The Largest Urban Rooftop Farm in the World is Now Bearing Fruit (and More) in Paris

Getting fresh produce into the heart of a major city used to be done by a fleet of rumbling, polluting trucks—now it’s a matter of bringing it down from the roof.

The largest urban rooftop farm in the world uses vertical growing techniques to create fruits and vegetables right in the center of Paris without the use of pesticides, refrigerated trucks, chemical fertilizer, or even soil.

Nature Urbaine uses aeroponic techniques that are now supplying produce to local residents, including nearby hotels, catering halls, and more. For a price of 15 euro, residents can order a basket of produce online containing a large bouquet of mint or sage, a head of lettuce, various young sprouts, two bunches of radishes and one of chard, as well as a jar of jam or puree.

“The composition may change slightly depending on the harvest,” Sophie Hardy, director of Nature Urbaine, tells French publication Agri City. Growing on 3.4 acres, about the size of two soccer pitches, atop the Paris Exhibition Center, they are also producing about 150 baskets of strawberries, as well as aubergines, tomatoes, and more.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pascal Hardy, a sustainable development consultant and member of Agripolis, an urban farming firm, called the Nature Urbaine project in Paris “a clean, productive and sustainable model of agriculture that can in time make a real contribution to the resilience—social, economic and also environmental—of the kind of big cities where most of humanity now lives.”

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Sci-Fi Farming

Currently only a third of the total space on hall 6 of the expo center is utilized for Pascal’s alien-looking garden, and when the project is finished, 20 staff will be able to harvest up to 2,200 lbs (1,000 kg) of perhaps 35 different kinds of fruits and vegetables every day.

Photos by Agripolis

In plastic towers honeycombed with little holes, small amounts of water carrying nutrients, bacteria, and minerals, aerate roots which hang in midair.

As strange as the pipes and towers out of which grow everything other than root vegetables might seem, Hardy says the science-fiction farming has major benefits over traditional agriculture.

“I don’t know about you,” he begins, “but I don’t much like the fact that most of the fruit and vegetables we eat have been treated with something like 17 different pesticides, or that the intensive farming techniques that produced them are such huge generators of greenhouse gases.”

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“It uses less space. An ordinary intensive farm can grow nine salads per square meter of soil; I can grow 50 in a single tower. You can select crop varieties for their flavor, not their resistance to the transport and storage chain, and you can pick them when they’re really at their best, and not before.”

Agripolis

Breaking the chain

Agripolis is currently discussing projects in the U.S., the UK, and Germany, and they have finished several other rooftop farms in France including one on the roof of the Mercure hotel in 2016, which cultivates eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, salads, watercress, strawberries, nasturtiums and aromatics all directly serving the hotel restaurant.

Growing on the roof and selling on the floor can play a big part in the production of carbon-neutral food because, according to Agripolis, fruit and veg on average travel by refrigerated air and land transport between 2,400 and 4,800 kilometers from farm to market.

The global transportation force is the largest of humanity’s carbon-emitting activities, and reducing the number of flights and truckloads of produce is a great place to start cutting the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere.

For a culinary city like Paris, the Parisian mayor’s proposal to install an additional 320 acres (130 ha) of rooftop and wall-mounted urban farming space could significantly reduce the number of trucks entering the city, easing traffic and reducing pollution.

With rooftop farming being embraced from Detroit to Shanghai, the future is looking up.

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Tiny Forests Are Springing Up All Around Europe, Inspired By Japan, to Help Restore Biodiversity

Using the methods of Japan’s most famous botanist, European countries are beginning to dot their urban landscapes with tiny forests, as productive and biodiverse as any in wilderness areas, yet sometimes only as big as a tennis court.

The idea is that volunteers can plant densely-packed clusters of seedlings from indigenous plants to create a small functional ecosystem that can restore soil, protect resources like water and air quality, and act as a biodiversity hotspot that can have a measurable effect on both the local and regional environment.

Akira Miyawaki was the botanist who in 1970 observed that trees around Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist shrines tended to be native species, well-adapted to the soil and climate of the islands of Japan.

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He later found that only 0.06% of contemporary Japanese forests were indigenous forests, with the sizable remainder populated by non-native tree species, or planted in unnatural ways.

He pioneered a method of restoring indigenous forests on degraded or deforested land which had been devoid of humus. It came to be known as the Miyawaki method. Using this formula he created over 1,700 forests throughout Asia, 96.7% of which developed into a resilient ecosystem within ten years.

Miyawaki in Europe

Growing more than 10x faster, and possessing up to 20x more biodiversity potential than contemporary forests, the Miyawaki method is perfect for organizations like Urban Forests in France and Belgium, and the Tiny Forest initiative in Holland, with their strong desire to prevent the worst of climate change upon their nations’ relatively small landmass.

Urban Forest in Belgium – Instagram @urbanforestsbelgium

On March 2nd Urban Forests finished a 22-species, 1,200-tree Miyawaki forest in Toulouse, France, planted on 400 square meters—the first such forest in Toulouse.

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“The plantations are made in a very dense way, in order to favor the cooperation between the species,” Audrey, one of Urban Forests’ volunteers explained to Actu Toulouse. “It captures more CO2 and trees grow up to ten times faster than in a conventional forest.”

It’s just one of many Urban Forests’ projects, and the fifth that the nonprofit has completed this year. In total their Miyawaki forests across Belgium and France consist of 21,000 trees over 7,000 square meters.

The Tiny Forest Initiative started in 2015 in the Dutch city of Zaandam by the Institute for Nature Education and Sustainability (IVN), has created 100 Miyawaki forests across the country, and had planned an additional 30 for the first three months of 2020.

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In 2017, ecologists at Wageningen University in Holland examined the newly planted mini-forests and concluded that tiny forests “increase the biodiversity compared to the nearby forest. Both the number of species groups and the number of individuals is generally higher than in the reference forests.”

They also found that biodiversity was improved because sunlight was able to reach more species of local plants known to local pollinators. The forests also provided “more variety in food and shelter for a higher diversity of animals like insects, snails, butterflies, amphibians, bugs, grasshoppers.”

“This is a great thing to do,” said wildlife researcher Eric Dinerstein in a recent scientific publication. “So this could be another aspect for suburban and urban areas, to create wildlife corridors through contiguous ribbons of mini-forest.”

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People Use Chalk to Write Plant Names on Sidewalks to Help People Connect With Nature – ‘More Than Weeds’

Across the paved streets of the UK and France, sidewalk chalk is beginning to be employed by more than just children as rebel botanists regularly break street-chalking laws to write the names of wild plants and flowers growing through cracks in the cement.

Beginning in France—and leading to a campaign called More Than Weeds in London—this act of highlighting the names of wildflowers and other plants has drawn significant attention on social media, where images and videos are racking up hundreds of thousands of fans.

In one video viewed 7 million times from the French website Brut, Boris Presseq, a botanist at the Toulouse Museum of Natural History, walks around his city chalking the names of the plants he finds on sidewalks and walls to help raise awareness of the diversity and richness of plant citizens in the heart of the southern French city.

“I wanted to raise awareness of the presence, knowledge and respect of these wild plants on sidewalks. People who had never taken the time to observe these plants now tell me their view has changed. Schools have contacted me since to work with students on nature in the city,” Presseq told the Guardian.

In one of those “every day you break 3 laws you didn’t know existed” moments, it is illegal to use sidewalk chalk on public pavement without permission for any reason. However, no one in London, Cambridge, or Hackney seems to mind the graffiti, with one selection of identified plants posted by a London resident on Twitter receiving over 100k likes.

Tweet by Elizabeth Archer

Weeds Do More Than Grow

Botanical chalking is a sign of changing attitudes towards plants in English cities. In 2018, the Hackney town council reduced the amount of glyphosate used to control weeds by 50%, and last year trialed a glyphosate-free area to promote biodiversity and see if it was possible to maintain a high standard of sidewalk maintenance without the use of chemical herbicides.

Glyphosate is an ingredient present in many popular industrial and commercial herbicides that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled a probable carcinogen.

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Hundreds of insects species are deprived of food when glyphosate is used as an herbicide, which means hundreds of plant species nearby go without the needed pollinators. Critically, many species of plants considered weeds, such as dandelions which can thrive in urban environments actually provide more pollen—and human food—per flower than other, wilder species, according to a study which looked at 65 plants across six UK cities. They found that weed species occupied the top five spots for nectar sugar produced and two spots in the top ten for pollen production.

Boris Presseq with students naming Portulacca on French street

“Every flower counts and will be targeted by pollinators […]If we change our perceptions and see the dandelion flower for what it is – an absolute lifeline to our bees in early spring – we might learn to love them more.” said UK Plantlife Spokesperson Trevor Dines speaking to the Guardian.

“One survey of pavements in Sheffield found 183 different plants, another in Cambridge found 186 species on walls. All these little micro niches build up to a wonderfully complex tapestry,” he added.

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Being able to see and identify a plant is important for a person to build an awareness or appreciation for plant life in the city. People who don’t understand the name or function of a particular plant in an ecosystem like their yard are less-likely to be interested in them, just as they would if they were watching a sporting event without knowing the names or roles of any of the players.

“Botanical chalking gives a quick blast of nature connection, as the words encourage you to look up and notice the tree above you, the leaves, the bark, the insects, the sky. And that’s all good for mental health,” said one of the lawless, chalk-armed English botanical enthusiasts who spoke to the Guardian under conditions of anonymity in order to avoid fines up to £2,500 for graffiti.

“It’s brought me a great amount of joy,” they added.

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Cherokee Nation First U.S. Tribe to be Invited to Preserve Their Heirloom Species in Global Seed Vault

With close to 1 million samples from nearly every country on earth, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the remote Svalbard Island, between Norway and the Arctic, contains the largest collection of seeds and other plant specimens in the world.

Last week, the Cherokee Nation became the first Native-American tribe to receive an invitation to contribute seeds of their own heirloom crops and join the effort to ensure biodiversity and food security in the uncertain centuries ahead.

“This is history in the making,” said a Cherokee Nation press release. “It is such an honor to have a piece of our culture preserved forever. Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world.”

The tribal office of the Secretary of Natural Resources collected nine samples of Cherokee heirloom crops to send to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, including Cherokee White Eagle Corn, the tribe’s most sacred corn, which is typically used during cultural activities, and three other varieties of corn grown for consumption in distinct locations to keep the strains pure.

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Other seeds sent to the Svalbard seed bank include Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, Cherokee Turkey Gizzard black and brown beans, and Cherokee Candy Roaster Squash.

These heirloom species predate the arrival of Europeans on the American continents, and their preservation offers a chance to secure critical biodiversity for the central North American region in case of crop shortages or other disasters that could result in flora extinction events.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Tiq, CC license

It also ensure that the proud history of the Cherokee will live on through the ages.

In 2019, after being interviewed by National Public Radio about the Cherokee Nation’s own heirloom seed bank program, their Senior Director of Environmental Resources, Pat Gwin was contacted by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

“He sent me an email and said they would be honored to have the tribe’s seeds in the seed vault,” said Gwin. “…Knowing the Cherokee Nation’s seeds will be forever protected and available to us … is a quite valuable thing indeed.”

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Scientists and Refugees Are Growing Crops in the Desert Using Discarded Mattresses Bound for the Landfill

Photo by University of Sheffield / Desert Gardens

British scientists have succeeded in cultivating tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs in the desert using discarded mattresses bound for landfill.

The innovative system, which was tested in a refugee camp in Jordan, could be rolled out to every shelter in the world, helping millions of people to thrive in barren landscapes.

Since aid workers often discard thousands of used foam mattresses in refugee camps across the globe, University of Sheffield scientists began developing foam “soils” in their labs in hopes of using old bed materials as a growing medium for crops.

The research team, led by Professor Tony Ryan, is made up of experts in hydroponics: a technique in which plants are grown with their roots resting in a solution of water and essential nutrients instead of soil. The method uses 70-80% less water than planting straight into the soil and eliminates the need for pesticides.

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In the first trial of its kind, his researchers worked with a group of Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp, which serves as a shelter to many who are already experienced farmers themselves.

They showed the study participants how to fill waste containers from around the camp with mattress foam and a carefully balanced nutrient solution. Seedlings were then planted straight into the foam so it could support the roots as the plant grew.

Working closely with the refugees, the team successfully created “desert gardens” that provide people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities, and longed-for greenery in a challenging desert.

Photo by University of Sheffield / Desert Gardens

“The refugees we have worked with have taken our training and made the project their own, growing things we never thought would be possible in the desert environment using recycled materials,” said Ryan.

“We are only at the start of what might be possible, in terms of what refugees and their situation has to teach us about all of our potential futures.”

Nearly 1,000 refugees have been taught how to manage the hydroponic system thus far—and the team believes it could benefit even more people around the world.

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The project gives people the tools and techniques they need to grow their own food and gain future employment as well as boosting mental health and greening the camp.

In turn, the scientists have learned from the refugees whose use of the foam in real-world conditions has demonstrated its potential to grow crops more sustainably—and in places with degraded soils.

Desert Garden Project Manager Dr. Moaed Al Meselmani said: “I’m a researcher and a Syrian refugee myself—and now I’m helping others like me to learn new skills and feed their families with fresh herbs and vegetables in the desert.

Photo by University of Sheffield / Desert Gardens

“When you’re forced to flee your home, it’s the simple things you miss—like a cup of fresh mint tea or showing your children how to plant a seed. This project connects people with home and gives them hope for the future.”

The Sheffield researchers now hope to raise £250,000 with their Desert Garden appeal to make the project sustainable. The money will be used to supply seeds, nutrients, and training for another 3,000 refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs Zaatari camp, provides Syrian refugees with enough money to buy staples like bread and chickpeas. Nutritious fruit and vegetables, however, are often out of reach—and traditional fresh mint tea is considered a luxury.

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Professor Ryan, director of the university’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said: “UNHCR see this as something that can work in nearly every refugee camp to improve mental health and well-being.

“If we can make desert gardens economically and culturally sustainable in Jordan, we can ultimately roll this out around the world and help millions of refugees to thrive.”

Professor Duncan Cameron, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at Sheffield, said: “It’s astonishing what happens to the collective human imagination when it meets and is ignited by urgent reality.

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“Our research on synthetic soils meant we could re-imagine the UNHCR’s waste disposal problem—where aid workers saw used mattresses, we saw an alternative growth substrate.

“This project is about co-creation, not ‘smart ideas’ parachuted in. As scientists, we’ve learned an enormous amount from the refugees about how our research can be applied in the real world, and they’ve gained valuable skills for the future.”

(WATCH the University of Sheffield video below)

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