Looking for a little Earth Day inspiration? An abandoned air raid tunnel beneath the streets of London might not be the first place you’d check. But that’s where British startup Growing Underground is forging a bold experiment in subterranean farming, raising sustainable produce that reaches tables as soon as four hours after harvest.
“It’s incredible to take a place that was built for a time of destruction, and turn it into a place of creation,” said Richard Ballard, who alongside co-founder Steven Dring hatched the idea of repurposing the tunnels as a clean, zero-emission agricultural alternative.
“If we can inspire other people to do this, brilliant,” said Dring. “This is just the start.”
Not long ago, the future didn’t look as promising for London. In January of 1941, dozens of people were killed when a bomb from a German fighter plane left a 120-foot-wide crater of carnage; in April, following a heavy air attack on Bristol, Hitler’s infamous “Fuhrer Directive No. 30” said that “All who love freedom will join the fight against England.”
In response, dozens of men were dispatched underground with picks and shovels; if the residents of London were to survive, it was time to build tunnels.
“There are two spiral staircases – they look like DNA interwoven with each other at each end of the tunnel,” said Dring, who spends his days farming in the Clapham Common tunnel, located 12 stories below the bustling city streets. “They built them that way so they could get two thousand people down to safety as quickly as possible.”
“This whole thing is massive, two linear tunnels a half a kilometer long,” he said. “There’s an upstairs and a downstairs, like a mezzanine, a huge, vast place. Our landlord tossed us the keys and said ‘Here you go. Carry on.’”
Dring and Ballard were first inspired three years ago with the idea that sounded just crazy enough to change the world. Calling themselves “Growing Underground,” they raised some (quite literal) seed money, received said keys and got to work.
“We bought some cheap hydroponic equipment and lights from Finland,” Dring said, laughing. “And then we started growing lettuce in a tunnel.”
Today, the air raid shelter that once housed three-tiered bunk beds has three-tiered beds of herbs. With the roar of “The Tube” in the background, farmers are growing pea shoots, radish, celery and parsley every bit as delicious and nutritious as you’d get from a traditional farm – and according to some, even better.
Any attempt to build a modern-day facility so enormous, temperature-controlled, sealed-off and subterranean would be scuttled by expense and zoning ordinances. But when these tunnels were built, the requirements of creating a safe wartime shelter unwittingly provided Growing Underground with exactly what they would need some eighty years later.
“Now we’re growing in such a controlled environment, with a constant temperature and light regime that is very hard to replicate outdoors,” said Dring, who has augmented the tunnel’s construction benefits with state-of-the-art lighting and irrigation. “Because we’re so hyper-local to our consumers, they’re enjoying the products at a much fresher stage than if it went through a logistics cycle.”
You can’t get much more local than this – Growing Underground literally picks their produce and then brings them up to street level, sometimes going from farm to table in only four hours. And in the time since the duo got things up and running this past June, they’ve noticed that their method can actually tweak the taste of their crops.
“Playing around with the lights, you can dictate different shapes – a more elongated or bushy plant – and you can affect the sugars and starches within the plant,” said Ballard, adding that the process could herald a return to earlier incarnations of vegetable varieties abandoned by large-scale agriculture. “Now we’re starting to grow heritage crops. The supermarkets have largely decided not to grow these, because they don’t travel so well.”
“We had some mustard that had exactly the same feed regime and temperature,” said Dring. “But we had different LED lights from 2 different suppliers. And it gave different flavors of the product! Both mustards tasted amazing, but one tasted like proper English mustard, much more intense.”
Dring and Ballard are always looking to find better, more intelligent ways to feed people everywhere, and hope to see their methods used elsewhere.
“People can do this around the world, in all sorts of environments,” said Steven Dring. “In deserts and coal mines, places where they need food desperately like Africa and India and China in the future, you see how this could impact things on a global basis.”
Microsoft productivity technology has been part of the recipe at Growing Underground since their first radish was only a glimmer in their eyes.
“We use a program from an environmental software company called Priva,” Ballard said. “It’s run on a Microsoft operating system and it controls everything for us, from the LEDs to the ventilation system to the humidity. Every element that we need to control that environment.”
“We use our Surface Pro 3s and OneNote to share information,” said his partner, adding that Growing Underground employs everything from Excel for spreadsheets to PowerPoint for investor presentations. “We wouldn’t be able to function without Microsoft Office. For a start-up like ours, it’s the essence of how we communicate.”
Both men agree that if efforts like theirs are going to make an impact on the future, communication is key.
“We need to engage with architects, designers and planners; there needs to be a whole conversation about food and sustainability,” said Dring. “Whether it’s the scarcity of fresh water in the future, or energy distribution, or how we’re going to run out of fossil fuels at some point. Let’s start having a conversation now about what we’re going to do to fix these things. People need to be educated about food and growing, the importance of growing locally, and encouraging the space to do so in towns and cities through architecture.”
So if you ever find yourself at a farmer’s market in London, grab some fresh peas and consider a future that no one could have imagined in 1941.
“These tunnels would never have been built for the production of food, yet it is the ideal place for creating food,” said Richard Ballard. “They have an insulation meant to keep people safe, but it also enables us to increase the temperature and keep the heat in perfectly.”
“We wanted to turn this place into something positive,” added Steven Dring. “And that’s what we focus on daily.”
Editor’s note: The article above includes minor updates since its original publication to commemorate World Food Day 2015.
Lead image by Will Robinson. Explore more empowering stories here.