What do you do with a bomb shelter when you’re no longer getting Blitzed by the Nazis? For decades, Londoners have searched for ways to make use of old bomb shelters lurking deep underground. They’ve become data centres, dusty storage rooms, and, now, the first underground urban farm — thanks to a couple of foodie entrepreneurs and a Michelin-star chef.
The cavernous bunkers near Clapham North Underground station once housed up to 8000 Londoners during the Blitz. When Richard Ballard and Steven Dring of Zero Carbon Food first leased the underground space, they had to rip out hundreds of bunk beds unused since the Second World War.
Then they got to work, setting up a hydroponic garden of peashoots, arugula, radish, and more — all softly illuminated with purplish-pink LED light.
Pea shoot propagation. Zero Carbon Food
Zero Carbon Food’s underground farm, as their name might suggest, is supposed to be carbon neutral. The energy used by LED lights is meant to be offset by savings from growing hydroponically underground, where the temperature stays the same all year round. (Greenhouses get natural light but need to be heated.) Better yet, the produce won’t have to travel far to get to the high-end restaurants that the farm has been targeting, marketing vegetables on the slightly more exotic end, like pea shoots, red lion mustard, radish, tatsoi, bok choy, miniature broccoli, and some more straight-forward fare like rocket.
They have at least one chef fan already. “When I first met these guys I thought they were absolutely crazy, but when I visited the tunnels and sampled the delicious produce they are already growing down there I was blown away. The market for this produce is huge,” two Michelin-star chef Michel Roux of Le Gavroche, who has recently signed on as a director of Zero Carbon Food, said to The Independent.
Arugula from Zero Carbon Food
While urban farming clamours for space in crowded cities, the subterranean cityscape is full of abandoned tunnels, old subway lines, and ancient aqueducts. Mushroom farmers, whose produce need no light, have already set up occasional shop underground. For example, the Li-Sun Exotic Mushroom in Australia operates out of an unused railway tunnel.
But LED lights open up subterranean farming to a whole new kingdom, biologically speaking. If plants can grow underground, too, then the possibilities of bomb shelter agriculture expands to include a larger swath of our diet. It can be quite startling to think about how much the Blitz reshaped London’s infrastructure — and even New York’s (believe it or not). Here, the long legacy of the Blitz could continue to shape how Londoners eat, three-quarters of a century later. [The Independent]
Top image: Zero Carbon Food