Greenery is being reworked and reimagined in urban spaces, and developers are looking at urban farming as both a point of difference and a way to improve a project’s green credentials.
But urban farming comes in many different shapes and sizes across the world.
Brooklyn Grange operates a farm on top of an 11-storey New York building, while the Porte de Versailles urban rooftop farm is reportedly the largest in the world.
In Australia, Grange Developments announced, as part of its $350-million hybrid timber tower at 4-8 Charles Street in Perth dubbed C6, a paddock-to-plate urban farm and edible garden.
On the other end of the scale, smaller offerings provide agricultural products in urban spaces, such as Brisbane’s South Bank Epicurious Garden which allows city dwellers access to fruits and vegetables.
Most projects will be at that smaller scale and aimed at servicing residents and food and beverage tenants, says Griffith University urban planner and senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning Dr Tony Matthews.
“The core motivation is reducing food miles and increasing productivity of urban areas, to try to do something about that symbiotic relationship where the city is entirely dependent on the country for food supply,” he says.
Whether large or small, urban farms feed into wider trends around biophilic design, ESG considerations, and the flight to quality that necessitates greater services and amenities to tenants.
Grange Developments was hugely ambitious with its urban farming ambitions when it launched its plans for C6 in South Perth as a result of these factors.
“The building originally wasn’t as it is currently rendered, it was split into east and west with a core in the middle and four-storey vertical gardens,” Grange managing director James Dibble says.
“Essentially we will have plates through the centre of the building on which we could put farms and it was going to produce a huge amount of food.
“We would grow in vertical PVC tubes and on grow plates, and we would provide a fresh food box for every resident and use it as commercial space to feed the cafe on the wider floor.
“It would only use renewable energy, so it would be a circular economy.”
These plans were cut down by the council, which wanted the space to be considered wholly residential.
“In the council’s defence, having spoken to a few farming initiatives and startups, they were not suitably scaled and did not have the capital to deploy it.
“So we thought, how do we do this in a meaningful way on a smaller scale?”
Going back to the drawing board, the design team developed a pared-back version of the individual plan, focusing on biophilic design and greenery with a smaller agricultural component.
“The mezzanine talks to the future—the paddock-to-plate or tower-to-plate offering as I like to think of it.
“That horticultural zone is full of raised gardens in an A-frame setup, which are segmented to a community gardening group, another part that’s segmented for children to plant some seeds and mess around, and part allocated to the cafe, which is a 100sq m site that will serve food grown on-site.”
While developers at home are looking at concept designs, there are better developed and working farms in the wider APAC region, such as Singapore’s Funan Mall.
Singapore head of research at Cushman & Wakefield Xian Yang Wong says that the Singapore government had largely led the drive to urban farming as it attempts to ensure food security.
“The government led the initiative with its ‘30 by 30’ initiative, which says Singapore should be able to provide 30 per cent of its own food by 2030,” he says.
“It’s not an easy milestone to hit as land is scarce and expensive—90 per cent of food is imported, so it is about taking steps to be more resilient in terms of food security.
“But changing consumer preferences also means there will be more demand for fresh food and fresh vegetables.”
The Singapore government has encouraged smaller farms on residential rooftops, and the use of disused or underutilised space.
“Singapore is really small—so the approach is using under-utilised spaces such as space under expressways or on top of multi-storey carparks [for example], you can sublease these to urban farmers.”
While Australia does not have the issues with space or food security that other countries reliant on imports do, food sovereignty has become a major issue, especially during and following the pandemic as freight was interrupted and major adverse weather events hit.
Vertical and urban farming could provide a sustainable, weather-proof alternative to traditional broadacre farming, according to operators such as Stacked Farms, which specialises in high-tech controlled farming environments.
“The [vertical farming] industry was originally set up as an altruistic venture, utilising disused space and warehouses and looking to employ a range of labour, ” Stacked Farms chief commercial officer Michael Spencer says.
“It was a socially conscious play, but it was something that never really got to the same level in Australia.”
While there have been big innovations with regards to things such as energy usage, funding model and motivations are not quite there yet with regards to larger scale projects.
“Our value proposition is we’re fully automated from seeding through to bagging, we can be economical at scale,” Spencer says.
“In Australia, they’re not cheap to set up, there’s a level of capex needed to go into it and markets want to see a return.
“With interest rates rising, with risk coming out of capital markets, funders aren’t as prepared as they were to fund altruistic dreams, they’re looking for economic return, which has to be viable from day one. The funding has to stack up.”
In addition to funding, there are a host of other practical issues to contend with, says Griffith’s Matthews.
“There are some interesting technologies for multi-level salad farming where urban restaurants have demand for fresh salad, and that’s achievable, but in Australia generally there’s not a significant necessity for large-scale urban agriculture beyond what we have already [in broadacre farming].”
While the difficulties are clear, C6 was not the end of the line for Grange’s ambitious plans to invest further in the sector, Dibble told The Urban Developer.
“Our intention is to do a C6 building in each state, so next time around if some of those vertical farming guys are better resourced and we can have a different typology on the building [it may be more of a possibility].
“It’s hard on a slender, if we’re doing a mid-rise mixed-use site, then we will have larger commercial space to be able to do a more conventional split out and a planning framework that allows it,” Dibble says.
Spencer says that rooftop farming could be the best route forward for farming and agricultural outputs in urban landscapes.
“They are potentially more economically viable than setting up an enclosed controlled environment in these buildings while utilising potentially unused roof space.”
Matthews says that urban farming was a well trodden path for researchers.
“Urban agriculture has been studied rigorously and scientifically for two decades, so we have good empirical data on its capabilities,” he says.
“Turning these visions into outcomes requires years of investment and R&D to make it work.
“Having said that, if you’re trying to adjust for climate change impacts, in many ways planting outdoor trees, shrubs and other vegetation, often called green infrastructure, is one of the most reliable and most cost beneficial interventions in cities.”
You are currently experiencing The Urban Developer Plus (TUD+), our premium membership for property professionals. Click here to learn more.