Deep under the surface of London a series of abandoned tunnels could lead the way in revolutionising how food is grown in our cities. Here, herbs and micro-herbs grow without the need for soil or natural light – and there’s potential to grow vast amounts of produce.
London’s first underground farm, which is still in construction, also benefits from the absence of pests, fast growing times and the ability to transport produce across the city within hours, rather than days.
It has been created by two men, Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, who are, rather ironically, from Bristol, which has rather a lot more greenery that the area surrounding their farm – but certainly can’t offer the sound of the Northern Line rumbling past meters above your head as you water your crops.
“There is a lot of space under a lot of cities“
The pair, which does business as Growing Underground, got the idea from reading about Dickson Despommier, who envisions a world where vertical farming takes over cities in a bid to help tackle problems such as growing city populations and a lack of space.
“We realised that you could grow without natural light and that kind of transferred through to us. Building it in an office block is really expensive – so could we build a farm in a tunnel?,” says Dring. “There is a lot of space under a lot of cities. You look at the catacombs under Rome, lots of empty Metro sites under Paris, you’ve got the same under New York. So yes, it can expand, yes, there’s opportunity to do it.”
Proving the underground farm concept
In some parts of the world where the climate doesn’t allow for crops to be grown in the traditional way, underground spaces could offer more suitable conditions.
“Certainly in places like Kuwait and the UAE they’re looking at taking farming into tunnels because they have tried it in polytunnels and it is too hot. It is really difficult for them to grow in that environment,” says Dring. “So they are just looking at burying the polytunnels just so they have got a controlled environment, as we’ve got here. If we prove the concept I can see people taking the idea and running with it elsewhere and we may well expand into other countries.”
“Japan, the Netherlands and the US also host underground farm projects“
It’s quite clear that others share his vision. Under a tower block in Japan there’s an underground farm. PlantLab in the Netherlands is experimenting with underground farming and in the US, The Plant is testing underground and urban farming in an old meat factory.
At present the pair’s farming tunnels are leased from Transport for London for free, as it was necessary to prove the concept before they are properly used. In coming years rent for the tunnels will be charged by the the government body.
Tunnels gone by
The tunnels, which are currently being looked after by Dring, Ballard, their farm manager Gabriel DeFranco and an intern, lie 178 steps and 100ft below the surface. To make matters more complicated there’s no lift going up or down at the moment.
In the past they were used as air raid shelters during World War II. The Clapham North tunnels in south London, which have been converted into the farm, are part of a series of deep level shelters that were finished in 1942 – after the peak of the Blitz. Eight shelters were built overall; other planned ones – including a shelter at St Paul’s Cathedral, were scrapped due to fears they may be targeted and damaged by bombs.
Author Nick Cooper, in his book London Underground at War, says that there were plans to use the tunnels as an express underground line after the war, but their diameter was not enough to accommodate trains.
“The tunnels were used as air raid shelters during World War 2“
The farm’s tunnels were previously used as a hostel for male National Fire Service personnel in 1943 and then as public air raid shelters from July to October 1944. After the war they sat largely unused until 2006, when they were put back on the market. Other tunnels were used as accommodation for a festival and during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
One set of the tunnels, just down the road from the farm at Clapham South, inadvertently helped to give birth to a cultural section of London.
Almost 500 immigrant workers from Jamaica were housed in the tunnels in 1948 after they had arrived on the MV Empire Windrush.
According to Transport for London tunnel expert Philip Aish the nearest labour exchange was in Brixton which goes to “explaining why Brixton became such a centre of the West Indian Community,” he told the Independent.
Now it is hoped the Clapham North tunnels can revive their former glory and help to contribute to London life once more.
The growing process works using LED lights and an 18-hour light cycle. At present the farmers are trying to work out the best type of light, testing three types with different spectrums of light.
The type and colour of the light will also depend on the plant that is being grown, DeFranco explains. Red plants, for instance, grow best under blue lights.
The herbs and micro-herbs are grown using hydroponic techniques. This means no soil is needed as the plants are provided with nutrients four times a day when they are flooded with enhanced water.
It allows the farm to grow produce quickly in an environment that is unlike any other, which poses challenges that traditional farmers would not face.
“At the moment we’re trying to do organic best practice, as I like to call it,” DeFranco says. “We can’t get organically certified down here because the soil association states that we have to be on ground surface to be organically certified. But we use all the best practices that organic farming would use.”
Their micro-herbs, he says, have an incredibly fast growing and turnaround time, the shortest period being seven days and the longest 21 days. Coriander, for example, can be grown at 4kg per square metre and the farm will have 10,000 square metres of growing space. This illustrates the potential of this type of farming if it is taken to a scale where plants can be mass produced.
Going into production
The next step for the team at Growing Underground will see them kitting out the first stages of the tunnels and moving in to a production cycle. Dring says enough funding has come from “crowd funding and private investors” to allow them to fully expand into the first part of the tunnel and start creating revenue. The challenges now involve moving products up and down the stairs until a new lift can be fitted.
“By the time we have finished the build here this will all be lined completely. It will all be white, painted floor, it will look more like a lab than a farm,” Dring says.
Although it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to make the tunnels a safe place for growing large amounts of plants, in doing so the farmers will also grow the trust of their eventual end consumers.
The customer will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether farms underground and indoors, that do not use traditional methods, become a success or not.
If the sales are right, this innovative approach could take off and also bring the benefits of underground farming to other cities. Having gotten a taste of the team’s underground herbs, we’ll have to say they rival anything you can buy in established shops.
Image two via Subterranea Brittania