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Urban farms, retail and a sustainable future for us all
1st May 2019

The 21st century will be remembered as the century of the city.

The rate and impact of urbanization is vast with a global population growth over the next 30 years requiring the building of an urban area 250 times the size of London.

Cities are having to respond to this demographic reality with new drivers, evolving human behaviours and a changing climate all reshaping urban environments in the quest for neighbourhoods and communities that allow for happy and healthy lives.

One of the key drivers is providing the basics of human existence – food, clean drinking water and warmth with estimates predicting a need for 50 per cent more energy, 40 per cent more clean water and 35 per cent more food in next 15 years to accommodate urban growth.

There is currently no shortage of food in the world – one third of what we produce already goes to waste – but the methods of mass production and transport across the globe are increasingly inefficient and environmentally unsustainable.

It is this understanding that has seen a boom in urban farms in recent years with facilities emerging in communities predominantly across the developed world with the aspiration of minimizing or practically eradicating food mileage and its impact on energy consumption and the quality of the produce.

Urban farming comes in myriad formats depending on climate, crops and urban density ranging from major vertical farms through to repurposed community gardens and everything in between with many city rooftops now playing their part in the critical process of food production.

It is a trend driven not just by a long term necessity but a change in attitude about how we are choosing to live with more and more people wanting to live in vibrant, denser high quality multi-use environments with a desire to balance work and leisure and to be able to access the best facilities in a healthy and sustainable way.

Underpinning this trend is the evolving nature of the retail sector and more specifically the transformation of traditional malls, from places to shop to hubs of the community with multiple uses that better reflect not just the modern urban lifestyles of their customers but also their values.

The next generation of shopping malls can no longer merely rely on the quality of their tenant mix, instead they need to create an experience for the customer that is as emotional as it is physical, an experience that the customer understands and can believe in.

Gastronomy in all its forms has now become a central plank of this evolving shopping centre offer, occupying anything from 15-40 per cent of floor space depending on the format and location with customers demanding a fresh and authentic eating experience beyond the traditional fast food outlet and coffee shop.

Spending on ethical food and drink products including organic and Fairtrade is worth now more than £10bn in the UK alone and is growing exponentially as more people crave produce that is local, sustainable and transparently produced.

It is the strength of this market that is having an impact beyond the the food court and fundamentally influencing retail design with the potential for urban farms integrated into shopping centres now becoming a real possibility.

Last year Delhaize Belgium announced it was testing a new urban farm on the roof of one of its Brussels supermarkets where customers can buy freshly grown produce, developing a new brand that will include a range of vegetables from tomatoes to zucchini.

For shopping centres the challenge is a different one as selling produce to customers directly is unlikely to generate the financial returns necessary to sustain a major urban farm. Instead it is the continued growth of the ‘farm to fork’ movement combined with a collaborative approach between the centre’s food and beverage operators and its owners that has the potential to support urban farming within the setting of traditional shopping centres.

Despite the growth of urban farming generally, the concept of combining them with major retail centres and gastronomy is still in its infancy and more likely to thrive in wealthier communities while customers still pay a premium for locally produced food.

However, wealth is not the only factor - we are currently working on a new shopping centre extension and repositioning in Scandinavia which includes a major urban farm and while it is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, it also one of the most socially equal and environmentally conscious.

The introduction of urban farms into shopping centres is also part of an important educational process, a key component in reinforcing sustainability principles with visits from local school children to learn about healthy living, fresh food, cooking and agriculture.

Ultimately this kind of initiative is about enriching the local community. Shopping centres are commercial entities that can only thrive if they can engender strong connections with their customers and increasingly that means reinventing themselves from a consumerist paradise to community hubs with a strong ethical, sustainable and educational compass.

It is no surprise that Scandinavian cities have long been pioneers in urban agriculture and are perfectly placed to lead the vanguard in integrating food production and consumption but others will follow as the city of the future embraces solutions to our food systems that offer a sustainable future for us all.