As a person with an interest in combining the built and natural environments, I suppose it comes as no surprise that I also have an interest in urban agriculture. Despite growing up in the mid-western state of Wisconsin, I actually haven’t had a lot of exposure to traditional farming or much contact with cows. But lately, the concept of agriculture/food growth has been on my mind, mainly because I’ve come to the earth-shattering realization that everyone on this planet needs food in order to survive. Like infrastructure, agriculture is an often over-looked system in our society. When it is operating smoothly, it is often ignored, and when something goes wrong, everyone feels the impacts. I suppose that is one of the reasons that attract me to agriculture, and to an extension, urban agriculture.
Basically, urban agriculture is growing crops in an urban environment (AKA: the city). Often, one hears that the main source of greenhouse gases is not in fact transportation, as many think it is, but actually buildings, due to their inefficient energy usage. But another big chunk of the polluting pie is actually the agricultural industry. But the agricultural industry is pretty crucial to our survival, so that section of the pie is often overlooked. The pollution aspect of agriculture isn’t what attracts designers to urban agriculture, it’s the fact that as the population continues to grow, land will become increasingly scarce to devote to food production…and that’s a problem.
So many designers and planners have turned to possible solutions in urban agriculture. Rooftop farms are starting to sprout in many large cities around the world, making use of normally vacant space. Seattle is currently expanding on the community garden idea and creating the first Public Food Forest. But the one idea that first attracted me to urban agriculture, is the Vertical Farm.
Vertical Farms are giant sky-scraper like structures filled with crops. In a simple sense, they are stacked greenhouses found in urban centers. Vertical Farms can house all sorts of crops fed through technologies such as hydroponics. With careful planning, Vertical Farms can also house fish and other livestock in order to create an indoor eco-system that benefits all living things inside the building. Although some ideas have been presented about really industrializing the production of livestock, which admittedly makes me shudder. Vertical Farms reduce food miles (and the energy usage associated with the transportation) and greenhouse gas emissions as well as (my favorite) increasing food production awareness in urban centers. These days, when you ask someone where their food comes from, he or she will probably say the grocery store or super market. But that food had to be grown somewhere, and if you have a vertical farm, all one has to do is point to the skyline and say “That’s where my food is grown.” If you want to learn a little more, you can check out here.
So vertical farming sounds like a dream come true, and the flashy and grand designs produced by architecture firms definitely make me drool. I admit when I first heard of the concept I was immediately all for it, and somewhere deep inside me, I still have the dream to one day be part of a company that helps design and build vertical farms all over the world. But where have Vertical Farms been built? The answer: nowhere yet. As of right now, there are no vertical farms anywhere in the world (although Milan does have a vertical forest in the works). This begs the question: Why? There must be some reason why vertical farming has not become a viable form of food production yet.
The truth is that Vertical Farming is still mainly in the conceptual stages of design. While there has been some thought put in about the actual technologies that would be employed, not many studies have been conducted regarding the feasibility of Vertical Farming. This one website has a good overview about the pros and cons of vertical farming. Unfortunately, some think that the increased amount of energy required to maintain such a building would offset the reduction of energy used in the transportation of crops. Also, there’s the obvious issue of lighting, as those plants closest to the windows will get more light than ones in the middle, and artificial lighting would add to the energy usage of the building. Greenhouses of today actually produce more greenhouse gases than fields in the country (although arguably, these gases could be recycled as energy in a Vertical Farm). Ultimately, the article above concludes that rooftop farms are probably the most viable option right now, but I’m still a little hopeful that someone out there will conduct a more in-depth feasibility study and conclude that Vertical Farms are still a very good option out there for those countries with many people but little farm land.
But there’s also the issue of food shortage in general. There has been a general consensus that as the population increases we’re going to need to find more sources of food production in order to sustain all of us. This argument has been used to justify the usage of Genetically Modified Crops (and I know that’s a touchy subject, but I won’t talk about my thoughts about that subject right now) but there also has been a counterargument. I can’t find the video right now, but I came across one that featured a speaker who argued that we aren’t facing a food shortage. In fact, we have enough food right now to feed all the people in the world…ALL the people, the hungry and impoverished included. The real problem is that more ‘developed’ countries are consuming waay too much food in proportion to their population, which somewhat makes sense. When you see the statistics of how much food we waste in a day or month or year, you can’t help but cringe. So perhaps the issue isn’t about producing more food, but learning to live within our means and allocating our food production more efficiently. Understandably, that’s a pretty hard problem to tackle, as it goes back to one of my previous posts about societal change vs. technological innovation. Getting people to learn to only buy what they will eat will be a pretty challenging goal, but if worse comes to worst, people might not have a choice.
But anyway, back to the Vertical Farm. For now I would still consider myself a supporter of urban agriculture – if not the Vertical Farm, but I will be glad to see feasibility studies in regard to the Vertical Farm. And if it does turn out to be unfeasible, I’d like to figure out some way to make it feasible. It’s just something about creating an ecosystem inside an urban environment for the benefit of both the natural and human worlds that make me really want to stick with Vertical Farming and give it a chance. Perhaps I’m still enthralled by the super cool renderings. For now, Vertical Farming will sadly remain in the realm of conceptual architecture, but think about where your food comes from, and give those hard-working farmers the respect they deserve.