JUL 01, 2015 5:55 AM PDT

From the Tunnel to the Table: Underground Farming in London

When you think of a farm, admit it, a deep dark tunnel isn’t what you imagine. Farms are in the country, with green rolling hills, waving wheat fields and sunny pastures with lazy cows moo-ing about. A red barn, maybe some hay and there you have it, a farm. Organic, of course.
What used to be a bomb shelter during World War II is now an underground farm
Most farms are at least close to that image, but with climate change, agricultural lands are getting scarce. Younger people are leaving rural areas so there’s the issue of farm labor. There’s pollution, the economy and so much else going on that the traditional farm is becoming hard to find. There is light at the end of the tunnel though. Literally, there’s a tunnel, with light and guess what it is? It’s a farm! Deep under the bustling streets of London, in an old bomb shelter in Clapham, two entrepreneurs, Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, have starting growing food. And it’s working.

Initially, after the war was over, the plan was turn the tunnels into public transit, however that never materialized. Dring and Ballard were originally thinking about empty office space to start their hydroponic growing company, but prices were too high. They wanted to grow food but in a very conservative low impact way. They chose varieties of micro greens like arugula, celery and parsley since those plants that didn’t take up much room and could be tailored to local need, such as restaurants, so there wouldn’t be excessive use of fossil fuels to get the produce to the consumer. Then the light dawned, literally. LED lighting is what could make the much cheaper underground space work. When enough LED lights are turned on in a confined space they create enough heat to help plants grow. The light is an eerie shade of pink, but it works.

Dring and Ballard did a small test grow in a very run down part of the tunnels at Clapham North before signing the lease at a much larger shelter at Clapham Commons. There is an elevator, a loading dock and the electrical system is in much better condition at the

Their company, Growing Underground is up and running and even though it’s 100 feet under the street, it’s going well. Because they are below ground, there are no weather issues to consider. There are no invasive weeds, insects or pollution issues. The tunnels have been scrubbed clean and the lights glow 24/7 to bring the plants to maturity even faster than traditional above ground farming. There are rows of efficient drawers, containing the plants and they slide out easily for harvesting. The produce will be sold only to restaurants at first and then to consumers through a local supplier. Right now there is only one tunnel being used for the urban farm, but Horticultural Director of Growing Underground, Chris Nelson said in an interview with the Londonist, “There is potential for six tunnels, down here. We have, so far, used just part of one. There are five more to go.”

It’s a long way from the bombing raids that Londoners endured during the war to an urban underground farm, but it seems fitting that the space is being used to sustain a city that had to rebuild, literally from the ground up. Check out the video below to see how it all works.
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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