Sustainability requires a concerted effort from all cities around the world. As part of our efforts to rethink cities, we investigated entrepreneurs and businesses that are creating original ways to source, deliver and consume food. From Zurich’s Urban Farmers, who locate vacant rooftops for farming; across to Toronto’s The Plant, which is transforming how we live and interact with the environment; and we talk to New York’s City Harvest which pioneered food rescue in a bid to reduce waste and help the hungry. These re-thinkers are pushing back the boundaries to make our cities greener and entirely self-sufficient.


    About 70 per cent of textiles used by outdoor and sportswear manufacturers worldwide is made in Taiwan. Taiwan’s 24 million island inhabitants get through 2.85 billion cups of coffee a year – 780,000 a day – which leaves behind tonnes of coffee ground. Textile industrialist Jason Chen, who founded fabric manufacturing firm Singtex in 1989, decided to make good use of this combination. In 2005, when Chen was having a coffee break after a hike, his wife called him a “stinky man” and suggested that he make use of the coffee grounds, known for their deodorising properties. This inspired Chen to turn coffee ground into fabric that’s sustainable and deodorising. “For making a cup of coffee, 99.8 per cent of coffee becomes ground,” says Chen, who collects more than 600kg of leftover coffee grounds from coffee chains and convenience shops a day to produce high-quality sportswear fabrics.

    Chen invested more than €1.8m into his innovation until S Café was established in 2009 – and it became an instant success. S Café’s first client was Timberland in the UK, which applied the new material to its shoes, jackets and polo shirts as it’s UV resistant and three times better at absorbing odour than its cotton counterparts. Now more than 110 brands buy S Café, the fabric that makes up 35 per cent of Chen’s businesses. Singtex works with local fabric mills and its own dyeing factory, which cut 50 per cent of carbon emissions from production. Chen has also extended his environmental values to his team: they now help farmers with their harvests and take part in conserving one of Taiwan’s largest wetlands.


    “When you consider that two thirds of humans will soon be city dwellers, having to choose between an urban residence and the ability to grow your herbs and vegetables no longer makes sense,” says property developer Alex Spiegel. That’s why his company Windmill Development worked with Curated Properties to create The Plant.

    This apartment block in the busy, restaurant filled area of Queen West – scheduled for completion in 2020 – will go above and beyond providing its residents with a conventional rooftop garden: it will build edible gardens in and around every one of its apartments. Toronto-based studios Kohn Shnier and SMV Architects have designed large balconies and terraces for each flat, as well as planter boxes and a leafy façade that welcomes butterflies and birds.

    A communal greenhouse will help buds get through tough weather and an onsite cistern will be on hand for irrigation. Residents will also be able to cook and enjoy all the fruits of the harvest in the condo’s communal kitchen. “Food is a great socialiser,” says Spiegel. “We look forward to seeing how the community develops and grows alongside the plants in the years to come.” With street-level shopfronts to be rented out to independent retailers and ample office space on the second floor to be reserved for creative businesses, The Plant will extend its branches to the neighbourhood around it too.


    Walking past the elaborate window decorations in Paris’ Galeries Lafayette you’d be forgiven for missing the secret garden on its roof – the first rooftop farm in the city’s centre. The plants here grow on a cloth made of lambswool and hemp that’s hung vertically on walls. “This set-up saves transporting rich yet heavy soil to the city and rooftops from rural areas,” says Yohan Hubert, founder of Sous les Fraises, which patented this ingenious material that mimics the nutritious microsystem plants need to grow. Hubert calls it a “membrane vertical hydrobiologique” system. That’s one to get your head around.

    The vertical set-up gives Hubert’s clients and partners more freedom in designing their rooftops. “It could be a garden, a café or a small park that supplies edible plants,” says Hubert, who launched this vertical system 15 years ago in Grenoble as a hobby to bring more leafy greens to the city. Despite having no experience in research or agricultural corporation, he co-founded the firm with an architect just over two years ago. “No one dared to try out the prototype in Paris as they had not seen anything like this before,” he says. “But now the farm above Galeries Lafayette is a good example to show people how it works. ”Sous Les Fraises has since equipped a number of urban farms, including Le Jardin Perché, which has grown more than 22,000 plants for its opening on top of the department store BHV Marais. And chef Claude Colliot is already looking forward to harvesting its ingredients for his neighbouring restaurant.


    New York’s City Harvest is a non-profit organisation that pioneered food rescue in 1982.

    What led to the foundation of City Harvest?
    Helen verDuin Palit, City Harvest’s first executive director, had been working at a soup kitchen and saw how difficult it was to feed all the people who came in for lunch. While eating at a nearby restaurant she asked the chef what he did with the leftovers. When he told her they were discarded, Helen said that the soup kitchen could really use the food. The next day the chef donated 100kg of cooked potatoes: the smart and simple idea of food rescue was born. Over the next 34 years, City Harvest grew to include 22 trucks, 160 staff and thousands of volunteers.

    What inspired you to join City Harvest six years ago?
    My family owned a small deli so I have never experienced hunger. It is unfathomable to me that hunger exists in a state and country with an overabundance of food.

    Why is it so important to promote this concept in cities around the world?
    A: Hunger is a significant issue in New York and across the country, and food rescue can help combat it. Each year America wastes more than 60 billion kilograms of food, up to 40 per cent of what is produced – enough to fill the Empire State Building 182 times. It seems probable that many thriving cities around the world have a similar situation. It would be helpful to those people and the environment if other countries followed this idea.

    How many companies have you partnered with?
    We have a database of more than 2,500 food donors, including Pret A Manger and Starbucks. As a  member of Feeding America, City Harvest has access to sources of excess food throughout the country.

    What is your goal for 2017?
    We want to source more than 26 million kilograms of food – 14 million kilograms of which will be fresh produce – and distribute it free of charge to 500 soup kitchens, food pantries and other community food programmes across New York’s five boroughs. Our goal is to increase the amount of food we Rescue to 36 million kilograms a year by 2022.


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