London’s biggest and most diverse farm, crowdsourced from its vast network of gardens, rooftops, balconies and other underutilised spaces.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
London Metropolitan Area
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Our company, Department 22 is based in London, at the Food Exchange in New Covent Garden Market (UK’s biggest wholesale fruit&veg market). All three co-founders, Clare, Dejan and Tom have a long personal and professional history with London.
In 2019, our team worked on two particular projects that gave us the backdrop for the Plantville vision.
We researched and curated a major exhibition at the Roca Gallery London titled London 2026: Recipes for Building a Food Capital. This gave us a good understanding of the types of new food-related innovations, buildings, products and services which are being introduced in cities around the world to create more sustainable urban food systems.
We also worked with Sainsbury’s (UK’s oldest and second-biggest retailer) to produce their Future of Food report, which outlined three future scenarios for the years 2025, 2050 and 2169. For each of these scenarios, we created a systemic, human-centred vision for how things could be.
Before starting Department 22 in 2016, our team worked at the Royal College of Art in London, where we set up and ran an academic department, SustainRCA, focusing on bringing Sustainability thinking to students across all college departments: Architecture, Fashion, Product, Vehicle Design and more. Alongside that, Clare and Dejan worked on a social enterprise - Food Loop in London’s most deprived housing estate, where we set up a food waste collection scheme, composting unit and food growing spaces. Clare lives in a flat in North London and grows different fruit and veg in her allotment, Tom lives in a terraced house in South London and grows different foods in the back garden and Dejan lives in a central flat and grows a range of herbs and micro-greens in a hydroponic device that we engineered and designed. This lifestyle, the united passion for food and experience from past projects, helped us develop our vision of crowdsourced biodiverse food-growing in cities like London.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
London aerial view 2020
London's location in Europe
London Metropolitan Area - in green
London's diverse citizens
London's typically diverse school class
Vauxhall City Farm
Brutalist housing estate with gardens and balconies
A typical London backgarden - 'underutilised' in terms of food growing
London was the first modern city to reach the 1 million population mark. Whilst it has since been surpassed by many cities, it is still a big Megapolis with around 15 million people living in the metropolitan area. London is a busy city, with a fast-paced lifestyle, a growing skyline and a very diverse population.
Historically it has always been an important world centre for culture, arts, music, finance, sports and most recently food. British cuisine may not be the most popular one abroad and food isn’t necessarily a core cultural element like in other parts of the world (eg. Italy, France, China, India), but the diversity of people and nations living in London today have widely contributed to its food scene, which is why food has become such a ‘hot topic’ in Londoners’ lives. New restaurants are popping up every day, offering innovation and diversity in cuisines (virtually any world food is available), technological advancements (3D printed food, robotics) and cooking approaches (seasonal, foraged, hyperlocal, zero-waste).
The dining revolution in the last couple of decades has also sparked a great interest in home cooking and food growing, which have become trendy amongst the young population. The roots for that trend may come from the fact that Britain has a very strong history and culture of gardening. In the UK, there are around 27 million people who partake in gardening (42% of the UK population) and at least half of London’s 2.8 million households have gardens, which account for 18% of urban land use. Many sources agree that a typical gardener in the UK is a middle class, white female, aged 55+. But the interest in food is beginning to attract young people to food growing, because they want to know where their food comes from, eat more healthy produce and save money. Our attitudes towards food, along with our eating habits are changing rapidly as we understand more and more about the implications on our health and on the health of the planet. Londoners are increasingly looking for ways to be healthier, through cycling/running, gym memberships, DNA/blood tests and of course diets. This goes alongside a growing concern about our impact on the planet with a desire to reduce the use of plastic, switch to less-polluting transportation and again, through our diets. The attendance at Extinction Rebellion protests, sign-ups for Veganuary and a steep rise in newly founded ethical start-ups are showing that young people, in particular, are keen to make a difference and protect the environment.
Although London makes a very small contribution to the United Kingdom’s overall agricultural production, the range and nature of such activity is broad. Food-growing takes place throughout the capital, from commercial farming on the urban fringe to cultivation on allotments, private gardens, windowsills and balconies. The EMF 2019 report Cities and Circular Economy for food states that 40% of the world’s cropland is located within 20 km of cities.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Economics & Diets
In the UK, supermarkets dominate. The 4 largest ones account for 67% of all food purchased (WHO). Here we appear to have limitless options of meals and ingredient, but under the hood, those foods are highly processed and surprisingly narrow in plant diversity. Commercial bread largely contains only 1 type of wheat; ready meals are mostly based on chicken, beef or salmon; even our fruit & vegetables are limited to a handful of staples. Apples are an example of how retail has vastly reduced diversity: of 7500 known varieties of apples, our retailers stock only 5. The same applies to the perceived array of culinary diversity in restaurants. “It’s as if a voracious reader walked into the New York Public Library every day, and every time, reads the same book.” (James McWilliams). On top of that, we have entered into a paradigm where ‘healthy food’ is expensive when it should actually be cheaper.
Health & Diets
By narrowing our eating choices and allocating natural resources to corn, soy and animals, we are missing out on a myriad of foods, flavours and nutrient profiles and dramatically losing biodiversity.
“Lifestyle diseases” are now the leading cause of death in US and UK. Unhealthy diets are responsible for 11m preventable deaths globally per year, more even than smoking tobacco, according to a major study (Lancet). This is mainly due to high consumption of processed foods, full of sugar, fat and salt and lack of eating fresh fruit and vegetables. “Industrialisation plucked our active bodies from the field and locked them into an increasingly sedentary routine” (Daniel Lieberman)
Culture & Environment
As London’s population rises, so does its diversity of cultures, religions, dietary needs and understanding of food. Each citizen brings a different view to the table and the future food system will need to cater for it.
An increase in dense urban living will further reduce green spaces, impact biodiversity and eradicate bees and other pollinators. Climate change, degrading soil health and resource scarcity will significantly impact global food production, further exacerbating London’s high dependency on food imports.
Policy & Politics
Today, around 1/2 of the vegetables and 95% fruit eaten in London are imported. This trend is set to rise (Defra). With the UK importing 30% of its food from EU (79% of imported food)., Brexit poses a further challenge for London’s food systems. What will substitute the supply of fresh foods from Spain, Italy and France? This threat poses an opportunity to address national food security by growing and producing more food locally, especially in urban centres.
Farming - ageing of UK farmers - no legacy
Technology - innovation biased towards maximising efficiency
Policy - lobbying by big agribusinesses blocking new laws on land, pesticide and fertiliser use
Carbon footprint - Since 2000, the amount of food transported on UK roads has increased by around 30% and the average distance travelled by nearly 60%
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision is to create a food system for London that is accessible, flexible, abundant, sustainable, healthy, humane and resourceful, but most importantly diverse because all other beneficial qualities would naturally follow.
By eating more organic, fresh, local and seasonal plants we will improve our gut health, which is proven to influence mental health, reduce stress and significantly contribute to the prevention of diet-related illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Eating locally-grown, biodiverse food has the potential to improve soil health, attract pollinators and wildlife, avoid transportation, improve air quality, reduce or eliminate packaging, vastly reducing the carbon emissions of London’s food system.
To define what a healthy and planet-friendly diet looks like, we look for inspiration and evidence in reports like the “Future 50 Foods” by WWF and Knorr, which presents a shortlist of foods selected based on high nutritional value, relative environmental impact, flavour, accessibility, acceptability and affordability. It contains a diversity of nutrient-rich, low-impact foods, such as broad beans, orange tomatoes, pumpkin leaves and flowers, beet greens, watercress, various mushrooms, roots and tubers that can be easily grown in London in various environments, some in allotments, others in pots and some even hydroponically, indoors.
It is not enough to encourage growing these foods, it is also important to make food growing easy, accessible and fun, and to inspire people with culinary guidance for tasty dishes. As famously said by French gastronome, J.A. Brillat-Savarin “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star”. This is why our vision and supporting projects will focus on helping people grow, cook and eat more biodiverse foods. We plan to collaborate with expert botanists, nutritionists and chefs to create easy and accessible solutions for all London residents, the young and the old, the poor and the rich, the flat-renters and the house-owners. We will do that by working with Human-Centred Design principles, to understand our users, co-create solutions with them and achieve this big ambitious vision. Another important part of our vision is to create a blueprint based on this London project, that can be used and scaled in cities around the world, which have similar challenges and aspirations.
This is not an entirely new concept, after WWII, Britain was hit by a severe food crisis and the government introduced a “Dig for Victory” campaign that called for every man and woman in Britain to keep an allotment. Lawns and flower-beds were turned into vegetable gardens. The campaign was successful and it was estimated that over 1.4m people had allotments. A similar campaign was initiated in the US around that time, “Victory Gardens” and we are aware of a FSVP project by MOLD, with which we intend to exchange learnings and experiences and collaborate.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
It’s a warm day in spring in London. Steve, a young farmer, rises early and checks the Plantville platform to organise collection of produce ready to be taken to the Neighbourhood Collection Points (NCPs). He sets off with the methane-powered van, passing by Whitehall Fields, one of the city’s many arable spaces that once were traffic-filled roads. A group of out-of-town primary school children on a ‘field trip’ as part of the new circular food curriculum are gathering at the gates. Food growing in local allotments and gardens, as well as agriculture and nature enhancement lessons in school, is normal for all kids these days, but rural kids have often never actually seen where most of their fertiliser comes from! London’s food scraps, which were once incinerated or landfilled, are now processed in micro AD stations housed in the various NCPs across the city, providing fertiliser to neighbouring food gardens as well as more remote farms.The van is quickly filled with crates of fresh peas, tomatillos, kailan, and an array of oriental leaves, such as giant red mustard, and Japanese chrysanthemums. There’s hardly space for the 12 tanks of ‘Plantify’ fertiliser from the AD plants. He heads to Forty Hall farm in Enfield. He loves visiting this beautiful, off-grid farm, with its wide strips of land carved out between broad hedgerows interspersed with soft berry bushes and various fruit trees. Juniper, the farm manager, is waiting for him. The Plantville network helps her cultivate, preserve and distribute the bulk of the produce, guaranteeing a regular income, and allowing her to be part of a big and impactful movement! In the afternoon, Steve returns to his co-living estate in Pimlico and tries a new recipe from the Plantville app, a delicious stew with cowpeas and Maitake mushrooms, harvested from his back garden. Today, 80% of Londoners food comes from from the ‘glocal’ Plantville network - hard to imagine only 10 years ago the high street was dominated by supermarkets!
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Plantville biodiversity - health
Plantville biodiversity - plants
A widely broadcast vision for 2050, though literature, cinema and forecasting, is a future in which all our food will be prepared by robots and we will consume it in either liquid, pill or even skin-patch format. But how attractive is a future where food becomes a question of a purely functional administering of nutrition for necessity? A more desirable and human reality reflects our Plantville vision of future life, where food - in its fullest sense, incorporating the joy of nature, taste, community and culture - is part of a living practice for preserving a sense of human identity in an increasingly technological world.
As life becomes more digitised and connected, and ASI (artificial superintelligence) takes over a multitude of human tasks towards the middle of the 21st century, society is likely to have more time on its hands - time that will be dedicated both to a deep appreciation and an understanding of our place in the natural world. Our lives will be dedicated at least in part to the stewardship of nature, to the protection and enhancement of the soil and biodiversity to ensure the security of our food, and to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of cultivating, cooking and eating, a regular celebration of food, families and fun.
We imagine a surge of community off-grid living in a complete reversal of the urbanisation trend, with the emergence of eco-communities, small and compact yet self-sufficient settlements outside of the urban area. These will provide a balance to symbiotic communities in the adjacent megacity (where population growth has now stabilised around the 15m mark), and cater for the ‘new normal’ of higher integration with nature, with hyper-localised speciality crops developed with centimetre precision according to micro-climate, soil type and the biodiversity integration needs of each specific peri-urban location. Agro-ecological farming methods such as agroforestry will see the current ecological deserts of the outer suburbs of London transformed into productive rewilded landscapes, benefiting from flows of nutrients from locally processed biodegradable waste to fertilise and enrich the soils. The greater mass of humankind will be intrinsically a part of food, its production and its consumption, and the perceived value of non urban land will completely change.
The roots of this trend can already be seen through the speculative design of a number of forward-thinking designers, planners and architects such as ReGen Villages, Loyn & co., (Parc Hadau) and Space 10 / Effekt (The Urban Village Project). In their visionary projects, off-grid closed-loop community living is facilitated by deep knowledge and sophisticated infrastructure enabling food, energy and water independence.
In this, more pleasant vision, Plantville will evolve to play a key role in establishing and nurturing of these symbiotic communities, supplying (both directly and through key partnerships) not only the seeds, plants and actual fresh produce, but some key tools (growing environments, hydroponic facilities, gardening and soil testing equipment etc) as well as the governance and training to make them work. Its main role will be as a connector to make sure everything physical/digital needed for the production, processing, printing and preparation of food is in place: soil management systems, robotic farming assistants for optimised cultivation and harvesting; seeds, plants and fresh produce to be distributed amongst communities; technology for turning produce into locally assembled ready meals; and various bits of kit for making sure any surplus food is allocated to animal feed or to anaerobic digestion for energy and heat production. Plantville will be the glue between urban and peri-urban communities, enabling the sharing of seeds and crops, the redistribution of the array of varied produce created across the different communities, and the reverse flows of nutrients for soil health. Instead of centralised distribution centres, communities will form a complex network of supply, made possible by algorithms and AI that will ensure originality, freshness and variety. Gone will be the unified retail ready-meal, currently identical from Croydon to Cheshunt, and replaced now with a cornucopia of locally produced delights, packaged in fully compostable 3D printed packaging, according to the requirements of the dish contained within. This hyper-tailored packaging is created with whatever cellulose and chitin resources are available, digitally designed and robotically fabricated from the molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons, and other locally-abundant raw materials. After use, they can be duly returned to the soil via micro-anaerobic digesters that will provide energy, heat and fertiliser to the surrounding land.
This kind of future will support a biodiverse food system, which will have great benefits for our health and the health of our planet. “Eating less common varieties of vegetables, such as orange tomatoes, drives demand which will increase the variety of types of crops grown, which, in turn, makes the food system more resilient” (Knorr/WWF).
We realise that such an ambitious vision needs a solid roadmap between 2020 and 2050. We envisage that by the end of 2030, Londoners (who have become increasingly engaged in food growing over the last decade*) will begin by utilising what they already have and retrofitting solutions to their existing allotments, gardens, balconies and rooftops. In this decade we will see a surge in participation in Plantville-inspired food growing and cooking and a great increase in the variety of biodiverse crops and plants grown on these pockets of land. By 2030, London will be fully onboard with this new vision and way of life and will be ready for true lifestyle transformation. Through the 2030’s will start seeing people dedicating more time, effort and land to food growing, cooking and slow-eating. This will result in a shift of how we design and build our homes. More people will live in co-living communities, sharing resources and tools and they will choose to live further out of the centre, with bigger gardens and kitchens, to facilitate this new lifestyle. We believe that the true transformation of the city itself will happen in 2040’s, when we will start converting existing urban infrastructure in order to make London a green, self-sufficient food hub. Examples of this may include converting roundabouts, parks and entire roads into food-growing spaces and transforming cultural and commercial spaces into seed banks, co-working kitchens and fermentation/pickling/processing centres.
(*According to the UK government, 100,000 Londoners are now involved in food growing through the Capital Growth, and Food Growing Schools London initiatives alone. Many thousands more have allotments or grow food in their gardens)
From our research, we have identified that there are three key components to drive change in this sector: guidelines, platforms and tools. The term Guideline refers to a set of recommendations on how and why companies and individuals should eat more healthy and planet-friendly foods. A Platform is a database of quantified information identifying what to grow and eat, and a Tool referrers to a physical and/or digital service which allows individuals to start acting. Our intention is to create all three components that will support this vision but to focus more on the Platform and Tools for achieving this, as most available resources are offering Guidelines.
A key tool for achieving this will be the use of digital technology and harnessing the power of a connected sharing economy to redesign our food system. If you look at other industries, companies such as Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are proving that thanks to digital networks, systems don’t need to be centralised and crowdsourcing has the power to connect people directly and enable them to share knowledge, products and services.
A city like London can never become completely self-sufficient in fulfilling its population’s nutritional needs. A circular and zero-carbon food system can only be achieved by a combination of boosting urban food production and building a deeply symbiotic relationship between urban and peri-urban communities. To get there we can start by educating, empowering and connecting London’s citizens to grow more diverse food in their allotments, gardens, balconies, window sills and other underutilised spaces. We then need to inspire them to cook and eat a more biodiverse plant-based diet, that can significantly influence London’s environment and health profile.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?