Masterplanners spend a lot of time considering how a proposed design could turn into a great lived experience. It’s always a balancing act, an attempt to translate a client’s goals be that a public authority or private developer, whose land has many potential future uses, and must somehow dovetail with the existing buildings, land, services and community.

The ever growing percentage of the world that lives in cities is a fact most masterplanners are very aware of, and it leads to new questions for us to answer. How do we bring nature back into the city? How do we ensure the next generation retains a connection to green space, to a knowledge and respect for the natural world? Of course, we have been heading in this direction for some time.

Climate change effects like intensifying flooding have led to a scramble for better natural drainage throughout our cities, and rising temperatures can be tamed with more trees and green spaces in the hottest neighbourhoods. But another strategy has joined these nature-based solutions: the increasing potential of urban farming. This isn’t about creating revenue or replacing supermarkets. It’s about restoring a sense of connection to what food is and where it comes from, something too many inner-city children have lost.

For older generations or the many solitary people who live in cities, there are clear social benefits. Increasingly health and wellbeing are linked to meaningful access and physical activity out of doors. The pandemic highlighted this acutely. So, given that cities are developed both by public authorities and private developers, how does urban farming become a part of our day-to-day approach?

For many of our public sector clients, urban regeneration is a key focus as they look to revitalise inner city neighbourhoods and town centres. Urban farming can provide cohesion across diverse communities and generations as they come together around a shared passion and objective: food growing. It’s an inherently popular and social activity; the long waiting lists for plots and ‘allotments’ (as they’re known in the UK) attests to that. At a wider level, it’s simply the case that companionship and community are intrinsically linked to food. For cities where perhaps not enough people know their neighbours, urban farming could be a secret social super-power.

Farming as placemaking

Urban farming rekindles a sense of the seasons – with food growing reflecting the meaning of each time of year. Urban farms often become a focal point in a neighbourhood, the place of food growing offers access to outdoor space, fresh food and a sense of purpose for local people. It is especially welcome in areas where people have little or private outdoor space. Urban farming also contributes to the wider biodiversity ecosystem, benefitting both residents and fauna. For any local authority, this is a very cost-effective way to improve an area.

The case for private developers is related but different. Developers must always make big bets on delivering schemes with long-term appeal and urban agriculture is gaining traction as a tool to deliver more well-rounded and attractive places. For example, community gardens can serve as focal points for placemaking efforts, providing a location for neighbours to work together to grow food, form friendships and build community. It’s a way of bringing a sense of unique identity to a scheme, in a deeper way than mere building design alone can achieve.

One big idea, many forms

The actual space for growing can adapt to the space available – it may occupy a full urban block or the equivalent of a single land parcel for a couple of houses. It can occupy what might otherwise be residual land in a masterplanned development. Depending on the type of food growing, it can also be mobile, implemented as a meanwhile or temporary use that finds a new home as phase development is realised.

Masterplanning provides a range of ways to bring agriculture into towns and cities

Local authorities are increasingly seeking evidence that developers are providing tangible benefits to existing communities that may be affected by new development. Accommodating food growing provides an amenity that can be enjoyed by both current and new residents, indeed, promoting cohesion between the two.

Grounded ambitions

Masterplanners and other built-environment professionals are increasingly aware of the need to adopt nature-based solutions. It turns out that urban agriculture delivers almost all the social benefits we want: connection to nature, physical activity, social opportunities, inclusive all-ages appeal, educational gains and many more.

Internally we are developing a playbook for food and masterplanning to help our teams to responsibly and rigorously integrate food growing into a scheme. It will provide case studies and KPIs relating to governance, costs, scalability, as well as outlining social, health and educational benefits. This should enable us to work with clients productively, giving them the assurance to incorporate food growing into their developments and regeneration plans.

Of course, the farm-driven urban masterplan will not be for everyone or every district. But many clients are expanding their horizons to consider these new ways of bringing value and appeal to a scheme. Ultimately, we believe urban farming leads to better civic space, restarting a dialogue with the countryside that cities had long left behind.

To discuss how urban farming could be integrated into your development, contact Eike Sindlinger or Kathryn Firth.