Urban Farming: Bringing Nature into our Living Space

By Prof. Iain Stewart, El Hassan Research Chair for Sustainability, UNESCO Chair in Geoscience and Society, Professor of Geoscience Communication, Sustainable Earth Institute, University of Plymouth, UK


Usable land for crops is in decline. Traditional agriculture struggles to feed rising urban populations. The search is on for alternative and safer ways to grow plants while using less space.

One response to this challenge has been hydroponics, that is, growing plants without soil. It is a long-used cultivation method now gaining a new lease of life as a modern farming practice. It is especially popular in water-scarce regions such as the Middle East and North Africa.

Jordanian architect and designer Saaed Elbawab is bringing hydroponics into the city. Indoor ‘green farms’ have been created as an affordable architectural accessory for ordinary homes and apartments. They are also a low-carbon provider of essential food and nutrients. It was a seed of an idea that took root as part of the Leaders in Innovation (LIF) programme run by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). LIF is supported by Higher Council for Science and Technology’s Industrial Research and Development Fund. The initiative is part of the Newton-Khalidi Fund, which aims to strengthen and build research and innovation capabilities in Jordan by training innovators in technological entrepreneurship.

For Saeed, the London-based RAEng workshop was a revelation. Alongside giving an essential grounding in market savviness, mentors encouraged multidisciplinary cooperation in innovation. It was an emphasis that gave the young architect confidence not just to talk to scientists about technical issues but confidence to actively integrate his design experience with the sound science and smart engineering. The result is that Saeed has taken complete control of the whole system, and its associated supply chain. He is blending cross-cutting expertise of specialists in chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and material sciences.

What has emerged is not just any ‘green wall’ – now a standard urban accessory – but an integrated indoor farming system. Built on a Lego-like modular frame of sustainable building blocks it incorporates design insights from nature. As well as being fashioned by nature-based design thinking, the innovation’s functionality was rigorously tested. The first analysis of Saeed’s innovative technology was in collaboration with researchers at the Royal Scientific Society. Growth performance of the plants was monitored under different watering and indoor lighting regimes.

“Saeed’s project is a scalable solution and fits various geographic settings.  It can be installed in a small flat and produces a significant amount of essential daily food with little energy and water requirements.” Dr Almoayied Assayed, Director of the Royal Scientific Society’s Water and Environment Centre

Saeed’s immediate plans are to manufacture an affordable home farm system that can sustain a large variety of plant species, from leafy greens to ornamental houseplants. This can potentially offer different wellbeing functions, from providing high nutritional food or medicinal properties to improving air quality and storing carbon. His wider ambition is for this to enable a new approach to architectural design. It will see sustainability as something that elevates people’s fundamental quality of living in towns and cities across the globe.

Green On: The Multipurpose Building Block (Life Cells)

Project lead: Saeed Al Bawab, Founder of Green On/Jordanian architect and designer

Delivery partners: Royal Academy of Engineering, UK and Industrial Research and Development Fund, HCST, Jordan

Photo credit:  Mohammad Asfour