Who Will Build the First Vertical Farm?

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As we've discussed, designs for urban "vertical farms" provide some of the most titillating locavore porn around. Imagine the view from your condo provided not just a landscape of sparkling glass and concrete, but also lush, inspiring (and nutritious!) greenery like this.

In today's New York Times, reporter Bina Venkataraman addressed the growing interest among city residents in these plans for high-concept agriculture. According to the article, Manhattan may just decide to turn the slick renderings into a built reality (or at least invest a lot in testing it out):

The idea, which has captured the imagination of several architects in the United States and Europe in the past several years, just caught the eye of another big city dreamer: Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president.
When Mr. Stringer heard about the concept in June, he said he immediately pictured a “food farm” addition to the New York City skyline. “Obviously we don’t have vast amounts of vacant land,” he said in a phone interview. “But the sky is the limit in Manhattan.” Mr. Stringer’s office is “sketching out what it would take to pilot a vertical farm,” and plans to pitch a feasibility study to the mayor’s office within the next couple of months, he said.
“I think we can really do this,” he added. “We could get the funding.”

The funding in question for one of these 30-story towers, according to concept founder Dickson Despommier (a professor of public health at Columbia University), is estimated in the hundreds of millions. He expects the finished product could feed 50,000 people.

There was no discussion – and I think it's unlikely these calculations have been reasonably figured – of the potential economic benefits of a successfully executed vertical farm, and it led me to think about the ways to justify such an expensive and unknown undertaking. What would be the collective fuel savings of having so much food grown in a city block? How much would congestion improve if fewer trucks were needed to carry produce into city limits? Could food be sold at cheaper prices if no gasoline was required to get it to market? And what about the peripheral benefits … like the psychological boost for the neighbors who got to look at vibrant green space in the sky? Or the expected international tourist appeal?

Of course, in other ways, forcing farms into high-rises seems like the antithesis of many work-with-not-against-nature ideals. What would it cost to maintain a man-made, climate-controlled environment capable of nurturing high quality produce? How would the farm waste affect public utilities; how would the water needs affect its neighborhood; is it realistic to think that a farm in a city building could become independent of supplies shipped in from rural areas?

At its most superficial, the vertical farm is a hot-looking amenity for a progressive city. But its deeper potential, I think, is as a tool that might prove invaluable when times get more desperate. Climate-controlled skyscrapers (as the NYT article notes) aren't as susceptible to crazy weather fluctuations as conventional farms. As the global population struggles to shrink its footprint by congregating in cities, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and devising ways to feed more people without degrading more natural green space, a working farm in the sky wouldn't be a bad thing to know how to build.

I do think it may be worth investing now in developing an idea that might help to save us when we need it. And I applaud thinkers like Despommier (and Seattle-based Mithun), whose creativity will bring us closer to the solutions we need. But I also think that it's worth considering that what we are building in an urban farm is more than just a showpiece of great design. I hope that, no matter which city accepts the challenge first, executing a wildly imaginative idea like this one should be a project considered with utmost practicality.

Image credits: Blake Kurasek


The idea is absurd, not least because the cost of farming in the sky will be be so much more energy expensive than conventional farming methods.

Jojm Prewer

Posted by: John Prewer on July 19, 2008 5:54 AM

Don't forget the bees and butterflies if we're talking about mixing residential with vertical farms. If strictly for agro production, ok.


Posted by: James Willer on July 19, 2008 10:38 AM

High-Concept Agriculture?! This has as much relevance to everyday folks as high concept art, I suppose. It's another great example of the growing divide between the working class and the owning class. "view from your condo" says it all. Those with wealth and power can be as green as they like (and I'm glad that at least some of them are trying), but until a more grassroots green movement changes the way the vast majority of us live, it's all vanity and/or good intentions gone strangely awry (I'm hoping it the latter).

Posted by: aj on July 22, 2008 6:13 AM

I really want to see further progress on this concept because I think this is could be a solution to are rising food shortage…I am involved in a campaign to build the first functioning tower: http://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/vertical-farm-in-new-york-city

Posted by: Stephen on July 24, 2008 8:39 AM

We hope that it will be crowd-sourced - That we can create enough momentum around a crowd of support. We posted about this, and a campaign that's already begun, today.

Posted by: Alex Steed [of Make Something Happen] on July 25, 2008 7:01 AM