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Artificial trees and vertical farms helping turn Europe’s cities green

A CITYTREE in Jena, Germany, combines moss and wireless technology to filter air pollutants and convert them into biomass. Image credit: Green City Solutions
A CITYTREE in Jena, Germany, combines moss and wireless technology to filter air pollutants and convert them into biomass. Image credit: Green City Solutions

Moss-covered boards that absorb city pollution and warehouses where fish and LED-lit lettuce grow side-by-side are helping to reshape the way that urban Europeans live their lives.

People in Europe are increasingly living in dense urban spaces where pollution is worsened by the exhaust fumes of lorries that must haul fresh food from the remote countryside, and where overwork means people rush in and out of their homes and can leave their central heating systems burning through gas.

It’s problems such as these that today’s entrepreneurs have turned their attention to. The result is companies like Germany-based Tado, that has developed a thermostat that taps into the weather forecast, Green City Solutions, that is creating an artificial tree to mop up particulate pollution, and GrowUp Urban Farms, that runs a so-called vertical farm in a warehouse in London.

‘We use 90 % less water than traditional agriculture,’ explained Tom Webster, co-founder of GrowUp Urban Farms.

The company received its initial funding from the EU’s European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT). The EIT distributed the funding through Climate-KIC, a so-called Knowledge and Innovation Community set up to help businesses develop and to train entrepreneurs.

The Issue

More Europeans live in cities than suburbs, towns and villages, yet one in five city dwellers are directly affected by pollution, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical arm.

As Europe moves to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, technology that can improve the lives of city dwellers sustainably will become increasingly important.

In a vertical farm, crops are stacked on plastic benches up to 10 levels high and illuminated by LED lighting. They are irrigated by the run-off from fish farms.

The idea is to place them in industrial warehouses close to where people live.

‘Agriculture is an industrial process the way that it is carried out globally, and the reality of it is that the current industrial process is not climate-change resilient,’ said Webster. ‘What we’re offering is a new solution which is more energy efficient and more resilient to climate change.’

It also means salad from an urban farm is fresher than salad grown in remote fields as it can be chilled immediately after being harvested, while on rural farms it has to be transported to a packing facility first.

‘By reducing the supply chain, the time it takes to get to consumers, you’re giving them more nutritious food,’ said Webster, who is also in the process of planning a site 10 times bigger than his current 600-square-metre site on the eastern edge of London.

New economy

It’s the kind of growth story that can be heard throughout this new economy of high-tech companies creating businesses that can help Europe rein back greenhouse gas emissions and improve the lives of city dwellers.

‘In Germany we have 45 % market share,’ explained Christian Deilmann, the founder and chief executive of Climate-KIC-funded Tado, a maker of a home thermostat that connects to the internet for weather updates and tracks your movements using your smartphone so it can turn on the radiators when you’re on your way home.

Heating accounts for around two-thirds of the energy used in a typical home in northern Europe, and the company claims that by using its intelligent thermostat, people can cut these costs by up to 31 % by ensuring that the boiler is only running when necessary.

‘In the future we are 100 % convinced that every home but also every building … will be heated and cooled in an intelligent way,’ said Deilmann.

Their objective is to get around 30 % of this increased market across Europe, and Deilmann hopes this will mean significant growth for the company.

‘What we’re offering is a new solution which is more energy efficient and more resilient to climate change.’

Tom Webster, Co-founder, GrowUp Urban Farms

‘Hopefully we will bring the company to the stock market,’ he said. ‘What E.ON and EDF are today, we want to become in the future.’

While they are at an earlier stage, Germany-based Green City Solutions is also getting ready for a growth phase as it develops its CITYTREE technology to filter pollution from the air on city streets.

With the help of Climate-KIC, the company has teamed up with the north Italian city of Modena to run a pilot project next year to put six CITYTREEs onto a city street.

The vertical flat-panelled device combines moss and wireless technology. It controls the humidity around the moss, which then acts as a filter, taking pollution particles out of the air.

After developing the CITYTREE, the company plans to improve the technology so that it is scaled back to just the plant and the equipment needed to supply it with the right nutrients and the correct amount of water. Once this work is complete, then it will be able to be used on existing surfaces around cities to clean the air.

‘You could apply that to every surface, every pre-existing installation, every infrastructure,’ said co-founder Zhengliang Wu. ‘You maybe even could mount it to public transportation.’

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