Modular Farms. Image: Chris Jack

With autonomous vehicles promising to reshape buildings and even entire cities, and climate change beginning to bite, the opportunities for urban farming solutions are growing.

Five kilograms of mushrooms, 100 heads of lettuce and 25 trays of micro-greens. These are the spoils so far from Mirvac’s urban farm pilot set up in the basement of its 200 George Street HQ in Sydney.

The pilot program, Cultivate, has been operating for about six weeks, and has seen 200 staff sign up to get involved in fresh food production.

The farm includes veggie patches and hydroponic vertical farms, as well as mushrooms grown in coffee grounds diverted from landfill. Special grow lamps are used to stimulate plant growth in the basement environment.

The pilot could be a sign of the future for commercial office basements, as technology such as autonomous vehicles promises to make traditional car parks all but redundant.

cultivate Sydney
Mirvac’s cultivate pilot

Real estate services firm JLL last year predicted that adaptive reuse of basement car parking could see urban farms sprout up all over cities.

“An urban farm could be created in a building’s redundant car park and the produce used to service local kitchens and cafes within that proximity,” JLL head of property and asset management – Australia Richard Fennell said.

“Urban farming is yet to be embraced by mainstream property companies, no doubt due to the traditional concepts of value and property best use, but we believe this could change.”

The report said developers needed to be designing new buildings with adaptive reuse in mind.

Mirvac’s Cultivate pilot

Mirvac group general manager of innovation Teresa Giuffrida said the company was thinking seriously about future transport’s effects on the built environment.

“We are starting to make step changes towards a time when we need to think differently about using assets like car parks,” she said.

“We will be looking at the long-term advantages of this, while assessing the health and wellbeing benefits of nurturing urban farming skills within the busy office environment,” she said.

Mirvac head of office and industrial Campbell Hanan said the trial was already seeing changes in staff behaviour, with some even conducting meetings in the basement.

“People are telling us that it gives them a peaceful break in the middle of the working day, as well as a way of learning more about growing food.”

New technology opening the door to wider take-up

The technology has been provided by start-up Farmwall. Its chief executive Geert Hendrix said having urban farms eliminated transport and packing waste while reconnecting people to the process of growing.

“We have started supplying some produce to nearby cafés, including Avenue On George cafe, and it can basically get from farm to plate in about seven minutes.”

Co-founder Serena Lee said at the end of the experiment there would be data generated on interest, effects on mental health and wellbeing, and whether it could be a replicable business model.

Farmwall has also set up its vertical farming systems in Melbourne restaurants and cafes, allowing chefs to grow and harvest their own greens. It uses an aquaponics system where water used for the plants is fed through a fish tank, and the filtered fish waste recycled back to feeding the plants.

modular farms, Sydney
Modular Farms Australia director James Pateras

Another business launched this year is Modular Farms Australia, which uses converted shipping containers for its modular farming systems, which it says can be deployed in any environment regardless of climate. Energy and water supply are the only necessities.

The Brisbane-headquartered company says its technology can see a 5-10 time higher output than traditional farming, an 80 per cent increase in yield compared with standard shipping container farming, and can grow 50,000 heads of lettuce a year with as little as 40 litres of water a day.

The systems could have particular applications in “remote and island communities, grocery stores, food services, agribusinesses and educational facilities wanting access to sustainable healthy produce”, the company says.

“The main goal is to reduce food waste, increase food security and eliminate supply chain logistics to cut food miles.”

A Modular Farms module. Image: Modular Farms Australia

Modular Farms Australia director James Pateras said being brought up on a farm and witnessing the impact of drought was key to creating the product.

“As a third generation farmer, I felt that doing what we have done for the past 100 years will not suffice for the next 100 years,” he said.

As climate change impacts become more pronounced, such solutions could become more widespread as cities move to increase resilience and self-sufficiency.

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