Friday, May 29, 2009

What we can't imagine

When James Bond used miniature cameras in the 60's and 70's the thought of a wireless phone that can take pictures and send them to just about anyone in the world, fits into the palm of your hand and even plays high quality music would have been so preposterous (even in a Bond movie) that audiences would have thought it was a joke. Now we struggle to imagine a world without our mobile phones and all of their accessories.

[Cellphone cameras came into being when Philippe Kahn wanted to instantly share photos of his daughter's birth with friends and family.]

40 years ago it was hard (impossible?) to imagine the solutions that we have available to us today. Some of the things we think will have happened in another 40 years time probably won't, and other things that we have no idea about will be in existence. Hard working engineers and scientist will have discovered and created all kinds of new things.

What can you imagine that no one else can?


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Urban agriculture

cherry tomatoesUrban agriculture (UA) – the production of food within a city – is an important aspect of securing our food supply as well as restoring our communities. There are some obvious and immediate benefits to urban farming, such as bringing our food closer to us and reducing transportation energy, but the impact and benefits are far reaching, especially in cities with large impoverished communities. There are at least four major ways in which we can benefit:

  1. Access to a local, fresh, organic, varied diet,
  2. Community upliftment,
  3. Effective use of land,
  4. Improved food security.
Local, fresh, organic, varied diet. Many people focus on "food miles" but this has a lot more to do with our buying patterns rather than where our food is grown. One of the restrictions with UA is the amount of land available which means that biointensive methods of farming must be used. These methods farm small amounts of land using organic methods to produce high crop yields and simultaneously improve the soil quality. This method also requires companion planting. All together this means higher quality fresh food with less or no storage (no artificial ripening), as well as carbon and heat sinks within the city.

Community upliftment. Many cities (certainly in developing countries) have large improverished communities as a result of rural to urban migration and many other societal conditions. UA offers a number of benefits for these communities, the biggest of which is access to food. The first output of urban farms in these communities is food for the community. Once the immediate needs of the community are met any excess food can be sold for income. Improvement of the soil quality and the greening of these communities also help to improve living conditions.

Effective use of land. Unproductive vacant lots, parts of parks and gardens can be turned into productive farms. These farms will require organic waste materials to produce compost which reduces the load on cities waste management facilities.

Improved food security. UA is a distributed model of farming which helps to buffer the communities that it serves against any variations in food supply. If there was a failure in the food supply chain, or if transport costs significantly raised the price of food, UA communities would still be able to access food – hopefully for an extended period of time. Cuba is an interesting extreme example of this. The shutting down of foreign supplies resulted in unused areas within the cities being used to produce food crops and support the country's food need. The distributed model also means that a failure of a single UA farm would not significantly impact on the food supply. The organic methods used also provide security through improved genetic diversity of crops.

The benefits for the communities these farms serve and the cities in which they reside are far reaching and will lead to a better quality of life for all urban dwellers. Each of us have the opportunity to engage with our food and where it comes from – that is the first step towards a full scale urban agriculture system. The tomatoes in the picture above were grown in my garden :)

In Cape Town Abalimi Bezekhaya (which means planters of the home) help to establish community gardens which improve food security and provide additional sustainable income to their tenders. Abalimi also has a number of greening projects which help to improve the living environment of impoverished communities. On Tuesday 26 May 2009 there is a tour of their operation which I will be going on. The tour begins at 09h00 in Wynberg and finishes at 12h00. Please let me know if you will be joining me.