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Vertical Farming
Alex Steffen, 26 Jun 05

On an urban planet, closing urban resource and energy loops -- creating zero-waste systems for meeting the needs of people who live in highly dense cities -- floats in front of us, grail-like, as a goal.

No one quite knows how to get it done, yet. But more and more interesting pieces of the puzzle are piling up, like smart places, smart grids and product service systems; green roofs, permeable pavements and rainwater harvesting systems; high-rise buildings with greenery interwoven thtoughout, such as Singapore's EDITT Tower, neighborhoods with greenery woven through, like Goa's RUrbanist approach: even city-wide reconceptualizations of sustainability.

Here's another piece of the puzzle -- vertical farming:

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 and (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. Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

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.

I still need a bunch of convincing that vertical farming can, with the designs offered and technologies currently available, makes sense on a grand scale. But it's a provocative idea, and might fit together with some of the innovations discussed above in novel and worldchanging ways.
(via Cory)

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Comments

I think that's a 10^9, not 109 hectares... :)


Posted by: Andy on 26 Jun 05

I spent like 30 minutes on the site looking for what their solution is to SUNLIGHT. Vertically stacking the farms means that only the top level gets much sunlight - the rest are in deep shade.

But apparently this problem never occured to them... in their hydroponic section they mention that artificial light is no replacement for sunlight, but they didn't follow up on that comment.

A quick back of the envelop calculation will show you that trying to use artificial lights would draw so much power you'd quickly become the largest single user in the city. They claim that 3M square feet will feed 10,000 people. To light 3M square feet at solar intensities (>1000W/m^2) would require at least 278MW. Assuming light 12h/day, that works out to 334kW/h per day per person, which is about 100 times (!!!) more than a typical household.

In short, I think they've missed the most obvious problem with their proposal, and until they address it the whole concept is nothing more than wishful thinking.


Posted by: Eric Boyd on 26 Jun 05

Aerobic compost Teas. Intensive biology from compost "brewed" in a 24 hour cycle. Largest users are conventional Ag. in central Idaho ( http://www.sustainableservices.org ) check under products. Labs doing this work ( soilfoodweb.com ). Use it or loose it.


Posted by: Terence Dodge on 26 Jun 05

Another kind of "vertical farming" is agro-forestry, or forest gardening. A forest farm or garden is a a vertical integration of trees, shrubs, perennial plants and sometimes, fungi. Open spaces and parks, rather than buildings, would be the vertical urban structure. Foodstuffs would be more fruit, nuts, mushrooms and edible perennials than vegetables or grains. The trees and shrubs would have many additional benefits. It might be hard to do this in patches; it might be better to plant greenways within cities, with built sections growing like the arms of a starfish, and urban food forests filling the spaces between.


Posted by: David Foley on 26 Jun 05

One can setup a very interesting set of food chains, with only the top-most layers receiving much direct sunlight.

Proof is in the pudding: try diving sometime. You get a real sense of how rapidly the sunlight fades away as you descend... but the food chains keep going down, down, down.

Besides, much of what we think of as "agriculture", in this near-future urban agriculture scenario, will essentially be fermentation. Commercial microbreweries do quite well in urban settings.


Posted by: Paco NATHAN on 26 Jun 05

Instead of using the whole building for a green house, just use the south facing side and use mostly sunlight to power the plants. If you combined a high rise apartment/ green house with maybe some restaurants, a bakery, and a grocery store on the fist few floors you might be able a significant portion of the food you eat from the building you live in. No more making all of your food travel hundreds of miles to reach your plate.


Posted by: jim moore on 26 Jun 05

I spent like 30 minutes on the site looking for what their solution is to SUNLIGHT.

Eric, I think a possible solution is mirrors to conduct sunlight into the interior. Standard mirrors don't refract nearly enough light, but I recall there have been interesting advances in this area. A company (whose name escapes me) is marketing a natural light mirror system for retail stores. I do not recall what about the system is better than existing solutions but it is. It's too expensive for consumers now but might not be so in a decade.

No more making all of your food travel hundreds of miles to reach your plate.

Jim, it's possible to do that now. Granted this option is not available to people in the urban core but most of us have enough land that could be put to use this way. Most of us do not. People get their food from hundreds (thousands!) of miles away because they like variety.

That'll be the trick - can a single building or group of buildings - produce enough variety to keep people happy?

I see this as interesting not because of the possiblities for terrestrial applications but for adapation in off-world habitats. But that's me.


Posted by: Brian on 26 Jun 05

Back in the 70s, there were some experiments with urban farming even in NYC. I remember one venture that had South Bronx kids growing herbs for high-end restaurants on a factory roof. It was a money-making proposition honcho-ed by a former IBM exec.

There has also been preliminary work done with fish farming in factories (I remember Karl Hess' Community Technology in an Adams-Morgan, Washington DC basement raising trout) on an industrial scale. There was at least one proposal for Fall River, MA and Mayor Menino of Boston has expressed interest in the concept. As I recall, usually the fish in question has been tilapia (thank you, New Alchemy Institute).

City permaculture would be a good idea too but then I just may be hopped up from the serviceberries I picked from a friend's trees a block from downtown Somerville.


Posted by: gmoke on 26 Jun 05

Even within large conurbations, and especially at the suburban fringe, there are hectares and hectares of - lawn. In North America, lawns use approximately half of the fertilizer, pesticides and water devoted to "agriculture." How boring. How stupid. The "lawn" is such a pervasive, yet seldom thought-about, pattern that it's shaped the North American landscape as powerfully as the automobile. Transforming lawns to gardens sounds trivial - but I think it would be very world-changing.

I'm concerned that proposals like "vertical farming" reinforce the idea of farming as "factory," just when we're trying to reinvent farming as "ecosystem." Paco's coral reef and my example of "food forests" are ecosystems. Fermentation vats can be simplified ecosystems. "Living Machines" and "Arks" attempted self-sustaining, constructed ecosystems too, with mixed success. The real world is a lot messier than the CAD drawings on the "Vertical Farming" web site.

BTW, if you don't know about the "Intervale" in Burlington, Vermont, check it out.


Posted by: David Foley on 27 Jun 05

About turning lawns into food gardens --

Several months ago that came before the Sacramento (CA) City Council and they wanted to outlaw it. I didn't follow it so don't know whether they did, but I think we have a long way to go to convince people to do something so logical and beneficial.


Posted by: Caroline Mitton on 27 Jun 05

David, I don't put pesticide on my lawn - it grows pretty much as it will. I freely admit this is as much down to sloth as it is to caring for the environment.

Query - how much work is involved in taking care of a yard full of garden as opposed to a yard full of grass? If it takes as much work you won't get anywhere with a 'Lawn to garden' movement. The mind set is that a yard looks 'right' with grass and funny with a garden. How will you overcome the two-fer of 'too much work' and 'looks funny'?


Posted by: Brian on 27 Jun 05

I don't know, Brian. Gardening is a joy to me, not drudgery. It's also my tennis and golf - I don't mean to brag, but I'm 49 years old, can bench press 250 lb.s and run a mile in about 5 1/2 minutes. I don't go to the gym.

It's hard to become more efficient at mowing the lawn. With practice, one becomes more efficient and effective at gardening.

Trees, shrubs and perennials take hard work up front, then yield dividends for years. I planted over 100 trees on our land this spring. In the 17 years we've lived here, I suppose I've planted about 1500 trees or shrubs. It's part of our retirement plan. We enjoy grapes, blueberries, hardy kiwis, apples, pears, elderberries, mulberries, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and all the wildlife that visits the other trees and shrubs. We feel deep satisfaction looking on something wholesome unfolding as we age.

It's definitely not for everyone. But then again, neither is spreading the weed-and-feed and pushing the lawnmower.

Challenging mindsets is my predilection. The "lawn" is a cultural artifact, an inheritance from a particular 18th Century movement in British landscape design. Lawns "look funny" in many contexts. Suburban Tucson, for example, seems pretty weird. We need to learn many new things quickly, and perhaps we need to "unlearn" some things as well.

Have you ever traveled in rural France or Italy? Virtually all the land is tended. Horticulture is a near-universal skill. People know the "biography" of their food. There aren't many lawns.


Posted by: David Foley on 27 Jun 05

Challenging mindsets is my predilection. The "lawn" is a cultural artifact, an inheritance from a particular 18th Century movement in British landscape design. Lawns "look funny" in many contexts. Suburban Tucson, for example, seems pretty weird. We need to learn many new things quickly, and perhaps we need to "unlearn" some things as well.

Yes, no doubt we'd all be better off shaking the mindset of a green grass yard and planting appropriate flora and fauna there.

But how do we get from here to there?

Which isn't to slag you, David. I tend to be pragmatic. Show me the future, sign me up. But before I get enthusiastic I need blue prints.


Posted by: Brian on 27 Jun 05

Brian, one pretty good blueprint is "How To Grow More Vegetables* (* than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine)", by John Jeavons, 10 Speed Press, 1991. Another pretty good one is "Square Foot Gardening", by Mel Bartholomew, Rodale Press, 1981. For a real mind-bender, check out "Noah's Garden", by Sara Stein (sorry, don't know the publisher.)


Posted by: David Foley on 27 Jun 05



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