Unlocking the potential of existing underground spaces are an exciting reaction to numerous issues affecting the city today. Just such a project is developing under the streets of Clapham, courtesy of Zero Carbon Food and their first project Growing Underground.
Growing Underground are in the process of setting up a 1 hectare urban farm in a disused air raid shelter 12 stories underground in South London The farm will grow micro greens and herbs to supply London restaurants and markets. Having had a successful campaign for crowd funding earlier this year, the founders recently gave guided tours prior to its transformation into a highly controlled farm, and we were lucky enough to join them for a look at the first stages of the project.
From the unassuming entrance on Clapham Road we were led down 12 stories of spiral stair into the dark tunnels. With the aid of a few torches and mobile phones we were shown through the spaces, where you can still see the outlines of wartime bunk beds on the floor, whilst two of the co-founders gave us an overview of the future set up of the farm. It is to be a cutting edge installation of hydroponic plant production on an industrial scale, with a lift to the surface being the top priority.
From the tunnels we moved into the vivid light of the test area filled with plastic beds of herbs (of which we had a few tastes), pumping and ventilation systems. As we nibbled away we were given an overview of the ecological benefits of the growing underground system:
- The products will have the lowest of food miles, being both grown and sold in London
- Complete environment control allows for developing the optimum growing conditions to increase yields (and flavour)
- The low energy LED allow for 24 hour activity, 365 days a year (with green electricity supplied by Good Energy)
- Only the minimum amount of water is used to produce the crops, reducing the environmental impact
Thanks to these benefits, and no doubt the esoteric location, Growing Underground has garnered a lot of interest and Zero Carbon Food are in discussions to expand to other sites around London. The end of the tour was a strenuous walk back to the surface, which gave us sympathy for those who are currently doing this multiple times a day to get this project up and running.
It is fascinating to see an idea from many an architecture student project of recent times being made tangible, along with the opening of a new chapter in the continuing narrative of food’s influence over the urban landscape (eloquently charted in the excellent book Hungry City by Carolyn Steel)
Zero Carbon Food are a part of the burgeoning urban food production and distribution network in London that includes FARM and Cultivate London, amongst many others. Let’s hope that planning authorities will encourage this type of urban activity to help Londoners reconnect with their food and to bring new life to forgotten spaces.