Making Every City Sustainable

How to make every city sustainable through urban growing.

An Opportunity for Change

Agriculture is the third largest contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by sector, after the burning of fossil fuels to generate power, heat, and transportation. The food we consume (and waste) has inadvertently become a considerable source of strain on the natural environment.

Besides being a major source of GHGs, commercial agriculture also creates a significant amount of pollution. This includes that created by food production and transportation. Industrial farming relies heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides (see Threat to All Life). Chemicals that eventually find their way into our water systems, creating massive dead zones in rivers and oceans. It makes for pretty frightening results.

Furthermore, artificial fertilizers also have an intensely damaging effect on soil quality and pH levels. In the effort to artificially maximize crop returns in the short term, these chemicals are actually jeopardizing the very soil that supports us all (see also The Stuff of Life).

Woke bird contemplating soil.
Click for more on the importance of topsoil.

What solutions – that could be implemented quickly, cheaply and effectively – are available to minimize these issues?

One solution aimed at bringing food production closer to home is local-level mobilization of teams of urban farmers. These food production experts would move around towns and cities on specific assignments to:

  • Build and establish rooftop and ground level gardens.
  • Teach people how to grow their own food sustainably and without chemicals.
  • Distribute gardening/urban farming information packs.
  • Provide support through a comprehensive online database of ideas, strategies, and how-to guides.

Key objectives of this strategy would be to boost urban food production, reduce food transportation-related pollution, slash use of chemical fertilizers, and make every community, town and city as close to completely self-sufficient as possible in terms of vegetables, before similar strategies are implemented for other food sources.

The Incredible Edible Network, United Kingdom.
Image from The Incredible Edible Network (U.K.) Click to read more about them.

The Food on the Street

At street level, the goal would be to maximize the self-sufficiency of individual households and subsequently build sustainability from the ground up. This would entail boosting the self-sufficiency of each residence in the two most important areas: 1/ food, and 2/ water.

To accomplish the former, each household would receive basic guidelines – potentially sponsored to reduce costs – on how to become as self-sufficient as possible.

Ron from Parcs & Rec, "I have a permit"

Required Action at a City/Regional Level

To encourage local food production – and simultaneously reduce rubbish flows into landfills and bodies of water – local governments would select plastic recycling companies to recycle mainstream-use plastic products such as PET bottles and milk containers into plastic planters and flower pots.

As part of a local or central government-run advertising campaign, citizens nationwide could be encouraged to request these recycled planting containers. There’s a lot of use to get out of them and plenty of ways to acquire them (be it up-cycled, re-used, or repurposed).

Growing food with love.
Click to learn more about how to get started with urban growing in Japan.

The Necessary Goods

These planting containers – along with basic instructions on how to grow food – could then be distributed either free of charge or offered at subsidized prices for people to use to grow food in at their homes or workplaces. Tax or rates rebates could be offered to citizens who opt in to the scheme.

This strategy would ideally be backed up with a range of additional initiatives and resources – all focused on providing information and guidance on gardening and sustainability. These would include the following communal support and activities.

Growing the community.
Click to read on.

Support from the City/Community

Second Harvest Japan
Click to learn more about the community food bank, Second Harvest Japan.

Food on the Plates of the People Who Need It

Many people would grow excess food. A portion of this excess could be distributed to those who cannot provide for themselves. This could easily be accomplished through a simple food donation program.

The amazing programs, such as Grow For Good, enable individuals, families, companies, schools and other organizations to launch or expand their CSR/community support activities by growing food and donating a portion to charities, food banks and community organizations.

Children who have discovered the joy of growing food.
After discovering the joy of growing food for themselves, the Tokyo International School (TIS) donated a portion of their vegetables to Second Harvest Japan (click the image for the press release).

Key Program Goals:

  • Have large amounts of healthy, fresh – free – vegetables funneled to charities, food banks, community groups, etc. by families, schools, & businesses as part of CSR and community outreach/support activities
  • Cut pollution involved in growing and transporting food
  • Increase participants’ knowledge of critical urban food growing techniques
  • Transform millions of consumers into food producers and subsequently boost their food independence and supply.

As more people grew food on site, either at home, work or educational facilities, they could not only begin providing for themselves as well as family, friends, neighbors and workmates, they could also directly contribute to putting food on plates for people who need it.

As the food self-sufficiency of households, streets, communities, towns and cities gradually grew, imports would fall (cutting food transportation-related pollution), and cities and towns – right down to street level – could begin collectively exporting food to other areas both domestically and internationally using a co-operative model.

The Power of Urban Growing
Click the image to read on.

What’s Possible?

Urban buildings can be transformed into urban farms. Rooftops can be converted into vibrant community food centers. Food grown on power poles could help feed entire streets.

Sunlit walls can be turned into mini farms. Buses can be converted into mobile greenhouses that produce food anywhere. Office workers can become urban farmers without leaving their buildings.

Towns and cities typically have millions of square meters of sunlit rooftops, lawns, parks, vacant lots, external building walls, and more that have the potential to be converted – or “re-purposed” – and used to capture rainwater and grow food.

The alternative? Continue to consume commercially-grown vegetables and
unnecessarily expose ourselves and our families to dangerous agricultural chemicals and associated allergies, disease, food scares, and dependence.

Keeping it Real

It’s a fact that a significant portion of the population will not participate in this strategy for a range of reasons. However, the goals of boosting urban self-sufficiency and reducing pollution can still be easily achieved.

The key for local and city leaders would be to identify locations where food could be produced, and engage the public to take ownership of the garden building process. To support this, bylaws could be created that ‘ring-fences’ a minimum of 5 or 10% of town land for food production.

Happy Llama

From Car Parks to Gardens

The potential for large scale local food production is significant. For instance, in 2012 and 2013, I grew 3,000 tomatoes, 60 lettuces, 180 cucumbers and large quantities of other vegetables in a 3×5 m community garden allotment in Tokyo. That area is just slightly larger than a standard car park.

Within months I turned from consumer to producer. It was an incredible feeling and the return was impressive. Ultimately, I gave away 25% of the harvest, including over 800 tomatoes. Simultaneously, I also ran 3 sustainability projects at the Tokyo International School (TIS). It was an opportunity to demonstrate to students and staff how to grow large quantities of tasty, near-organic vegetables in their school gardens. It also fed over 100 students and staff.

There is space to grow when you go looking for it. Under-utilized car parks in particular can be quickly converted into lush community gardens either by digging them up or building raised gardens on them. Supermarkets and other businesses with large rooftops could ‘plant’ gardens on their rooftops and produce a huge range of food.

Rooftop Garden Growing
Click for details on How To Setup a Rooftop Garden.

An Elevated Perspective

Green oases would spring up everywhere as lawns, back yards, empty lots, under-utilized car parks and many other community areas would be converted into gardens, and rooftops would be transformed into ’gardens in the sky’ that not only beautify localities but also cool buildings and absorb carbon dioxide.

Why Grow?

There’s many reasons to grow food locally. Here are some of the key ones:

  • Grow extremely fresh “home-grown” near-organic food – in the city
  • Grow food within weeks – and learn food growing skills for life
  • Improve personal and family health
  • Reduce intake of harmful chemicals (very simple if pesticides, herbicides, etc. are not used)
  • Save money, slash food miles and directly help reduce pollution
  • Boost food independence and increase survival chances if a major disaster strikes
  • Set-up gardens and grow food for staff, events, or even sell ‘company brand’ vegetables
  • Increase the enjoyment of eating enjoyment

Financial and other incentives would likely be required to realize this strategy, including:

  • National recognition – Streets, towns and cities could all compete to achieve the highest level of food self-sufficiency in the nation. (Financial or other incentives could be offered)
  • Food security – Growing food as near-organically as possible could be promoted as a way to eliminate suspicions and concerns about what is in food, promote food safety, etc.
  • Key incentives for many budget-conscious home executives would be cost, proximity, health, etc.
  • A tree planting program could be implemented in tandem with the food production strategy, creating more cool shady areas, fresh natural smells, and pulling more CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Growing food can offer you a profound connection with nature.

The Only Things Holding Us Back

The challenge now is for individuals to realize the limited nature of key resources, map out a sustainability strategy, and take responsibility for their own futures by boosting food and resource security.

If groups of street residents, club members, schools, offices, or – on a larger scale, suburbs, towns and cities – cooperate, there is huge potential
to not only completely transform the way entire communities acquire food and conserve resources, but for consumers to become producers and rapidly turn ‘dead’ urban spaces into vibrant, thriving, sources of food, energy and health.

The exciting aspect is, increasing our food and resource security is easy, affordable, can be integrated into a busy lifestyle, and we can take steps to achieve it immediately. We can start right here at home. Today!


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