In big cities, space is a rare and sought-after resource. Usually, there’s no room for farming – it literally happens beyond the city limits. At the same time, more and more urban farming projects put unusual urban spaces to agricultural use. Paired with innovative technologies, this puts sustainable self-sufficiency within reach of even built-up city centers.

Metropolitan living while growing your own veg – without an allotment somewhere in the sticks? A range of projects and initiatives promise just that. Growing your own is not just fun, but also helps to lower pesticide use and resource consumption. At least according to the following five examples that deserve a collective green thumbs up.

Vertical lettuce farming

More reliable than sunlight: LED illumination helps indoor plants grow.
Photo: Grow Bristol

The shipping container behind Bristol’s central train station, Temple Meads, houses rather unusual freight: fresh lettuces, herbs, and microgreens, grown inside for human consumption. The people behind it all, Grow Bristol, have made it their mission to develop innovative and sustainable ways for growing food in the city – and already supply almost two dozen local restaurants and supermarkets with their delicious harvest.

It’s a prime example of urban farming where enthusiasts seek out and repurpose unused urban niches suitable for growing fresh produce. A popular “step up” in this genre is vertical farming, i.e. stacking several plant levels skyscraper-style to save even more space. For maximum efficiency, Grow Bristol rely on hydroponics tech, which replaces soil with water. The result: ultimate stackability of their delicious goods – and ultimate yields, thanks to plant-friendly LED illumination.

Farming above the clouds

Two hours from Stockholm, Swedish company Plantagon aims high with its 17-floor World Food Building in the college town of Linköping. While offices will fill the north side of this cone-shaped glass monolith, the southern part doubles as a greenhouse, making the most of any sunny rays and – combined with an integrated biogas and waste incineration facility – saving plenty of energy. Once again, vertical farming comes into play, 50 meters up in the air.

Plants are growing and flourishing on the sunny side of the World Food Building.
Foto: Plantagon Illustration Sweco

According to Plantagon, after opening in 2020 the World Food Building will produce 550 tons of vegetables per year – enough to feed 5,500 people. It promises to become a shining example of what this novel combo of agriculture, tech, and architecture (in short: agritechture) can achieve. And while the output might not be certified organic (due to the lack of soil involved), it certainly is in spirit: All operations are sustainable and almost entirely pesticide-free.

Future conference room at the World Food Building.
Photo: Plantagon Illustration Sweco

Nutritious waste water

Not far from Berlin’s Potsdamer Square, in the vibrant Kreuzberg district, the Roof Water-Farm research project explores high-level farming above the city by combining hydroponic and aquaponic techniques, i. e. soil-free culture and fish farming.

The project’s unusual twist: The farm also recycles and processes wastewater generated in the building. This approach not only saves plenty of valuable resources, but also makes use of the nutrients contained in wastewater. Owners of multi-unit apartment or office buildings can already install such pipe systems for in-house agriculture irrigation – at a relatively low cost.

man harvesting herbs from a rooftop
Above the city’s rooftops: the “Roof Water-Farm”.
Photo: iStock / JBryson

Considering that 40 percent of all Berlin roofs are potentially suitable for roof gardening, this would make low-input, cost-efficient, independent, and sustainable self-sufficiency a surprisingly realistic goal in densely populated metropolitan areas.

Fish farming at lofty heights thanks to aquaponic technique.
Photo: Roof Water Farm
Person holding a basket of tomatos
Farming fresh vegetables – directly from the rooftop.
Photo: iStock / TommL

Endless recycling loop

Somewhere between Hamburg’s wholesale market and the city’s Deichtorhallen art venue, tucked away in a former warehouse, Farmerscut grow a wealth of healthy treats. Here, around 1,200 square meters play host to fresh lettuces, herbs, radish cress, and more – yielding around 50 kg of salable produce per day. Unlike other urban farming initiatives, the start-up employs a (to date) completely unique, indoor farming specific technology called dryponics. Like hydroponics, the system swaps soil for water, but a clever circulation system ensures that all water is reused time and again – lowering requirements by 90 percent compared to conventional growing methods.

plants grown under water by Farmerscut
Thanks to clever circulation systems, water can be reused again and again.
Photo: iStock / JYJ

Kickstarting change together

Beyond all these large and small, research-based and user-friendly projects, countless other urban self-sufficiency initiatives explore anything from communal gardens and shared fields on the outskirts to farmed public roof gardens. But how to find out what’s nearby, available – and a good fit for your own interests?

Communal gardens: a growing trend for green-thumbed metropolitans.
Photo: A@agroParisTech

In Greater Chicago, locals can check out the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project. Founded and run by a group of individuals, organizations, and companies, it maintains a frequently updated interactive online map with a comprehensive overview of all urban farming projects. Added bonus: the site’s great community for exchanging ideas and meeting like-minded activists.