There are a lot of great farming endeavours but they're not visible or accessible to the public. We want to create something that both serves and involves the community, that inspires people and teaches us about our food."

Farmopolis is a project that's been several years in the making and is still in its early days. Ring is a landscape architect and founder of Wayward, the practice behind projects like the Helsinki Plant Tram, a mobile garden, and the Union Street Orchard, a pop-up forest in south London.

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"I've spent years looking at different models for green spaces in cities," she says. "Developers have to put green spaces in when they're building but often they're not used, and the cost of managing them is expensive and they're not very inspiring. I've wondered how you could use that money for land that's activated and productive, that's a home for wildlife, produces food, and is used by and for the community."

Ring had the idea of creating a space to experiment with ideas around urban farming several years ago but growing food in cities isn't straightforward.

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"On tower blocks, for example, people want to see if they can grow things vertically, but it's basically like Alpine gardening up there," she says. "We spent at least a year looking at the roofs of car parks, which we thought would be perfect because you can drive right up to them. As it turns out, they can't deal with the weightload of farming.'

"Which is weird," says Vidler, "because you can park loads of cars up there, but apparently the weight of the water you need for farming is too much."

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But this summer, the pair found the ideal spot to begin: a jetty on the Thames within the eyeline of the Thames Flood Barrier and the Olympic stadium on the Greenwich peninsula. It's a strange hinterland of mudflats and cranes, a post-industrial scene ripe for redevelopment.

And redeveloping it is. Opposite Farmopolis, workmen are busy constructing apartment buildings that will form the largest residential redevelopment project in Europe. It's not the most obvious spot for an experimental farm space, but it is perfectly placed to experiment with bringing local communities closer to the food that they eat. New residents will not only be able to look out of their windows at the farm, but to pop down, see everything growing, drink coffee, and eat a meal made from the produce in the Farmopolis restaurant.

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"This jetty had stuff on it before, but there's something nice about mixing farming with your everyday life," says Vidler. As CEO of Secret Productions, the founding company behind summer festivals like Secret Garden Party and Wilderness, she's experienced in bringing arts and culture, and food and nature together to work in one space.

"This could just be a restaurant or a theatre space, but we look and see that it can be more than a venue," she says. "There's all this space that can be used for growing as well. So why not grow food?"

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It's a sentiment very much in line with the guerrilla gardening movement, which sees abandoned pockets of land get planted up and cared for by local people—from unused flower beds around lamp posts to scraps of wasteland.

"When I first moved to London, I built a guerrilla garden," says Ring. "And once you start looking at it you see the potential for where you can grow. And it's everywhere."

For the moment, the greens at Farmopolis are the leftovers from Chelsea Flower Show which they "adopted," but over the next few weeks the pair will be setting up hydroponics to begin experimenting with growing produce like root vegetables.

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"There are a million little things we're doing though none of them are actually small," says Ring. "Like seeing if we can use hydroponics for more than just salads. For example, we have really interesting toilets."

The toilets are waterless (like the drop loos at Glastonbury) and the compost goes into an anaerobic digester, which produces energy that they hope will eventually be enough to cover all their electricity usage. They're working out how to filter water from the Thames to use at the least for watering the plants.

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"We want to push all the ideas and see, to test ideas here first on a small scale, and then hopefully to have a larger platform to see how it could work," says Ring. She points over towards where the cable cars are dangling their way over the river. "There's a bizarre sculpture over there that's an upside down electricity pylon. It feels like it should be in a cornfield,"

It would be no surprise if they got permission to plant one.

READ MORE: This Chef Quit His Restaurant Job to Start a Sustainable Trout Farm

"This is just about showing people what's possible," she adds. "But it's not where we're going to stop. We want to farm at a scale that's commercially viable, and meaningful."

"Cities around the world need this," says Vidler. "It's not just about playing with ideas that could be the future of farming. It's about allowing people to see it and touch it. The future has to include more integration of social and productive spaces, and I think London is a great city to start."

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So, while the city of the future may well have mega skyscrapers and flying cars, if Farmopolis has anything to do with it, it'll be a massive harvest field too, filled with crops that could feed the world.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.