Last week I posted about London’s Urban Acupuncture, and promised that I’d have more to share soon on the topic of human-scale, ground-up urban intervention. Today I’m pleased to profile FARM:shop — a functioning vertical farm and blossoming community hub in the London borough of Hackney.
I had the good fortune to stumble upon FARM:shop a few weeks ago during one of my urban wanders through Dalston. Although its relatively low profile blends into the surrounding streetscape, the cheerful green facade and bold lettering caught my eye:
Venturing inside, I was delighted to find a veritable hotbed of urban-agro innovation, pulled together and presented with a designer’s artistic eye.
FARM:shop is only a recent addition to the London streetscape, having opened its doors for the first time in March. The effort is driven by a trio of creative entrepreneurs known as something & son, who procured the municipally-owned vacant storefront last year as part of a government initiative to foster art in empty spaces.
According to the group’s website, FARM:shop is the first physical manifestation of a program called FARM:, which is attempting to encourage urban agriculture as both an empowering, healthy activity and a profitable commercial enterprise. Something & son have made it their mission to grow food on every surface available inside the FARM:shop, and in a few short months — with a groundswell of volunteer labor from the community — they have made impressive strides.
A tour of the shop
In the front room, aquaponics. This man-made food production system makes use of a symbiotic relationship found in nature to create an efficient closed loop. Tilapia in tanks eat a daily diet of organic fish food, which they convert to high-nitrogen fertilizer in the form of their waste. A network of sturdy gray pipes transports water from the fish tanks through trays of hydroponically grown edible leafy greens (roots float freely in tubs of water; no soil necessary). The plants absorb nutrients and filter the waste, cleaning the water which is then returned to the fish tanks. As daytime manager Kristen Cheng points out, the self-cleaning, self-nourishing system not only saves staff and volunteers many unhappy hours of scrubbing fish tanks; it also makes use of the same gallons of water over and over again, eliminating the problem of waste that must be dumped elsewhere.
FARM:shop’s organizers use the salad greens in the cafe and bag them for individual sale. They also plan to sell the tilapia for food once they have grown to market size.
In the center of the aquaponics room, a conference table provides a unique place to meet or work. The bright lighting, cascade of greenery, gentle sounds of trickling water and fresh scent of new growth contribute to an atmosphere that’s at once soothing and upbeat.
Down the hallway, scattered shelves make space for an assortment of glass jars with something brewing inside. An index card said something about kefir.
Upstairs, the boardroom, where the walls are lined with yet another crop, grown without soil using aeroponics. The room, complete with a conference table made from recycled materials, is available for hire to companies and small groups for meetings and workshops of up to 16 people.
Daylight streams into the boardroom from windows looking out over the roof … which is where the FARM:shop chickens live. Their unbeatably fresh, organic, hand-gathered eggs are sold in packs of four in the shop.
Across the hall is an incubation room, where plants that require more heat, like tomatoes, get the micro-climates they need through special lighting and container design.
The FARM:shop cafe is the heart of the building, and typically the space where visitors, volunteers and staff congregate. The menu is small and simple, highlighted by sandwiches, salads and baked goods that feature fresh ingredients grown on the premises, or sourced via FARM’s partnership with the social and environmental welfare-focused Church Farm, Ardeley. Other cafe supplies and goods for sale are also sourced locally, including organic breads delivered on bikes from Hackney-based e5 Bakhouse, and Climpson & Son’s Coffee, roasted just blocks away in the Broadway Market (a side note: FARM brews one of the strongest Americanos I’ve found yet in London … a talent that is so very appreciated by this coffee-snobbish Seattleite).
Cafe seating spills out onto the back patio, and even into the polytunnel (which is like a tube-shaped greenhouse). On the last Saturday of each month, FARM:shop converts the cafe to a bar and hosts a party in the polytunnel, featuring live music, DJs and dancing.
The maintenance of social spaces integrated throughout the growing spaces is what makes FARM:shop truly an urban experience. The shop’s mission is not just to serve as a food source, but also to nourish the community in other, less tangible ways through the maintenance of a hub for ideas, collaboration and creative synergies. On the uppermost floor, individual entrepreneurs and hot-deskers rent coworking space.
Permanent desks are leased on monthly and multi-month contracts, while more casual users can sign up for a membership that allows them to set up in unoccupied spaces around the building, and enjoy perks like bottomless coffee, tea and elderflower cordial from the cafe. (FARM is currently seeking a tenant to fill the second top-floor workspace as private office – here’s their contact info if you want more details.)
So far, the social outreach seems to be growing despite the limited capabilities of a tiny and overtaxed staff … thanks mostly to FARM:shop’s truly unique offerings, the word-of-mouth has been spreading like wildfire. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently paid a visit, and just in the afternoon since I’ve been sitting here, I’ve watched an endless stream of people come in search of information: an architecture graduate student stopped in to do research for her dissertation; a community member came in to bounce ideas about alternative energy generation, and a magazine editor stopped by to suggest the space as a backdrop for an upcoming photo shoot featuring British supermodel Lily Cole in a tribute to “the future of sustainability.”
As the Brits say, watch this space. It’s small now, but more is almost sure to come.