Urban Agriculture: Feeding Them Where You Find Them

Stephen DeAngelis

September 30, 2014

“Did you know that some of the largest chapters of agricultural groups like the Future Farmers of America are in urban centers?” asks Jeff DeGraff (@JeffDeGraff). [“Innovation: Old Crops, New Soil,” Huffington Post The Blog, 2 September 2014] He adds, “This may surprise you: some of the biggest breakthroughs in farming aren’t happening on farms — they’re happening in big cities. The popularity of urban farming — or ‘vertical farming’ — brings new challenges to an old industry.” I suspect that when most people hear the term “urban agriculture” they think of small neighborhood gardens growing in abandoned lots or on rooftops. Those kinds of gardens may foster community pride, but, they are too small and too few to feed the world’s growing urban population. Innovative urban planners believe, however, that a significant contribution to urban food security can be made by taking advantage of structures that define most urban scenes — skyscrapers. That’s why the concept is called vertical farming.


I first started writing about urban agriculture five years ago in a post entitled “Urban Farmers.” In that article, I cited Dickson D. Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, who claimed, “If climate change and population growth progress at their current pace, in roughly 50 years farming as we know it will no longer exist.” [“A Farm on Every Floor,” The New York Times, 23 August 2009]. That’s bad news for a population that is expected to surpass the 10 billion mark this century. And most of those people will be living in urban rather than rural areas. Despommier stated, “There is a solution that is surprisingly within reach. Move most farming into cities, and grow crops in tall, specially constructed buildings. It’s called vertical farming.” Despommier explains this concept in the following video.



You might be asking yourself, “Why is a professor of public health pitching the concept of vertical farming?” That’s a good question. Nolan Meyer provides us with a good answer to that question in a article he wrote about Will Allen, “a former professional basketball player turned marketer, turned urban farmer.” [“Transforming Healthcare Through Urban Farming,” Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, 21 August 2014] In that article, Will Allen states, “If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community. I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.” Lest you think that Allen is simply a “dumb jock,” Meyer describes him as “a preeminent innovator in urban farming, the practice of growing and distributing food locally in one’s city, town, or village.” Meyer is not alone in that assessment. He reports that Allen was named “a John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation Fellow in 2008,” becoming only “the second farmer ever to be awarded a genius grant for his work by the foundation.” In 2010, Allen was included on Time Magazine‘s “100 Most Influential People” list. Two years ago, Allen received “an honorary Doctor of Agriculture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.” Allen’s belief is that when food is grown in controlled conditions close to where it will be consumed chances are good that it will be healthy and nutritious when it finally finds a place on a dinner table.


Affordability, however, is another issue. Despommier believes that vertical farming can be economically viable because crops grown indoors use less water, aren’t subject to weather damage, use less pesticides, and dramatically reduce transportation costs since the food is being grown nearby where it is going to be eaten. Building and maintaining skyscrapers, however, is an expensive proposition. Some pundits believe such costs could be reduced by repurposing existing buildings for agriculture. Although there would be conversion costs, these costs would eventually be recouped as crops became profitable. Jacob Silverman notes, “The key to vertical farming is space. … By converting from ‘horizontal farming’ to vertical farming, humanity would never have to worry about running out of arable land.” [“Will there be farms in New York City’s skyscrapers?” HowStuffWorks.com, 26 June 2007] He continues:

“By operating indoors, crops could be grown all year, free of concerns about bad weather, drought or natural disasters. If the building is sealed and carefully monitored, there would be no need for pesticides to eliminate invasive insects or parasites, a particularly devastating problem in the developing world. All food would be organically grown without fertilizer and free of disease. Vertical farmers wouldn’t have to worry about conflicts over land, water and other natural resources or contend with genetically modified foods, unwanted strains of plants or wandering animals. These farms would also be located in the urban areas where most of the Earth’s population will be living. The result is that agriculture becomes more of a closed system — food is grown, transported, eaten and waste disposed of all in the same metropolitan area. In a major city like New York City, where almost all food must be flown or trucked in from miles away, the difference is tremendous. Vertical farming would largely eliminate the pollution generated as food is trucked, shipped and flown across countries to reach its desired markets. Because vertical farms would exist in the communities they serve, crop selection could be altered to fit the local community.”

When it comes to repurposing structures for use in urban agriculture, designers at OVA Studio believe that used shipping containers should be included in the mix. They call their concept the Hive-Inn™ City Farm. Stu Robarts (@StuRobarts) writes, “The Hive-Inn City Farm concept, designed by OVA Studio, extols the virtues of reconnecting people with nature and bringing food production backs into cities. It aims to give citizens back understanding and control of food production. The concept incorporates community kitchen gardens, neighborhood cooperatives and supermarkets selling locally grown produce direct from producers. It is proposed that the structure would be used to produce crops including green vegetables, tomatoes, corn, and honey.” [“Inner city vertical farm concept designed using shipping containers,” Gizmag, 22 July 2014] OVA Studio designers are just a few of the innovators seriously thinking about the subject of urban agriculture. Owen Fletcher writes, “Want to see where your food might come from in the future? Look up.” [“The Future of Agriculture May Be Up, The Wall Street Journal, 15 October 2012] He continues:

“The seeds of an agricultural revolution are taking root in cities around the world — a movement that boosters say will change the way that urbanites get their produce and solve some of the world’s biggest environmental problems along the way. It’s called vertical farming, and it’s based on one simple principle: Instead of trucking food from farms into cities, grow it as close to home as possible — in urban greenhouses that stretch upward instead of sprawling outward.”

DeGraff writes, “What many people don’t realize is that small-scale urban farming is at the forefront of innovation in the biotech industry. The set of skills and knowledge required to make plants grow in unlikely and difficult city environments — from abandoned buildings in Detroit to navy yards in Brooklyn — has inspired a high level of creativity and growth: new types of seeds, hybrid organic fertilizers and even sophisticated algorithms for crop rotation.” The real challenge, of course, is going from small-scale urban farming to large-scale urban farming. Some critics believe the idea of vertical farming will wither in the harsh light of reality. Fletcher notes, “Many agricultural experts aren’t sold on the idea of vertical farming. The core argument against it: Conventional farms are the simplest and most efficient places to produce food. Growing food indoors, using artificial lights and other special equipment, means more effort and expense — and cancels out any benefits of being close to customers, critics say.” In the long run, climate change may force much of the farming sector indoors. If that happens, urban areas will become the most logical areas in which to create large-scale vertical farms. That’s why I believe that serious thinkers need to continue their efforts in this area.