London’s other underground comes to life

As prices to rent or buy real estate skyrocket in London, some clever entrepreneurs are looking to grow downwards instead. One example: a greenhouse in an old bomb shelter. Meike Stolp reports from London.

Zero Carbon Food is growing its vegetables deep beneath the streets of London. (Photo credit: Zero Carbon Food)

Zero Carbon Food is growing its vegetables deep beneath the streets of London. (Photo credit: Zero Carbon Food)

Richard Ballard presses the elevator button, which doesn’t seem to be particularly modern. And then it off it goes downwards, deep beneath London. One floor, two floors, three floors. Like a journey to the centre of Earth, except it doesn’t go as far, stopping instead at a former air raid shelter not far from the Clapham Common tube station in south London.

London’s other underground is coming back to life: this is where Zero Carbon Food is growing vegetables such as lettuce and herbs like coriander, using LED lights with precision and small wind machines to keep the humidity at a specific level.

Vegetables from the bunker

Ballard is one of the founders of Zero Carbon Food. He’s an entrepreneur who has tried everything from trying to import Asian furniture to studying film studies. During his work as a documentary filmmaker he came across the idea of using the underground for agriculture. “The environment can be better controlled than that above ground,” he says. And thanks to LED lights it’s even possible to adjust the taste of the plants grown.

He also says that the project, which began around two years ago, is not expensive. “Greenhouses are expensive because they have to generate heat, which we don’t need,” explains Ballard, since it’s already warm on its own in the former bunker. Thanks to a special irrigation system, it also uses 70 per cent less water than conventional agriculture. And it’s less expensive than growing plants above ground where such a plot in London would cost a small fortune on monthly rent.

Mayor loves underground ideas

The trend in London is to grow downwards as exorbitant property prices are driving many to despair – but also to creativity. Another example: former banker Ajit Chambers founded The Old London Underground Company to breathe new life into metro stations abandoned years ago. He wants to transform them into museums, open restaurants, maybe even jazz clubs. London’s mayor Boris Johnson is excited; so, too, is the London transport authorities Transport for London (TfL).

In May TfL invited several companies to present their ideas for the redesign of the illustrious Down Street tube station. Used as a temporary home for Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet during World War II, the 400-square-metre station could one day be home to a theatre or shops. TfL plans to invest capital in the amount of GBP 3.4 billion into the metro system.

A theatre already exists under the tracks of busy Waterloo station. The theatre group Les Enfants Terrible is performing Alice in Wonderland, at parts with the audience’s participation. And the Underground Film Club shows film classics in an unused part of Charing Cross station.

Vegetables instead of nightclubs

Ever the trendsetter, the London experience is inspiring entrepreneurs to set their sites on similar projects in other cities around the world. For instance, London-based Chinese expat Xiuli Hawken earns her money by turning disused bomb shelters in China into shopping centres. But whether nightclubs and discos are actually suitable for London’s underground is questionable. “The safety regulations are extremely strict,” says Ballard. “There aren’t enough exits for a nightclub.

That’s not the case for his underground garden, and his vegetables and herbs will soon be available for purchase or eaten in a restaurant in the fashionable West End thanks to a partnership with the star chef Michel Roux. The avant-garde gardener sees his products as a gourmet kitchen item.

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