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PERSEPHONE’S GARDENS: THE SAVIOR OF CITIES

Updated: Jun 12

By Samista Jugwanth



Persephone, the ancient Greek Goddess of Spring (and agriculture), was equally famous for her role as Hades’s Queen of the Underworld. 


Is it possible that Greek mythology was a foretelling to what our future holds?


OUR MOST BASIC NEED

There is no questioning the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Agriculture is now, as it’s always been, the basis of civilization.”  In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the very basis of our existence relies on our access to food – far superceding our need for safety or love.  


In 2022, 2.4 billion people across our planet were classified as experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity – with 3.1 billion people not being able to afford a healthy diet.  The supply risk in our food systems, coupled with a growing demand has resulted in more than 70% of 167 countries reporting conditions where their food price inflation has exceeded their overall inflation rates.  


THE RISKS KEEP RISING

Urbanisation is a reality. By 2050, many demographers forecast that 7 out of 10 people will live in large urban centers. For now, concerns are focused on the risk of food supply to rural areas for various logistical, economic and environmental reasons.  Urban centres are considered to be more resilient as they are serviced by numerous supply chains.  


However, in the future, it is quite possible that this paradigm will shift such that cities will become more vulnerable in terms of food security as they are net food consumers – meaning that they rely solely on external markets for their food supply.  If a city’s supply chains are cut (for a number of socio-economic, political and natural disaster type events), these highly densified spaces are at risk to starvation, poor health and high tariffs.


MITIGATING THE RISK

It probably goes without saying that to improve a community’s resiliency to food shortages, it is critical that alternative sources of food are available.  In the context of meeting the food needs of a city’s population, this means being able to produce food within its immediate area.  However, this raises some questions, such as:


Where do we find agricultural space in a city where land is more valuable for residential, commercial, or industrial use?  


What if some cities don’t have a climate that is conducive to food production?


Who will be our farmers?

  

This is where the goddess Persephone comes in.


In the near future, with the rise in public transport, shared fleet services and flying drones, the number of individually owned cars going to work in the morning will drastically reduce – leaving a rabbit’s warren of many unused underground parking lots (ramps, garages) within our city centres.  These soon to be abandoned spaces can be easily converted into underground vertical farms – Persephone’s Gardens.



WHY UNDERGROUND?

Firstly, underground parking ramps occupy a significant amount of prime, central urban property that will be available in the future.   


Second, the surrounding earth is an effective insulator – protecting crops from both the heat and cold.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 90% of crop losses are related to extreme weather.  And this is not all due to the catastrophic events such as floods and droughts, but also heat waves, frost, and severe storms.  As we start to see the effects of climate change evolve, so too does the frequency and effect of these extreme weather events.  In revamped underground parking lots, the earth can cocoon these urban farms from these drastic climatic conditions.


Not only does the natural insulation protect the crops, it also allows the farmers to artificially adjust the weather in order to plant crops regardless of the season – allowing for reliability in all year food production.


How about another significant challenge to agricultural endeavours – pests.  If crops survive their growth cycle, there is a risk that more than 20% of the produce yield can be contaminated and destroyed by insects and crop diseases.  An underground, vertical farm, farmed with the assistance of robots would create a sterile environment to reduce the effects of pests in the long term.  It would also decrease our reliance on toxic and costly pesticides.


PERSEPHONE’S GARDEN

Imagine rows and rows of hydroponic shelves, containing fresh produce, stacked on top of each other in a way to maximise floor area.  Water is fed through the system, treated, and then fed through an above ground pond containing fish and their wastes in order to entrain much needed nutrients into the water.  As it is an indoor closed system, water is recycled with minimal losses.  In a world where 70% of our freshwater sources is used for agriculture, it is refreshing when an agricultural system’s water system can sustain itself.  


Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we?  


What about light? Plants need light to grow and produce.  The produce’s flavour profile and nutrition level is highly dependent on the amount, type and quality of light it is exposed to.  Renewable energy can power LED lights in the underground vertical farms to provide the correct amount of light (at the different frequencies required), to ensure optimum growth.  So much so that the yield (depending on the crop), can be twice that of a conventional system.  With great strides in renewable energy sources and LED technology, this possibility is becoming increasingly more cost-effective.


And then there are those nasty pests.  Using a series of instruments, mechanised shelves and robots, the produce can be grown in an almost sterile environment – free of insects and plant diseases that would cause a loss in food supplies.

Within these underground farms, there will also be food preserving equipment onsite.  We lose a significant amount of produce from harvest to consumption.  By pickling, preserving and canning immediately after harvest, we reduce food wastage.


IS THIS FUTURE IMPROBABLE?

Absolutely not!  


In fact, according to an article published by The Optimist Daily, a Paris-based “urban farming organization, Cycloponics, has been farming oyster, shitake, and white button mushrooms in underground parking garages across the city of Paris. They also produce chicory which likewise thrives in the underground conditions. The mushrooms are harvested and sold in partnership with nearby organic grocery stores.


Could it be a solution for the city where you live?


This is not only applicable to underground parking lots – many shopping centres and commercial buildings have unused basement spaces that can be repurposed.  This underground, vertical farming solution offers cities much needed resiliency.


A colloquial definition of innovation is to use existing methods/resources in new ways to solve our challenges.  The technology, experience and lessons for this solution exist - it is simply a matter of future circumstances (increase in demand for produce, worsening climatic conditions, more cost effective LED technology and a reduced reliance on personal cars for every day transportation to work) creating the motivation to spread underground, vertical farms across a city, thereby converting cities from being a net-food consumer to a significant supplier.


 

Samista Jugwanth is a professionally registered Engineer and Technical Director at Zutari, one of largest African based engineering and advisory consultancies. She is also an External Examiner and Industry Advisory Board Member for the Civil Engineering school at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.  Having been trained in both design-led thinking and strategic foresight methodologies, Samista has been actively merging these toolsets into traditional engineering design to ensure that solutions offered are human-centered and inclusive of environmental, social, and economic aspects.


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