If you attended the Science in the City festival recently, you may have noticed a series of glass boxes in St Ann’s Square. These hadn’t been left there by chance, they were part of ‘Allotments of the Future’, a project designed by URBED (Urbanism, Environment and Design) with the help of several other Manchester-based organisations whose intention is exploring urban sustainability.

If you’re like me, your allotment knowledge extends about to seeing Margaret in accounts bring her excess rhubarb to work once a month and a grandparent who uses it solely to escape their spouse. But as our inner-city populations swell – by 2050 it’s estimated over 60% will be living in metropolitan areas – and more stresses are placed on our traditional food sources, ensuring our cities and towns are able to sustainably produce the nutrients we need won’t just become important, it will become completely necessary, and the humble allotment could play a central role.

I spoke to Helen Grimshaw, Senior Sustainability Consultant at URBED, about the project and the challenges of sustainable food production in the 21st Century.

How did URBED get involved in this project?

Sustainability is the thread that weaves through all of our work at URBED, so when we were asked to help design and coordinate the Allotment of the Future, it felt like a natural fit. Beyond the salad crops we grow in our office, we’ve a strong professional interest in the promotion of sustainable and healthy food systems. We worked on the Alpha Farm project commissioned by Manchester International Festival in 2011, exploring how far we could minimise the energy required for innovative indoor growing systems to work. These ideas, including aquaculture (fish), vermiculture (worms) and fungiculture (mushrooms), were put into practice in the Wythenshawe Biosphere (delivered by Biomatrix Water) at Manchester College.

What was the design and how did it evolve?

We developed the design around a one-metre grid populated with modules and planters. Offering flexibility and ease of assembly, this scale worked well with the space available in St Ann’s Square, allowing a flow of people and space for activities. We were keen that visitors could imagine this modular concept in their own homes. We explored typical balcony and terrace sizes and devised a concept to provide horizontal and vertical growing in small urban spaces.

For the planters and modules (finessed and built by Aaron and Simon at Salford-based M3 Industries), we adopted a simple material pallet that references commercial growing systems. This seeks to differentiate the space from the typical rustic aesthetic of most allotments, but is still mindful of sustainability and could be achieved on a DIY basis. We explored human dimensions and considered how to create different sensory experiences by displaying crops at different levels. The planters are made from ply and can be variously arranged – either directly on the floor (whether for toddlers to explore or with a lid for comfortable seating), hung within metal frames to provide raised beds, or placed at the base with the taller metal frames providing the infrastructure for climbing plants. The galvanised steel of the key clamp frames provides a very low maintenance finish, and for the exhibition provided a readymade structure to display information. Mindful of creating a legacy after the weeklong installation, the modular design meant elements could be easily divided and transported to new homes. If you visit Manchester Museum, you might spot some of the planters in the entrance allotment area, and Real Food Wythenshawe have since painted and reused theirs.

Who else was involved in the project?

The plant science team at University of Manchester, led by Professor Amanda Bamford, showcased alternative crops, with a particular focus on how we might grow protein domestically. From sorghum, a grain with similar protein content to wheat that can cope with drought and high temperatures, to algae, rarely considered in our urban diets but a sector with rapid growth (estimated at 10% each year) and protein content of some species as high as 35%. These are pressing issues. Based on current trends, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimate that global meat consumption will reach 460 million tonnes in 2050, a 65% increase on 2009 (Rowe, 2016). This places huge pressures on greenhouse gas emissions and land use. By reducing our intake of meat and dairy, emissions could be reduced by as much as 34% (Blake, 2014).

Squirrel Nation brought their award-winning popup farming experiment, Farmlab, getting people thinking about mushrooms as a healthy and high protein alternative to meat. Fungi are incredibly effective at recycling nutrients – the used coffee grounds from the adjacent coffee cart (thanks Grindsmith) were used as a growing medium for fungi spores. People were invited into the lab to make their own mushroom bag, and could see and taste the mushrooms fruiting on site.

Community organisation Real Food Wythenshawe showcased crops both familiar (leeks, carrots, peas and tomatoes) and more unusual (corn, tom-tatoes, cucamelons and lentils), showing the possibilities of growing food in small urban spaces. This theme carried through to Sow the City’s hydroponics installation, demonstrating that technology can facilitate higher yields from small spaces. Here the plant roots were grown in an inert material with a nutrient-rich solution running through it, with the pump powered by a solar panel. The hydroponics installation is now enjoying a second life on the Printworks’ rooftop garden.

For Insects au gratin, designer Susana Soares explored the benefits of insects as a food source, and at workshops visitors were encouraged to try crickets through the art of 3D printing. Insects are already eaten by around 30% of the global population and are seen as an excellent source of protein, calcium and iron. But consumption in Europe is very low. According to the Food Standards Agency, there are just 13 UK-based companies selling insect products (Duggleby, 2016). This is partly due to food safety regulations that restrict the import of insects into Europe, although undoubtedly the psychological hurdle amongst consumers also needs to be tackled.

Through cooking demonstrations, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Real Junk Food Manchester explored our shopping basket of 2050, with staples like potatoes, corn, bread and dairy (as well as cocoa, wine and beer production) all potentially suffering from fluctuations in precipitation and temperature.

Working with scientists from the universities of Manchester and Salford, the allotment also communicated the importance of soil to food security, key threats being the depletion of nutrients and loss to erosion. Soil is vital to mitigate climate change, with soil and peat lands’ huge carbon sinks. Two large soil profiles explored the different layers and properties of soil in different environments, the chernozem profile being particularly fertile and capable of supporting both crops and livestock. The domestic and urban grower can improve soil quality by using plants such as lupins and peas to add and fix nitrogen.

How is Manchester doing in terms of urban growing?

Lots of visitors commented how nice it was to see some city centre greenery. Despite having some great infrastructure in its canals, the centre of Manchester is somewhat lacking in green infrastructure, which feels like a missed opportunity considering the scale of regeneration efforts since the mid-1990s. Within an hour of the plants arriving, bees found us, showing it doesn’t take much to inject nature and wildlife into urban locations.

For us, the key success of the Allotment of the Future was showing that urban food production can be done at a variety of scales, and that it can create fun, friendly and educational city spaces for both people and wildlife.

As built environment professionals, we seek opportunities to design spaces that work more intensively and incorporate food growing, while encouraging our clients to understand the importance of food in creating resilient communities. We also embrace opportunities for exciting collaborations with other creatives, experts and community organisations. We hope that we’ve successfully designed a platform showcasing the innovative, unusual and familiar elements, from algae through to peas. But more importantly, we hope it provides a canvas for the conversations we all need to be having about how we feed ourselves in the future.

urbed.coop/projects/allotment-future

David Ewing