The farm that grows under London, in the tunnels used during the war

THIRTY meters below the surface of London there is not only the subway network, but also an incredible urban farm. Worthy of the most futuristic futuristic scenarios, the project will allow the recovery of a mesh of underground tunnels of 10,000 square meters, used during the Second World War, to allocate them to the direct cultivation of vegetables. The proponents of “Growing Undergrounded” are two young London entrepreneurs, Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, determined to revive a vast, abandoned portion of the English capital.

Although it may seem an absurd undertaking, the two designers have demonstrated in the last two years the complete feasibility of the project, culminating in the underground tunnels sprouts of peas, rocket, mustard, radish, salad, pak choi and broccoli in miniature, a Once fully operational, they may even be able to meet the needs of restaurants and supermarkets in the area.

Thanks to the depth, the tunnels have a stable temperature of around 16 ° C throughout the year, allowing the underground urban farm to never interrupt production even in the middle of winter. The secret of the project, nicknamed “Zero Carbon Food”, is the use of special LED lights associated with hydroponic cultivation, two strategies that allow the growth of plants even in the absence of direct sunlight. To dispel any doubts, Ballard and Dring have tested the products grown by the famous chef Michel Roux Jr. who, after an initial and understandable skepticism, gave full support to the project by demonstrating “on the plate” the quality of the cultivated vegetables.

Growing Underground, which has already seen the partial construction of a small part of the underground urban farm for experimentation, currently located under the Northern Line, near the Clapham North underground, and once fully operational will significantly reduce CO2 emissions currently being spent for the transport of goods, ensuring a healthy and constant cultivation throughout the year. The impact of the underground urban farm will be further reduced by using only renewable energy for the operation of the structure and by exploiting the water from the water table below, duly filtered, for irrigation.

To raise the amount necessary for the development of the project, about 300,000 pounds, the two proponents of the project have entrusted the crowdfunding, thanks to which they will have about 50 days to reach the economic figure agreed for the realization of “Growing Underground”. 

Christian Puglisi’s Farm of Ideas

To reach the Farm of Ideas , created by Christian Puglisi in February 2016, you have to leave Copenhagen – where the chef of Sicilian origins, after leaving Noma , of which he was the sous chef, opened four rooms: Relæ , Manfreds & Vin , Mirabelle and Bæst – and drive west for about 45 minutes, arriving in an unexpectedly hilly area, in an otherwise essentially flat country.

At a certain point, the problem proves to be simply one: understanding when we have reached our destination. We were following the directions of the Italian-Danish chef, so we knew we could not be wrong. But once we got to the right place, as we would have discovered a few minutes later, it was just hard to notice.

Looking around, in fact, you could not see structures or buildings that could host a “farm of ideas”, at least as we had imagined. But after a phone call, and a couple of further indications, we realize that the Farm does not provide buildings, stables or masonry: mainly, it is a large field, partly cultivated as a vegetable garden, partly dedicated to grazing cows. Add a large canopy, a pair of tunnel greenhouses, and across the street a barn and a house.

The chef of the Relæ comes to meet us smiling and, after the first greetings, confirms his choice: “Our intention, from the beginning, was to build as little as possible. Perhaps this year we will be forced by the regulations to build a stable from scratch to keep the cows there during the winter, until now we had managed to avoid it “.
But how does the idea … of the Farm of Ideas come about?
After opening the fourth restaurant in Copenhagen, we started to question ourselves on how to be more self-sufficient on raw materials, especially vegetable ones. A few years ago we had thought of an urban vegetable garden, directly in the city, but then we set aside that project for bureaucratic problems. This time we set out to find a piece of land that was right for us, even if it was not easy.

Why?

Here in Denmark most of the land is managed by large properties, which have “eaten” all the young. Until we arrived in the municipality of Lejre: a very interesting place because it was proposed to become the first biological community of the nation. The Mayor of Lejre was enthusiastic about the idea that we would settle down in its parts, so it made us turn a lot, allowing us to meet both the person who gave us the land, both Lasse and Sara, a couple who was working on a project similar to ours, with which we began to work together to co-manage the 30 hectares we have acquired. This is how our project started and in particular we realized that we would have to review some aspects of what we had in mind.

How? What did you change?

At the beginning our idea was to open a restaurant here too, counting on the vegetable garden and the animals we breed for raw materials: but then we realized that to renovate the barn where we would have to host the restaurant would have served 5 million euros or so. It was not our intention to borrow heavily at all. So we set aside this part of the project and focused on the idea of ​​working to produce as much as possible to supply the restaurants we already had. Today during the summer we can cover between 70 and 80% of our needs, clearly, during the winter, this percentage drops drastically, we reach 20%.

How did you set the crops?

We follow an absolutely biological approach, even if we do not yet have the certification for all our products, because of the crops that were here before us, but will arrive with time. Then I must confess that this experience has made me change considerably point of view: first, for example, I saw a cucumber and I thought “here is a cucumber”. Today, however, I realized that a cucumber is much more, is a complex concept, with many variations and varieties. For a chef, and therefore also for all the people who work here, these ideas are moments of growth.