Friday, July 3, 2009

The Vertical Farm Project

Growing Food in Skyscrapers
Posted by E.B. Boyd

In the past few years, articles have started popping up in mainstream and green publications, touting the idea of turning urban skyscrapers into produce-producing behemoths.

But what does that mean, really? Never fear.’s got your back. Here’s your cheat sheet to this new idea.

What is a vertical farm?

At its most basic level, a vertical farm is city-based building devoted to food production. Architects and engineers have envisioned a number of different ways of making this happen. One suggestion is to create a NASA-like hydroponic system where vegetables are grown in water. Another idea is based on greenhouses. Some include places to raise chickens, pigs, and cattle. And others include aquaponic ponds for harvesting fish.

How did the idea come about?

A Columbia University professor of public health came up with the idea in 1999, during a graduate class he was teaching on medical ecology, specifically looking at the interaction of environment and human health. The professor, Dickson Despommier, has since become a vigorous advocate of the idea of vertical farms, arguing that they are a powerful solution to the coming shortage of farm land.

Incidentally, Despommier’s name, in French, means “of the apple tree" — a fitting moniker for a man who might one day be called a modern-day Johnny Appleseed.

What are their benefits?

The United Nations has said the world will need 60 percent more farmland in the next 30 years in order to accommodate projected population increases. Advocates of vertical farms argue that producing food inside cities will be one way to meet that demand. Despommier’s model predicts that a 30-story farm on a single city block could feed 50,000 people — or the same amount of food currently produced on 588 acres of flat land.

Urban-based farms solve another problem close to environmentalists’ hearts: The massive amount of energy required to transport food from farms to cities.

And depending on how the farms are actually built, they could become the forerunners in green building. Many designs envision self-contained systems, where graywater is recycled for crop use, waste turns into fuel for power, and wind turbines and geothermal systems provide additional energy.

Why do some people think they won’t work?

Some critics have argued that the lighting and heating required to make vertical farms work — especially to provide light to crops that don't receive natural sunlight — will make the projects cost-prohibitive.

Others have questioned whether vertical farms will be able to afford the cost of urban real estate and, if not, whether it makes sense to sacrifice city blocks to vertical farms, when other uses for the land — for office buildings or residences — could generate more revenue.

When will we start seeing them?

The idea is still in the exploratory stage, so it’s not clear when ground will be broken on the first vertical farm. But there is interest in making these a reality. A zoo in Devon, England, is running a pilot project with a small-scale farm. And a New York City official has expressed interest in bringing the idea to the Big Apple.

In the meantime, most of the ideas out there are the products of architects’ imaginations and design competitions. Some of the most dramatic include the Toronto SkyFarm (above), the Harvest Green Tower (below), and the New York Dragonfly (below). Many other examples are available on the The Vertical Farm Project website.

Harvest Green Tower (Image courtesy of Romses Architects)

New York Dragonfly (Image courtesy of Vincent Callebaut Architectures)

Image above courtesy of The Vertical Farm Project.

The Problem

By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

A Potential Solution: Farm Vertically

The concept of indoor farming is not new, since hothouse production of tomatoes, a wide variety of herbs, and other produce has been in vogue for some time. What is new is the urgent need to scale up this technology to accommodate another 3 billion people. An entirely new approach to indoor farming must be invented, employing cutting edge technologies. The Vertical Farm must be efficient (cheap to construct and safe to operate). Vertical farms, many stories high, will be situated in the heart of the world's urban centers. If successfully implemented, they offer the promise of urban renewal, sustainable production of a safe and varied food supply (year-round crop production), and the eventual repair of ecosystems that have been sacrificed for horizontal farming.

It took humans 10,000 years to learn how to grow most of the crops we now take for granted. Along the way, we despoiled most of the land we worked, often turning verdant, natural ecozones into semi-arid deserts. Within that same time frame, we evolved into an urban species, in which 60% of the human population now lives vertically in cities. This means that, for the majority, we humans are protected against the elements, yet we subject our food-bearing plants to the rigors of the great outdoors and can do no more than hope for a good weather year. However, more often than not now, due to a rapidly changing climate regime, that is not what follows. Massive floods, protracted droughts, class 4-5 hurricanes, and severe monsoons take their toll each year, destroying millions of tons of valuable crops. Don't our harvestable plants deserve the same level of comfort and protection that we now enjoy? The time is at hand for us to learn how to safely grow our food inside environmentally controlled multistory buildings within urban centers. If we do not, then in just another 50 years, the next 3 billion people will surely go hungry, and the world will become a much more unpleasant place in which to live.

Advantages of Vertical Farming

Year-round crop production; 1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more, depending upon the crop (e.g., strawberries: 1 indoor acre = 30 outdoor acres)
No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests
All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water
VF returns farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services
VF greatly reduces the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface
VF converts black and gray water into potable water by collecting the water of
VF adds energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible
parts of plants and animals
VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.)
VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers
VF creates sustainable environments for urban centers
VF creates new employment opportunities
We cannot go to the moon, Mars, or beyond without first learning to farm indoors on
VF may prove to be useful for integrating into refugee camps
VF offers the promise of measurable economic improvement for tropical and subtropical
LDCs. If this should prove to be the case, then VF may be a catalyst in helping to reduce or even reverse the population growth of LDCs as they adopt urban agriculture as a strategy for sustainable food production.
VF could reduce the incidence of armed conflict over natural resources, such as water
and land for agriculture