Monday, September 18, 2017

European battle continues over 2030 energy efficiency target

Members of the European Parliament’s environment committee have voted for a legally binding target of a 40 per cent increase in energy efficiency by 2030, as well as for the closing of a number of loopholes that undermine annual energy savings.

A version of this was published first on The Fifth Estate on 11 September.

In doing so they have set a challenge to the disappointing compromise of 30% delivered by EU energy ministers in June – a non-binding target.

Will the EU eventually settle on a 30% or  40% target when it votes later this year? Battle is raging in Brussels between lobbyists of differing persuasions. It is particularly the coal industries of eastern European countries who are most vociferous in arguing for low targets.

You can tell your Member of the European Parliament what you want them to do by writing to them. Find out who they are here.

The environment committee wants to see Europe's nations being much more ambitious on saving energy in order to reach the Paris Agreement targets. They want to see a change in the text of the redrafted Energy Efficiency Directive from:
"Member States should set their national indicative energy efficiency contributions taking into account that the Union’s 2030 energy consumption has to be no more than 1321 Mtoe [million tonnes of oil equivalent] of primary energy and no more than 987 Mtoe of final energy."
"Member States should set their national binding energy efficiency targets taking into account that the Union’s 2030 energy consumption has to be no more than 1129 Mtoe of primary energy and no more than 825 Mtoe of final energy."

This would represent a saving of 162 Mtoe – or 1884 million megawatt-hours of final energy use.

That’s equivalent to the output of 129,041MW of coal-fired power stations operating at a capacity factor of 60 per cent!

Seen in this way, it’s easy to understand the importance of this battle that is raging between the leaders of European countries and their environmentally inclined  MEPs.

Because of their concern that extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and droughts are expected to affect many parts of Europe more frequently, the environment committee also called for cities to create their own sets of targets for addressing climate change.

These would represent a system of Locally Determined Contributions, directly linked and complementary to their host countries’ National Determined Contributions, which are what every country has to produce to detail how it will help to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Target low-income households

Buildings constitute a substantial potential for increasing energy efficiency and the buildings sector accounts for 40 per cent of Europe’s energy consumption, making it a sector of prioritised importance for achieving further substantial energy efficiency gains.

The MEPs said they wanted a significant share of the 40 per cent energy efficiency target to be aimed as a priority at improvements to the energy efficiency of buildings that particularly benefit low-income consumers at risk of energy poverty, because they won’t have the means to make the necessary investments themselves.

“Investments in households at risk of energy poverty will reap significant benefits for those households and wider society,” they said. “With around 50 million households in the Union being affected by energy poverty, energy efficiency measures must be central to any cost-effective strategy to address energy poverty and consumer vulnerability and are complementary to social security policies at the Member State level.”

One loophole MEPs want closed is to let Member States have the discretion to decide how best to design measures providing better feedback on energy consumption for occupants of units in multi-apartment or multi-purpose buildings who are supplied with heating, cooling or hot water from a central source.

MEPs also ramped up the target for publicly owned buildings. They want to see three per cent of publicly owned buildings over 250 square metres to be eco-renovated a year – up from the current draft’s target of three per cent of central government-owned buildings over 500 square metres.

Even more crucially, they want to see sales of energy used in transport to be fully included in the targets.

Energy performance of buildings

The committee also called for a strengthening of the new Directive on the Energy Performance of Buildings to ramp up the current slow annual renovation rate of European buildings (around 0.4-1.2 per cent depending on the Member State).

Currently, there is an urgent need for widely available financing products that would include and support the positive aspects of energy efficiency renovations, such as the higher asset value and healthier living conditions for the occupants.

If adopted, this would call upon Member States to establish a long-term strategy for mobilising investment in the renovation of residential and commercial buildings, both public and private, to decarbonise the total building stock by 2050.

Spanish energy firm Iberdrola’s director of climate change, Gonzalo Saenz de Miera, has said his company would support this target by “improving the insulation on windows that will reduce the consumption of gas, or by improving the efficiency in the transport sector”.

“We’re not going to provide insulation services ourselves. Energy efficiency businesses will sell their services to companies that are obliged to make the reductions” and make those available using a system of white certificates, he said.

The next step in the European legislative process will be taken on 28 November when MEPs in the energy and industry committee are due to consider it.

Dora Petroula, energy savings policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, commented: “This position brings us much closer to meeting the Paris Agreement goals which require the EU to up its game on energy efficiency. The industry committee needs to follow suit and support a 40 per cent efficiency target and a strong set of rules to ensure all EU countries limit energy waste.”

David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bitcoin is the future of local and community renewable energy trading and EV charging

Dr Jemma Green, co-founder and chair of Power Ledger
Dr Jemma Green, co-founder and chair of Power Ledger.

A new bitcoin company has raised AU$17 million (£10.3m or $13.7m) in 72 hours to support a revolutionary technology platform that will allow electricity producers and consumers to trade directly with each other in tiny units of power.

This article first appeared last week on The Fifth Estate.

Power Ledger is at the forefront of a disruptive wave affecting the energy market that will see the end of the dominance of centralised generation and the increasing participation of building owners, smaller renewable energy suppliers and electric vehicle owners in a peer-to-peer marketplace, all made possible by the new, internet-based encrypted currency, bitcoin.

Consumer are the ultimate disruptors, David Martin, Power Ledger’s co-founder and managing director says. “Consumers have said, ‘I don’t want to buy energy from a coal-fired station’, instead saying this model of energy transaction is what they want to participate in’.“The concept of peer-to-peer [energy] trading is something that has universal appeal to customers … it’s a demonstration that the community wants to be part of the power economy of the future.”

“The concept of peer-to-peer [energy] trading is something that has universal appeal to customers … it’s a demonstration that the community wants to be part of the power economy of the future.”

Dr Jemma Green is the other co-founder and chair of Power Ledger. Her background is in financing and accounting at JP Morgan in London but also financing environmental sectors. In 2013 she returned to Perth and did a PhD in Energy Markets and Disruptive Innovation and also featured as a member of our Sustainability Salon for Perth and WA.

In a podcast with website she explains how she came by the idea for Power Ledger. She saw that in Australia 20 per cent of houses have rooftop solar but hardly any are on high-rise apartment buildings. She saw the potential for these buildings acting as energy retailers, supplying their residents, and designed a system for a building in Perth.

However, she was unable to find software that allocated the electricity to each apartment until she met some blockchain developers in January last year, and realised blockchain was perfect for her needs.

A problem was identified with the power grid, which is that if some apartment residents are using local energy, fewer are using the grid and so those consumers will pay proportionately more. Power Ledger was formed in May last year, just after the birth of her daughter, to explore how blockchain could circumvent this problem by allocating small transactions to each apartment.

A pilot project in a retirement village south of Perth from August to December 2016 proved the success of the concept. A second trial was conducted in Auckland with the local network operator and linked up with the banking sector to complete the loop.

Sell your solar power when you’re out and don’t need it

“It means that I can sell to others the electricity I might have utilised when I’m not in my apartment,” Green says.

“Schools and any partially occupied building owners can do the same. If I’m not using that electricity, then it can be spread equally across everybody in the apartment block or network. This also incentivises people to use less electricity as they can sell their unused power and make money.”

Power Ledger’s platform connects to smart meters to tally how much power is generated and how much is used. Its software is installed and the revenue information is extracted into the blockchain. It is priced differently according to the time of day and the laws of supply and demand.

The blockchain can be used to fractionalise the power stored in the battery or that is directly generated, and allocate it.

Some of the power may be owned by a third party. For example, a solar farm can be part owned by investors, say a pension scheme, which recoups the revenue from sales.

Presently, if an apartment has rooftop solar and is selling its surplus back to the energy company it will typically not be paid for 60 days. With Power Ledger’s system, participants can monitor their revenue in real time.

“You could also have a marketplace, and this could bring the price down,” Green says. “Supply and demand would set the price. The cost curves for batteries and solar are coming down. It’s low cost electricity.”

Power Ledger issues tokenised values called Sparkz for a unit of electricity, representing one low-value unit in the host country. Electricity is priced in the local currency. Suppliers will be paid in Sparkz at the local cost of power. If the unit price is 30c/kWh they will receive 30 Sparkz. E.g. 1 Sparkz = 1 AUD.

POWRs are another token, which represent investments in the company. Their price can vary, but this does not affect the cost for electricity for the everyday consumer. It is these tokens which are being offered on the market.

“The more application posts offer these, the more competition there is. We’ve created one billion and are selling 350 million at the moment in an initial coin offering (ICO),” Green says.

“We sold 190 million of these last week to raise 17mAU$ in 72 hours in a public pre-sale of 100 million Power Ledger tokens — called POWRs — and a discounted private pre-sale of 90 million POWRs.

“On 8 September we open the public sales and our supporters and platform users say they want to have the option at buying at a market price. This will be determined by the number of tokens left divided by the amount of money pledged in the sale.”

This sale will last for four weeks. Tokens can be bought from the website tge.Power David Martin believes it is “not unreasonable to expect” that this next offer will raise $20-30 million.

The Sparkz power tokens are effectively a means for markets to trade and self-regulate, says Green. Utilities will purchase the tokens and use them as bonds to trade with customers.

People in the banking industry are a little sceptical of blockchain. This is because there is much vapourware out there, Green believes. “A country’s laws needs to be attached to a project in order to support and validate it,” she explains.

“Power Ledger has a platform, the first in Australia. Our lawyers say our tokens are not a financial product as such, but they are designed to the same standard, with a constitution, shareholders and rules under national corporate law, in order to provide confidence.”

The second pilot was across networks and included banks, which it was really hard to persuade to be involved.

Use bitcoins to pay for charging electric vehicles

In the future Power Ledger hopes to use the experience in a project involving solar-powered apartments in Fremantle, Perth. One of these will possess a shared electric vehicle (EV), charged from the panels, which any member of the public can use.

They will be able to pay for it with the bitcoin platform. They will also be able to charge their own electric vehicle on the charging point. All of this gives the building an income stream on the sale of their generated electricity to EV owners.

This means of selling investment in energy projects could replace power purchase agreements in the future. Instead of a generator selling to a small number of large customers they could sell to many small consumers.

Therefore a developer of a community energy project could sell small amounts to purchasers and in so doing provide liquidity by using the tokens for trading the assets. Power Ledger calls this “fractionalised ownership” or “asset germination”. Green says that this approach will be deployed on a project in the near future and that they are in conversation with financial exchanges that could partner on this.

“Not everyone can afford solar panels,” she says. ‘The people who are paying for it are those who can afford it the least. So our platform will provide low cost renewable power to people who don’t have solar panels while utilising the grid and maintaining its relevance.

“It will also work for any type of electricity. It’s ambivalent about the source, so could be used for wind. Wind and solar are good partners as one is often providing power without the other, lessening the need for storage.”

Green recently attended a gathering hosted by Richard Branson about blockchain on his island where she heard about other social uses for blockchain. For example blockchain is being used to eliminate land theft in places like Georgia and Afghanistan where it’s being used to update the land registry.

“It’s about the democratisation of power,” Green says. “We see ourselves as being a distributed ledger for distributed energy markets. It’s a revolution, away from the one way street of the century old system.

“The old centralised system will continue but we will have a hybrid one. This disruption is happening with our without Power Ledger but what I think our system offers is to do this without the destruction of value.”

David Thorpe is the author of Solar Technology and The One Planet Life.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

UN leads new global push to make cities more sustainable

A meeting of the United Nations General Assembly beginning today, over 5-6 September, is expected to approve the creation of a first-ever official international body focused on urban sustainability – UN Urban.

It signals that the UN is finally getting to grip with the fact that the world is now more urban than not, and rallying itself to address its sustainable development efforts accordingly.

The reorganisation follows last October’s adoption of the New Urban Agenda at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador by UN member states. This agenda sets a new global standard for sustainable urban development and aims to help the world rethink how to plan, manage and live in cities.

The new body will reform the UN’s current lead agency on urban issues, UN-Habitat, the body tasked with making human settlements more sustainable, but which has lately been struggling.

The proposal for the body represents part of UN secretary-general António Guterres’ drive to bring up to date the UN bodies concerned with development issues.

This, it is hoped, will rekindle the confidence of member-nation donors to finance its efforts.

Earlier this month, a report by a high-level independent panel was published – requested by Guterres – designed to assess and enhance effectiveness of UN-Habitat.

The report made several recommendations. At the top is a transformed governance structure for UN-Habitat that includes universal membership. The transformed UN-Habitat will continue to help member states implement the New Urban Agenda and incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their development operations by providing guidance and tools for strengthening urban work at the country level.

But to help it, the new UN Urban body will be established. This will be “a coordinating mechanism similar to [other thematic UN bodies] UN-Water or UN-Energy, as part of the system-wide UN reform”.

It will have a small secretariat based in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York and “convene all UN agencies and partners on urban sustainability”.

UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said “the secretary-general considers rapid urbanisation and its links with poverty, inequality, public health, migration, climate change and natural disasters to be one of the most pressing concerns of the United Nations”.

A new global Urban Assembly

Therefore, next year, according to the report, the world will see the establishment of a universal “Urban Assembly”, under the presidency of the UN General Assembly, to which UN Urban will report. All member states and their local governments will be eligible to participate. Together, this gathering will define a new set of institutional, financial and citizen engagement strategies.

The need for such an effort is paramount. An unprecedented amount of sustainable infrastructure, building and housing is required around the world as the world urbanises.

Providing this is core to the priorities of the SDGs. Cities are being helped to move towards achieving the 17 SDGs by 2030 by the establishment of platforms for city-to-city learning.

These are called Local 2030 Hub for Sustainability Solutions.

Plugging the data gap

Working out whether cities are making progress in realising the SDGs depends on the provision of accurate data and here there are huge gaps, especially in Africa. Cities also need access to finance and to sustainable energy sources.

All three topics are supported by Local 2030 Hubs. The Local 2030 project, involving 25 UN agencies, is encouraging cities to create their own hubs.

There are plans to create a global data hub in Toronto, as well local and regional hubs in Buenos Aires, Cambridge (Canada), Dubai, Haiphong (Vietnam), Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Makati (the Philippines) and Minna (Nigeria).

The World Council on City Data (WCCD) is among the groups behind the initiative. It seeks to harmonise city data so that cities can compare their performance. It is working with the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and has just released a major report mapping ISO indicators to the SDGs.

This massive 546-page report is the world’s first attempt to standardise data collection in cities everywhere. It optimistically points to a post-2030 future in which all cities have achieved the 17 SDGs, and in which these achievements can be verified and compared.

Cities in the WCCD network highlighted in the report use standardised indicators from ISO 37120 (Sustainable development of communities: indicators for city services and quality of life) to compare their performance, exchange knowledge and share solutions with other cities.

The 38 participating cities include Brisbane and Melbourne, London and Amsterdam, as well as Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and Taipei. They have built a numeric reporting system for cities to embrace the SDGs at local level and monitor their progress to 2030.

Many of these cities are rich. Cities after all represent 80 per cent of global GDP. Some have already achieved all of the SDGs. But most cities in the world are far from rich and have a way to go. The successful cities have a responsibility to help the poorer ones and they are doing so. It is this process that the UN hopes the new UN Urban and the Urban Assembly will encourage.

Urban includes rural too

But UN Urban won’t only focus on cities. One of the panellists who produced the report, former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Parks Tau, explained that “UN Urban must challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy and work to mainstream a territorial approach to development across the UN”.

“We have called for ‘the urban’ to be understood in its broadest sense: encompassing metropolitan areas, intermediary cities, peri-urban areas, and the rural surroundings with which they are interdependent.”

To this end, the new body will be staffed not just by personnel from UN-Habitat but staff from other agencies with urban expertise, such as UNESCO’s World Heritage Cities Programme and the UN Development Programme’s Sustainable Urbanization Strategy.

The expert panel recommended two priority areas:

  • promoting inclusion in urban development so “no one gets left behind”
  • a focus on the urban planning, legislation and standards, along with environmental sustainability and economic robustness.
It will mean there will be a greater emphasis – budgets allowing, and particularly in developing countries – on training programs, policy guidance, promotion of good urban management governance, and the compilation of research and data on global trends in urban and human settlements.

Looking beyond the daily headlines in the news of war and terrorism – which, though significant, are short-term compared to the immense global challenges the world faces – you could say that the world is slowly growing up and, like any growing individual, unless it does so it will not survive. The above efforts represent attempts by the UN and its allies to accept responsibility for this process.

David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Buildings, Solar Technology and The One Planet Life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Courses in One Planet Living

We are in the process of developing an accredited course in ‘one planet’ living, using my book 'The One Planet Life' as a basis (see right). 
I can offer courses to organisations and venues of any length from a single day’s workshop to a long weekend, week, or year depending on the amount of depth required. The following are already fixed up and filling up:

Current courses:

Sep 10, 2017, Cultivate, Newtown, N. Wales
Oct 14-15, 2017, Coed Talylan, S. Wales
Nov 10-13, 2017, the Centre for Alternative Technology, N. Wales.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Public talk, September 8: The rise of climate fiction

I'm speaking about 'The rise of climate fiction: beyond dystopias and utopias' at the second part of this free event below:

1. Thursday, September 7th, 6pm: Professor Jackson Lears (Rutgers) on “The Return of Animal Spirits: Toward A Vitalist Narrative Of Environmental Risk” A public lecture. To find out more and to register to attend:

2. Friday September 8th, 10-5.30pm: Fate, Luck and Fortune: Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk. Workshop exploring the nature and role of the concepts of fate, luck and fortune in different types of narratives. 

Speakers: Nick Alfrey (Nottingham University), Claire Craig (Royal Society), Karen Henwood (Cardiff University), James Lyons (Exeter University), Joe Smith (Open University), David Thorpe (author and journalist), and Jonathan Wolff (Oxford University). To find out more and to register to attend: 

They are free and will be held at: University of Liverpool in London (Seminar Room 9), 33 Finsbury Square, London, EC2A 1A.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The European Union is losing its way on climate change

New EU rules agreed on 31 July mean Europe’s 3000 large combustion power plants – coal burning for the most part – will have to cut pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, mercury and particulate matter by 2021. But this is not as good news as it seems.

A version of this article was published on The Fifth Estate last week.

Eighty-two per cent of the EU’s coal-fired plants are estimated to be be non-compliant, emitting excessive levels of pollutants. The cost of compliance is estimated to be over €15 billion (AU$22.4b) according to the European Climate Foundation. This seemingly sounds the death-knell for the coal industry in Europe. But will it?

European climate policy is succeeding in decoupling GDP from energy use, but enthusiasm for climate action is waning.

Primary energy consumption and GDP in the EU, graph

Christian Schaible, a member of the working group that helped draft the revised standards, explained that “not all plants will have the will, the financing, or even the access to the equipment needed to reduce pollution levels”.

“Investments in plants that are already essentially on life support in order to meet climate commitments simply doesn’t make sense.”

He said that plants committing to close could “under strict conditions and in exchange for reduced operation, be granted exceptions in the short-term”.

This is a nod partly to Eastern European countries still struggling with and committed to the legacy of inefficient Communist-era power systems.

Graph showing Poland is the biggest polluter of NOx gases from coal plants followed by Germany.
Poland is the biggest polluter of NOx gases from these plants, followed by Germany.

Fossil fuel subsidies

Subsidies for coal continue to abound, as highlighted in a new study, which shows that in Europe, loans of €47.7b (AU$71.1b) have gone to fossil fuel projects since 2013, and many of these projects will continue.

The study, from the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), also shows that 89.1 per cent of preventable deaths from air pollution in Bulgaria come from fossil fuel pollution.

“Fellow Eastern European countries Romania and Poland could also cut air pollution-based deaths by 71.3 per cent and 51.3 per cent, respectively,” it says.

The Rise of the Visegrad Factor

The Berlin’s Institute for International Political Economy Cenk Olgun said: “The most vehement opposition to ambitious European climate policies have historically come from the post-Soviet eastern member States,” in particular the Visegrad Group (founded in 1991 by Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) because the bloc “still struggles with a post-communist economic legacy and conventional power sectors”.

Energy prices and domestic fossil fuel consumption are especially important issues in these countries. They are highly dependent on imported gas and oil.

The Visegrad Group has succeeded in obtaining a high number of free emission allowances from the EU:

Pie chart of countries free emission allowances from the EU

Hungary currently holds the presidency of this group and its declared objectives for the coming year are to promote energy infrastructure, security (meaning more gas and LNG, both seen as a way of weaning off coal) and competitiveness, striking its own idea of a “balance between economic growth and meeting climate policy goals”, and expressing anxiety about “carbon leakage” and “investment leakage”.

Permitted emissions

These Eastern European countries are being permitted to increase their greenhouse gas emissions up to 2020 under rules announced on 20 July. These permits to increase are proposed in the Effort Sharing Decision limits released by the European Commission.

Graph of GHG emission limits for EU member states within the overall European target in order to decarbonise the non-Emission Trading Scheme sectors

These allocate climate targets to each member state within the overall European target in order to decarbonise the non-Emission Trading Scheme sectors – transport (except aviation and maritime shipping), buildings, agriculture and waste.

The overall European emissions target is a 30 per cent reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. The UK’s share of this will be 37 per cent – equivalent to a 45 per cent reduction on 1990 levels. The UK has a domestically agreed Fifth Carbon Budget, which has passed into law and commits it to cutting emissions by 57 per cent on 1990 levels by 2030 – further than the proposed European limits.

Then there’s Brexit

The effect of the UK leaving the European Union has not yet been translated into the effect on Europe’s climate goals. As the UK’s emissions savings compensate for emissions increases in other nations, there will be a knock-on effect. Other nations will have to improve at a faster rate.

But this is not reflected in the above 2030 limits. By 2030 the UK will, on its present path, have been out of the EU for a decade.

This oversight is part of the impression coming out of Europe that its climate policy is in disarray.

We saw this in June with the passing of an ineffectual draft of the revised Energy Efficiency Directive.

In addition, the Energy Performance of Buildings directive – agreed by the national governments and the European Parliament – is not being effectively implemented, according to energy efficiency expert Andrew Warren. He complains in a recent piece that “Article 27 of the Directive requires our government to introduce ‘effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties’ for non-compliance with the directive. These don’t exist.”

Countries very rarely prosecute building owners for non-compliance. The last study of compliance in 2015 found: “In general, information flows and data collection systems across member states for MEP requirements were not fit for purpose” – amongst many other problems with implementation.

The Energy Union strategy and the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement commits to staying “well” below 2°C, while pursuing efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Taken with other countries’ pledges the EU’s would lead to global emissions of at least 55 GtCO2-e by 2030. But the absolute maximum level of emissions for staying below 2°C would be 40 GtCO2-e. To close this gap, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has asked all countries to reduce their 2030 emissions by at least another 25 per cent.

The currently proposed EU energy efficiency target of 30 per cent is too low to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Looking at energy savings alone, by totalling the amount of savings reported by member states in 2014 and 2015 the total savings target is currently on track to be below zero.

One of the few good signs is in France’s newly published climate action plan. This states that France will push the EU to increase the ambition of its emission reduction targets. Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, said this “sends a clear message to the whole EU that the full implementation of the Paris Agreement means much deeper emission cuts”.

There is now only a five per cent chance that the planet can avoid warming by at least 2°C come the end of the century, according to research published in Nature Climate Change.

The recent deadly heatwaves in southern Europe look likely to be just a taste of what is to come unless far more drastic action is taken by the European bloc. It could mean over 150,000 people a year dying from heat by 2100 if nothing is done, said The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

The European Union used to lead the world on climate change action. This is not the time for it to lose its nerve.

David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Buildings, Solar Technology and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

Monday, August 14, 2017

How shall we feed the future cities?

54% of the world’s population were living in urban areas in 2016. That is predicted to rise to 66% by 2050 according to the United Nations (UN). How will we feed them sustainably? A couple of recent reports offer some valuable pointers, but in this complicated topic, have they missed something?

How to feed ourselves properly is one of the biggest questions facing the human race. Food provision can either worsen or improve climate change, biodiversity, health and soil quality. Poor food provision can lead at its worse to wars, to refugee crises, to mass starvation.

We are feeding ourselves without regard to the biosphere that nurtures and protects us. This is partly why we are in the middle of the sixth greatest species extinction in the history of the planet.

To an extent, the mess we're in is because we have mostly left food provision to the private sector. This is primarily interested in short term profit and does not factor in the external costs of their activities on their balance sheets. These costs include pollution, soil loss, climate change, diet-related health crises.

Governments at all levels need to implement policies to correct this tendency.
 What Makes Urban Food Policy Happen report cover

A new report, What Makes Urban Food Policy Happen? looks at these issues and contains insights from case studies. It is a substantial effort from The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and examines ways in which cities can design and maintain highly-developed, integrated food-related policies.

But first, more about the context:

The general picture

Ten facts show how much there is to do:
  1. Global population (currently 7.5 billion) is scheduled to peak at 11.2 billion by 2100 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017).
  2. As many as 795 million people were still food insecure in 2015 (FAO et al., 2015).
  3. Two billion suffer from the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient deficiencies.
  4. Over 1.9 billion adults are obese or overweight (IFPRI, 2016).
  5. One third of agricultural land is degraded (Status of the World’s Soil Resources, 2017)
  6. More than enough food is produced for today’s global population ( The Global Food System: an Analysis, 2016) but much is wasted and doesn't get to everyone.
  7. Of the nine 'planetary boundaries' assessed by WWF in its 2016 Living Planet Report four of these global processes have passed beyond their safe boundaries (climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows and land-system change).
  8. Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.6 Earths to provide the goods and services we use each year (WWF).
  9. The per capita Ecological Footprint of high-income nations dwarfs that of low- and middle-income countries (Global Footprint Network, (GFN) 2016).
  10. 1.7gha is the available per capita share of ecological biocapacity now - this will decrease with a rising population (GFN). (That means that, if we all had the same equal share of land to support ourselves it would be just 1,700,000 square kilometres each. It sounds a lot, but not when you include all the other species on the planet.)

Global Ecological Footprint by component vs Earth’s biocapacity, 1961-2012
Global Ecological Footprint by component vs Earth’s biocapacity, 1961-2012. Carbon is the dominant component, and the largest component at the global level for 145 of the 233 countries and territories tracked in 2012, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. The green line represents the Earth’s capacity to produce resources and ecological services (i.e., the biocapacity). It has been rising slightly, mainly due to increased productivities in agriculture (Global Footprint Network, 2016). Data are given in global hectares ( gha).

Map: The relative ecological footprints of different countries.

The relative ecological footprints of different countries. High income countries have a much higher footprint. WWF's report says: "Consumption patterns in high-income countries result in disproportional demands on Earth’s renewable resources, often at the expense of people and nature elsewhere in the world."

As more people become wealthier and live in cities, they will expect their consumption patterns to rise. If we have to feed more people, and reduce our consumption of the Earth's resources to within planetary boundaries, what can we do?

WWF's report says: "root causes include the poverty trap, concentration of power, and lock-ins to trade, agricultural research and technology." To these I would add: ignorance of the sustainable alternatives.

Concentration of power and lock-ins to trade

Much of the problem has been analysed by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

Their analysis argues that to increase food security we need "policies and programs to diversify diets and improve micronutrient intake; and developing and deploying existing and new technologies for the production, processing, preservation, and distribution of food".

WWF's Living Planet Report agrees, adding that we need a change of mindset – to adjust our 'systems thinking'. "For instance, individual consumers can change their purchasing behaviour, or people with greater political or economic influence can formulate strategies for policy change."

Four certainties arise from this. We need:
  1. More locally produced and varied diets;
  2. To generate less food waste;
  3. To take care of our soils;
  4. To eat less intensively-reared meat.
Why? Well, just a handful of mega-companies dominate global food production. In food trading there are only four agricultural firms: ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis-Dreyfus, who exert huge influence.

They affect biodiversity through massive land-use intensification and land conversion – habitat loss, and, with just a few crops, a dramatic loss of genetic diversity.

As a result, 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species (FAO, 2004). Large-scale monoculture operations mean high volumes of chemical inputs equating to pollution, carbon emissions and soil degradation.

Grassland (23% of the Earth's surface) is ideal to retain as grazing for ruminants (since this system of farming supports the soil and sequesters carbon).

But indoor, intensive rearing of animals has the opposite effect. This is mostly because they need feed (soya and grain). A staggering third of agricultural cropland is used to grow this animal feed. The ecological footprint is huge, especially when rainforests are cleared to provide this food.

Eating less of this type of meat would have multiple benefits: on animal welfare, the land, transport impacts, greenhouse gas emissions and human health.

Systemic patterns in the food system – agricultural subsidies, trade agreements, commodity markets – need to alter to effect this change, as do mental habits – such as the belief that higher economic status means higher levels of consumption, especially of meat.

Feeding cities

Cities used to feed themselves from their hinterlands – which were nearby. Now food can come from anywhere in the world. Mapping the ecological footprint of food consumed in cities nowadays would be a huge and complex task.

Then there's the problem of equity. Good, nutritious food may enter a city but does not necessarily reach everyone. Many urban neighbourhoods are poorly served by markets and stores selling healthy, cheap foods, contributing to high incidences of obesity and diet-related ill-health in those areas.

The ‘New Urban Agenda’, adopted by the UN Habitat III conference in October 2016 (Quito, Ecuador) to guide the urbanization process over the next 20 years, makes commitments to improving food security and nutrition, strengthening food systems planning, working across urban-rural divides and coordinating food policies with energy, water, health, transport and waste.

Also, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 (United Nations, 2015) include one to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ and many of them address food in one way or another.

In response, a growing number of city governments are developing urban food policies.

Ten examples of urban food policies

Feeding our cities in a way that regenerates the planet's ecology is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. Many cities are developing policies to tackle this issue, while others have not even begun to consider it.

Empress Green, Staten Island, New York.
Empress Green, Staten Island, New York.

Cities have limited (and variable) powers and responsibilities to deal with food issues within their boundaries. Some of the issues are dealt with at national level, others not at all. 

To generate a policy to tackle these issues typically requires different government departments and policy areas to talk to each other and new bodies to be established.

Urban growing in the town of Colomb, near Paris, France
Urban growing in the town of Colomb, near Paris, France.
Most policies have targeted actions with specific goals – such as addressing health or food waste. These can later be incorporated into more general, integrated food policies, as understanding of the issues increases amongst participants.

The policies form just one part of the broader scale food systems change that is ongoing. This consists of overlapping policies at local, national, regional and global level.

Types of policy

Hundreds of cities around the world have food policies or governance structures. They are often focussed on specific food-related issues such as:

  1. Lack of access to nutritious food (for example the Public Policy on Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Nutrition in Medellin, Colombia, which includes improving agricultural production in the city districts);
  2. Obesity (for example the Healthy Diné Nation Act, Navajo Nation, US – a tax on junk food);
  3. Climate change and waste (for example protection of the “greenways” in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Fasso, and the zero waste policy in San Francisco, US)
  4. Reviving the local economy and providing jobs, especially for women (for example urban agriculture policy in Cape Town, South Africa; and the Central Market programme in Valsui, Romania)
  5. Leveraging existing policy responsibilities (for example public food procurement) to achieve new ends
  6. Rethinking urban planning systems to achieve multiple win-wins (for example the Policy for Sustainable Development and Food in Malmö, Sweden)
  7. Or a whole a range of different urban challenges (for example the Toronto Food Strategy, Canada).

Toronto Food Strategy, Canada
Toronto Food Strategy, Canada

Ten examples of urban food policies

  1. 140 signatory cities (as of April 2017) of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, launched in late 2015, have committed to working towards “sustainable food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse” — and to encouraging others to do the same.
  2. The concept of City Region Food Systems has taken off, which involves a "network of actors, processes and relationships to do with food production, processing, marketing, and consumption” across a regional landscape comprising urban, peri-urban and rural areas. This is particularly exciting because it aims to maximize ecological and socio-economic links and co-governance by both urban and regional players:
     City Region Food Systems concept diagram
     City Region Food Systems concept diagram
  3. The UN Committee on World Food Security is preparing policy recommendations on “Urbanization and rural transformation: implications for food security and nutrition”, to be put forward later this year.
  4. The C40 Food Systems Network is a workstream of C40. In cooperation with the EAT Initiative, it supports the efforts of 80 global cities to develop and implement measures to reduce carbon emissions and increase resilience in food systems.
  5. EUROCITIES’ food working group is a “creative hub” for sharing information, ideas and best practice on urban food between members of the network of elected local governments in 130 European cities. Its new report will be out next month.
  6. The UK Sustainable Food Cities Network has 48 member cities that are developing cross-sector partnerships to promote healthy and sustainable food. Its Policy 1.2.1 calls for "the establishment of statutory Food Partnerships in each regional, metropolitan and local authority in England built on broad civil society and cross-sector participation":
    map of UK Sustainable Food Cities Network
  7. The Association des Régions de France signed the Rennes Declaration for Territorial Food Systems in July 2014, through which they committed to promoting agriculture and food policies for territorial development, economic development, and sustainable use of natural resources.
  8. In the Netherlands, 12 cities, one province and three ministries signed the CityDeal “Food on the Urban Agenda“ in early 2017. Not only will the cities and province include food in their own plans and strategies, but they are also collaborating to build an integrated food strategy for the whole country.
  9. Dame Ellen MacArthur – who sailed single-handedly round the world – calls cities “great aggregators” of resources and materials – especially nutrients from food. The opportunities to collect and reuse these is described in her Foundation's latest publication, URBAN BIOCYCLES, which "highlights the opportunities to capture value, in the form of the energy, nutrients and materials embedded in the significant volume of organic waste flowing through cities, through the application of circular economy principles":
    URBAN BIOCYCLES report cover
    Cover of URBAN BIOCYCLES report
  10. Gunhild Stordalen, from the EAT Forum in Sweden, believes food is the main issue around which coalesces all the others: climate change, poor health, social inequality, soil loss, biodiversity loss. "Food is the biggest driver of climate change. There is no scientific consensus on solving these interconnected problems. We need action to change this and to end the disconnect between consumption and production".  Her work encourages collaboration across sectors globally. "We need new business models as much as new practices."

Gunhild Stordalen speaking at the Harmony in Food and Farming conference, July 2017.
Gunhild Stordalen speaking at the Harmony in Food and Farming conference, July 2017.

These are all very exciting, but we are only at the beginning. The potential is huge for involving cities' populations in providing their own food, and linking them back to the origin of their food, and so to nature – a connection all too easily lost in urban life.

The issue of feeding cities sustainably is gradually rising up the political agenda.

Six cities leading in urban food policies

There is evidence that we can feed the future Earth's population of 11.5 billion even if 70% of them live in cities, without reducing the Earth to one big intensive farm and increasing climate change. And if we can learn from six existing cities on how they are beginning to tackle this issue, then there's a chance we can actually do it.

The productivity question

If the amount of food produced per hectare at present can be increased then it will be possible to feed more people with less land as the population of the world increases. Big agriculture uses the argument that it alone can do this to justify its continuing grip on food policy and research, and to push for more genetically modified crops and chemical inputs.

But are they right? Firstly, reducing chemical inputs (nitrate and phosphate fertilisers and pesticides) should be an important policy aim. This is because they are produced using fossil fuels, reduce biodiversity, pollute our watercourses, harm health and, year-on-year, deplete soil fertility and soil carbon.

In the nineteenth century Paris fed itself by obtaining 6-7 harvests a year from its surrounding hinterlands. It did this by using thermophilic (heat-generating, from manure) composting in conjunction with a high labour input and what we'd call today agro-ecological methods, according to regenerative cities expert Herbert Girardet.
Herbert GirardetCreating Regenerative Cities by Herbert Girardet book cover.
Creating Regenerative Cities by Herbert Girardet (left) book cover.

Of course, Paris would need a lot more land now as it's far bigger, but 6-7 harvests a year? That's more than big agriculture can manage.  It turns out there are four strategies to get more from less land and feed more people in cities:

1. GM crops are acceptable and useful for resisting pests and drought as long as the seeds are 'open source' and do not lock farmers in to using specific products. They are more resilient and do improve productivity.

2. Vertical farms growing leafy vegetables claim to be able to produce over 12 harvests per year. They're being developed in many paces, such as the CityFARM project of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab’s City Science Initiative. In New Jersey, New York State, Aero Farms has built the largest indoor farm so far. It is 130 times more productive per square foot annually than a field farm, uses 95% less water, 40% less fertiliser, and no pesticides. Crops that usually take 30 to 45 days to grow, like the leafy gourmet greens that make up most of the output, take as little as 12. With aquaponics and hydroponics, potatoes, root vegetables, and fish such as tilapia can be provided.
Aero Farms' indoor farm in New Jersey.
Aero Farms' indoor farm in New Jersey. There is a synergy between fish and vegetable growing involving aquaculture and hydroponics.

3. Agro-ecological smallholdings are more productive than farms. Data from a conversion of a Welsh sheep farm to this type of horticulture has shown a 30-fold increase in productivity, without subsidy. In addition they improve biodiversity and soil fertility year-on-year through composting and employ more people to keep a closer eye on each square metre of land. Animals (dairy, fowl, pigs) are used productively as part of the growing cycle.

In cities, growing areas using these methods should be encouraged through education. Such mini-farms can be extremely small and so fit in well within and around urban areas. Ribbon developments an draw their sustenance from the land either side. Growing can also be done on rooftops and back yards (also tackling urban air quality and over-heating). 'Patchwork farm' arrangements such as Farmdrop in London are springing up whereby multiple producers use mobile technology to coordinate direct sales to customers of organic produce.

The Marta farm, 20 km outside Havana
The Marta farm, 20 km outside Havana. Cuba is leading the world in regenerative urban farming.
4. Diet change. We will have to get used to the idea that to feed half as many more people, we need to adjust our diets and eat less meat and grain. As mentioned in the first article, grassland grazing should be kept to provide meat, but intensive indoor livestock farming reduced because of their respective positive and negative effects on soil quality and climate change. This leaves the production of grains and large-scale pulses like soya. These will have to continue to be grown in fields for bread and other products, but in a more regenerative way,  more and more organically using natural pest control techniques.

Cities to learn from

The IPES report, What Makes Urban Food Policy Happen?, contains five case studies: Belo Horizonte, Nairobi’s Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act, The Amsterdam Healthy Weight Program, Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Action Plan and Detroit’s Urban Agriculture Ordinance. Shanghai provides an additional example as it is forging ahead with vertical farming.

The following are only summaries. Much more detail on how the projects came about, the problems they faced and what we can learn from them to replicate elsewhere, is contained in the IPES study.

Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte food market.
Belo Horizonte food market.
Belo Horizonte is a much-praised pioneer in this area. Its government-led alternative food system runs in parallel to the conventional, market-led system.

Programmes are delivered in partnership with civil society, private companies and municipal departments and reach around 300,000 citizens — 12% of the population — every day.

In 2015 the School Meals programme served 155,000 children in the public school system, while the Popular Restaurants served over 11,000 meals per day.

Food is provided locally, creating jobs and educating children about the link between food and the land. There are 133 school vegetable gardens and 50 community gardens. The Straight from the Country programme supports 20 family farmers and  21 grocery stores are in the ABaste-Cer programme.


Children benefiting from the Amsterdam healthy food programme.
Children benefitting from the Amsterdam healthy food programme.

Amsterdam aims to eradicate overweightness and obesity by 2033.

Unlike obesity programmes in other cities, its policy contains integrated actions across the departments of public health, healthcare, education, sports, youth, poverty, community work, economic affairs, public spaces and physical planning, and organizations from outside local government. It seeks to address the structural causes, including the living and working conditions that make it difficult for people to ensure children eat healthily, sleep enough and exercise adequately. It aims to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and create a healthier urban environment.

The policy was driven by one man: Eric van der Burg of the liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The policy was given no initial budget, in order to show what could be achieved through cooperation and taking joint responsibility.

Golden Horseshoe

Map showing the reach of the Golden Horseshoe Toronto hinterland food supply programme.
Map showing the reach of the Golden Horseshoe Toronto hinterland food supply programme.
The Golden Horseshoe region runs around the western shores of Canada’s Lake Ontario, including the Greater Toronto area and neighbouring communities. It is densely populated with rapidly expanding cities of educated, affluent professionals.

In 2011/12 seven municipalities adopted a common ten-year plan to help the food and farming sector remain viable. This Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Plan 2021 has five objectives:

  1. to grow the food and farming cluster
  2. to link food, farming and health through consumer education
  3. to foster innovation to enhance competitiveness and sustainability
  4. to enable the cluster to be competitive and profitable by aligning policy tools, and
  5. to cultivate new approaches to supporting food and farming.

Its broad aims and membership have achieved much but also seen conflict arise between advocates of small-scale, ecological agriculture and so-called "big agriculture". Face-to-face meetings are sorting out differences but unfortunately no major food company is represented.


Children in Detroit enjoying locally produced food.
Children in Detroit enjoying locally produced food.

This post-industrial ghost town is reinventing itself using urban farming. In 2012, the Detroit City Plan was updated to feature urban agriculture as a desirable activity, acknowledging the environmental, economic and social benefits.

2013's Detroit Future City Strategic Framework made it a priority for all city stakeholders in order to accelerate economic revival, address land use issues, improve city services, and foster civic engagement. It gave urban agriculture a zoning ordinance, thereby formally permitting, promoting and regulating certain types of food production as a viable land use.

This planning barrier is often a vital issue facing those who want to practice urban farming, especially indoors with “vertical farms”. Entrenched attitudes and vested interests are still being dealt with. This is in the nature of all attempts at “system change”.

But Mayor Mike Duggan has stated a preference for vacant land to be put in the hands of local residents for growing food. Detroit contains several vertical farms, often built in disused warehouses. These grow food organically in controlled conditions, recycling water and nutrients, and using low carbon LED lighting.


Vertical farms exist in an increasing number of cities around the world such as Anchorage, Berlin, Singapore and Tokyo, providing fresh vegetables, mushrooms, herbs and salads, fish, crabs and other foods.

Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District
Cutaway diagram of part of Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District
China is leading the world in vertical farming in cities. It's been pioneering the research for many years. Atop the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, indoor patches of tomatoes, lettuce, celery and bok choy yield between 40 and 100 times more produce than a typical open field of the same size.

Now China is planning a 100-hectare urban farming district in Shanghai, which has a population of 24 million. The Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, designed by US-based firm Sasaki Associates, between Shanghai’s main international airport and the city center, will use urban farming as a living laboratory for innovation, interaction, and education. Construction is expected to start in late 2017.

There will be a range of techniques, including algae farms, floating greenhouses, green walls, and vertical seed libraries. An interactive greenhouse, science museum, aquaponics showcase, and market will help to educate children about where their food comes from.


There is no shortage of solutions to the related crises of food, health, climate change and city design. But, from ordinary citizens to government ministers, people need to be more engaged in where their food comes from and what they eat.

Every planner and architect, every health professional, and every educationalist deserves to explore this, for, when it comes down to it, we are what we eat. And what we eat ultimately determines the fate of the planet.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, a Blueprint for Low Impact Living.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Towards 'One Planet' Cities

At an excellent symposium on 2nd August 2017 at Imperial College, London on future cities - I gave a presentation about moving towards 'One Planet' Cities, how Wales is moving towards this idea, the need for measurement and the need to reduce the ecological footprint particularly of feeding cities.

 'One Planet' cities attempt to support their citizens within the limits of planetary boundaries as defined by the effect of humanity's activities divided by the capacity of the earth to support them. This we are currently not doing and it gives rise to many problems, such as climate change, mass extinctions, acute pollution and loss of soil fertility.

But there are solutions. You can download a copy of my presentation as a PDF here: One Planet Future Cities Presentation.

  Sunqiao urban agricultural district artists impression

Monday, July 24, 2017

Andernach, where the council employs people to grow food in public places

Plans for “sustainable cities” often miss out a key element of human habitation, food, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. But there is an increasing number of urban projects globally, run by volunteers and sometimes such as in Germany, funded by local government, that are helping to rectify this problem.

A version of this piece was published on The Fifth Estate on 18 July 2017

According to Gunhild Stordalen, an amazing woman from the EAT Forum in Sweden, food is the main issue around which coalesces all the other threats: climate change (food growing alone is responsible for 24 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions), poor health, social inequality, soil loss, and biodiversity loss.

“Food is the biggest driver of climate change,” she said at a conference I attended recently. “As two billion more people will be added to the planet this century and more people become affluent, more will eat meat and there is no scientific consensus on solving these interconnected problems. We need action to change this and to end the disconnect between consumption and production”.

Public vegetable planting session in Andernach.
Public planting session in Andernach.
Perhaps the most successful, concerted urban attempt to do this is in the historic town of Andernach, which nestles on the banks of the Rhine in western Germany. Ever since 2008 it has been providing garden space in its parks and other council-owned greenspace for the growing of food and keeping of farm animals, and been an inspiration for hundreds of other towns.

Integrated design includes food growing

It was started by geoecologist Lutz Kosack, who works in the city planning office on urban land conservation measures, and the horticulture engineer Heike Boomgaarden, who developed what Kosack calls a “sustainable building kit system for municipal green space planning, whereby ecological, economic and social aspects were integrated into an overall concept”.

The sign reads Picking allowed, not entering forbidden!
The sign reads 'Picking allowed, not entering forbidden!'.
Agriculture was transplanted literally into urban green space to make healthy food produce accessible to everyone, harvested by the citizens, free of charge. Fruit and vegetable beds were planted around the castle ruins in the centre of town, with the motto: “‘picking allowed” instead of ‘entering forbidden'”.

Plan of Andernach vegetable planting
This plan gives an idea of what has been planted where.

Andernach permaculture site from the air.
The permaculture site from the air.
Meeting with great success, the idea subsequently expanded into a 14-hectare periurban permaculture facility and a wide range of activities, to make public green spaces more creative and to promote urban biodiversity despite “a difficult budgetary situation”.

Huge spin-off benefits

There are many spin-off benefits: the green spaces and projects create meeting places, people are healthier and brownfields are transformed into bee pastures. The long-term unemployed are supported to take part, to gain skills and qualifications. The permaculture holding offers employment, including to refugees, generates revenues from sales of meat, and creates a market for regional products.

…and local government pays salaries to make it work

It was not a grassroots initiative, but the project of a far-sighted city administration, which pays the salaries of those involved and makes the land available. In 2012, Kozack, Boomgaarden and Andreas Görner founded the company “Esslich – Büro für urbane Pflanzkultur”. They have all gone on to spread the concept throughout Germany.

The city’s genetic diversity is extended every year with selected vegetable varieties. Kozack says: “We preferably work with regional plants. Our native flora is much more valuable to wild animals than imported and highly cultivated species, because they have developed over thousands of years and are optimally adapted to each other, as well as adapted to our climate and our soils. Combined with an organic soil improvement and homeopathic plant protection is a solid foundation laid.

“We want to make people experience sustainability that does not mean renunciation but wealth, beauty and harmony”

“We have now professionalised this concept of regionality with the “1 square mile homeland” (2.59 sq km) concept. We want to make people experience sustainability that does not mean renunciation but wealth, beauty and harmony.”

The project has won several awards. The chairman of DUH (one of the award-givers, the German Environmental Help Foundation), Prof. Harald Kächele, observed: “Urban gardening is currently in great demand in many cities in Germany. But the concept of Andernach is unique. Because it addresses all the city residents and beckons them on each walk past the beds to sow and harvest themselves, and thereby change the cityscape in a positive way. ”

Livestock, such as rare breeds of chicken, sheep and pigs are also kept. In 2013, the then mayor, Achim Hütten, said, “We encourage our citizens to enter the flower beds, monitor the growth of green cabbage and so on, and finally harvest and taste them. This is very popular with the residents”.

A city for all, a citizen’s garden

It is a city garden for all citizens, a real citizen’s garden.

Andernach has now become a centre where other cities have come to learn how to do the same thing. As many as 90 other cities in Germany have taken up the idea. For example, Minden, in the springtime, all citizens are invited to a weekend where they plant seeds and seedlings in public places.

In Seattle, they’re also transforming public space into edible gardens

The concept is spreading in the USA too. In the city of Seattle the Beacon Food Forest is intended to transform a public area into an edible permaculture forest. Around 2100 sq m of land has been planted with hundreds of fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables and herbs, which can be harvested by walkers and residents. The area includes playgrounds, lawns and community gardens for residents’ use.

The origin of all of these projects, Kosach and Boomgaarden acknowledge, can in some way be traced back to a small town in Yorkshire in the north of England.

It probably all started in Yorkshire

Incredible Edible Todmorden has been running since 2007 and inspired a great many copycat projects in towns all over the UK and beyond. These are pretty much all, unlike Andernach, grassroots-initiated, though many have secured the cooperation of the local authority.

The Todmorden project was the brainchild of Pamela Warhurst, Mary Clear and a group of like minded people, who, as they describe in the recent film about the Transition movement, Demain (Tomorrow), just wanted to plant some fruit and veg in vacant spaces in their town. Their idea has fertilised minds far beyond what they could ever have expected at the time. “Our motto was, just do it!” says Pamela in the film.

Preparing a bed for planting outside the health centre in Todmorden.

The Incredible Edible Network lists as members over 100 groups across the UK and many others in Australia, Canada, France and the USA. Its website contains a starter kit and helpful videos for anyone wanting to begin a group in their own area.

Urban gardens can be more productive

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, garden plots can be up to 15 times more productive than rural holdings with just one square metre capable of providing 20 kilograms of food a year. The food footprint is correspondingly much smaller than imported food. Urban agriculture can generate one job every 100 sq m in production, input supply, marketing and value-addition from producer to consumer.

For all the above reasons, urban growing deserves to be much higher up the agenda of town and city authorities everywhere.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, a Blueprint for Low Impact Living. See his website here.