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Magazine - Climate Justice

Urban Farming: the modern version of Rus In Urbe

by Nana Smith

Growing food in the city aims to tackle the climate crisis, and it’s a practice on the rise. Are there similarities to the concept which Romans called Rus in Urbe? Monocle’s podcast “Farming in the City” gave me an insight into the (potential) alternative solution to feeding citizens, binding the community, and reducing food miles.

When I hear innovations such as these, aiming to improve our treatment of the environment, I really do feel a sense of hope. I’m someone who is not always pro-technology, and I appreciate some things done in a traditional way; but in this case, I’m so grateful that there are people out there with brilliant minds, able to create technology for the crises which we face.

Though urban farming might seem like a new concept, I couldn’t help but be reminded of rus in urbe, a practice that in Ancient Rome raised the idea of self-sufficiency, the turn to nature, and ultimately, a path to a more fulfilled, happy life. I think it’s best to explain this idea from that period of time, before comparing it to today’s urban farming.

Rus In Urbe: The Roman Art of Cultivating the Garden in the City

Rus in urbe in Latin literally translates as “country in the city”. It specifically focused on the cultivation of nature in the city, which could come in the form of parks and public or private gardens. It became a symbol of refuge from the bustle of the city, leaving negotium (“business”) behind to enter the realm of otium (“leisure”).

Gardening in the city was not only pleasing to one’s eye and mental health. There were deeper philosophical implications behind the practice rus in urbe. Already in that era, materialistic wealth was a problem and indeed criticised.

Livia’s fresco from her “Garden Room” at Prima Porta. Image courtesy of Museo Nazionale Romano

Vergil in his Georgics would frequently deplore the current lifestyle of Roman society: risking life and fighting battles for new wealth in distant lands, and undoubtedly fighting Nature. Instead, Vergil announces that we should work with, celebrate Her, and be content with what Italy has to offer. In Book IV, he further recounts a specific anecdote of a poor Corycian who buys a dilapidated small plot of land in the city. With what he has got, he plants herbs, flowers, and fruit, all of which result in a colourful abundance of natural produce: thus, “in spirit, he matched the wealth of kings” (4.125-48). Columella likewise celebrates the beauty of nature that can be manifested through gardens and deplores the materialistic lifestyle of his corrupted society in De Re Rustica X. Columella additionally emphasises the self-sufficiency and income-making aspect of “farming” correctly, including garden cultivation. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History criticises the gluttony and excessive luxury that divides the poor and the affluent further apart: even gardens, on the contrary, can display the decadence of Roman society when shaped in a particular way. Thus, Pliny demonstrates how gardens ought to be cultivated, in a way that results in costing little but producing enough for “pleasure and sufficiency” (19.52).

Of course, one questions how realistic their ideals, especially those of Vergil and Columella, are in the form of gardens. It is poetry, after all. Yet, these writers were hitting on similar themes of the moral and material decadence of society, and the praise for nature, which can lead to the ideal life. Although today, our alternative systems and lifestyles are in response to an issue unknown in that period, climate change (yet, read Columella’s preface: for you will see similar themes in terms of climate change and the destruction of nature caused by man), in some ways are we not similarly contemplating how our habits are ruining wildlife, the natural environment, and people’s livelihoods? Are we not also discussing and attempting ways to not only save nature but to cultivate her so that it benefits every being both physically and mentally?

Farming in the City

We still have the idea of rus in urbe in the form of parks too, let alone private gardens, to escape from the city bustle. Indeed, allotments exist throughout cities, allowing those without a garden to grow their own produce on a small plot of land. Although, rus in urbe has taken a step further. It is no longer simply a space to relax in nature, but a space to grow your own produce. This is urban farming, and Monocle’s podcast explores these various businesses from different countries.

How Upfarming grows their produce: a rotational system within greenhouses that are located in a green area between urban infrastructures. Image courtesy of Upfarming.

One startup in Lisbon is called Upfarming. Within a verdant space between urban infrastructures are polycarbonate greenhouses, inside of which tall aluminium towers rotate rows of leafy greens and other fresh produce. The aim is to reduce food miles, grow as much food within smaller spaces, and maintain the highest nutritional value in the food from “farm” to table. Compared to conventional farming, they produce ten times more yield, 50% less energy, 50% less labour, and 90% less water. Thanks to Portugal’s climate, the rotating system can rely on its frequent sunshine instead of artificial lights; and for a country like Portugal which suffers from severe droughts, their water-recycling system using the nearby reservoir is ideal and sustainable as it rotates and provides for the plants.

Upfarming is also a social initiative: it provides enough space for events and dinners for the community to come together. You can learn the pros of growing your own food, benefitting the environment and one’s own mental health. Now that the local government has raised funds for this, Upfarming is able to work on projects focusing on the more vulnerable citizens. In addition, surplus food is sent to local markets and restaurants.

There are still challenges to face, such as the financial cost of vertical farming, and so it is currently only affordable to the minority “healthy wealthy”. But, Bruno Lacey reassures that it will become less the case over time as technology will become cheaper. Now, they are concentrating on bringing these systems to institutions where they can grow the food themselves in their locations and thus be within reach of their own produce.

Brooklyn Grange in New York, on the other hand, does rooftop soil farming. An example Monocle visits are one on top of a shopping mall, which grows most of its fresh produce for specific clients, mainly restaurants in Manhattan, such as onions, herbs, and pea shoots. It provides a space for social events, education, and works on projects which provide food to those who struggle financially in the local community. And how to roof this? They prefer to put the green roof over the already existing roof membrane beneath that is relatively new and leak-free.

“For the building owner who has just re-roofed their building…it’s costly financially, but also environmentally, to re-roof a building: that’s the perfect time to put down a green roof, because the number one cause of damage to your roof membrane is UV rays”.

Anastasia Cole Plakias states that it will protect the roof membrane and make it last longer. Though it’s an expensive investment, it’s worth it in the long run for both the building and the environment: it manages the so-called stormwater, produces cleaner, cooler air and lower noise pollution, all in addition to producing ample food.

Dining on the green rooftop. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Grange.

These businesses make use of the space already existing in an efficient way: Upfarming is vertical farming, so less landmass, and it adapts to the Portuguese climate. Brooklyn Grange takes advantage of the roofs of several high-rises and buildings in compact NYC. As these businesses continue to grow, imagine the amount of food that can be produced without the distance between the rural and the city. Similar to rus in urbe, we have self-sufficiency, the education, just as the three Romans I discussed all wished to share with their readers, and the importance of connecting to the local land. Aside from the environmental benefit, the difference with the urban farming businesses is that it focuses more on the community; in the past, it was directed at individuals. We are now expanding the idea that growing produce closer to your home in the city does not have to be done by yourself in your garden or allotment, producing food for yourself alone. Understanding and adapting the attitude of the past to our current identity and our modern technological knowledge forces us to take a step back and realise how we can use the land and climate that we have to create a flourishing environment. This is all thanks to the power of nature, and indeed, human knowledge – if we choose to put our mind to it correctly.


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