Encouraging City Growth: Urban Farming Grows Up


When I first started hearing the term “urban farming,” I’d think about either my grandparents’ stories about war-time “victory gardens” or of some crumbling dystopian city full of hungry citizens doing whatever they could to endure society’s epic demise. The former image was one of coming together for the cause, growing cukes in city lots to support “our boys” “over there.” The latter was all sci-fi survival, doing what you can with what you got, staving off impending doom.

Turns out, the advent of today’s urban farming movement is in very much in response to both of these veins. Consider that by mid-century, the human population will increase by about three billion people and nearly 80 percent of us will live in urban centers. It’s been estimated that if farming practices continue as they are, the amount of “new” land needed to grow food to feed all these people would have to be 20 percent larger than the size of Brazil. Already, parts of the developing world are facing of water and land shortages, so we’re talking pretty high stakes here. As we recently pointed out, the push for urban farming is here, and it’s here to stay. And the movement continues to grow up. Literally.

The idea for “vertical farming” resulted from a classroom challenge made to students by a Columbia University teacher of environmental sciences and microbiology. Professor Dickson Despommier asked his class to figure out how many Manhattanites they could feed a 2,000-calorie daily diet to – growing food on the island’s 13 acres of usable rooftops. When the answer came back to be about two percent of the 50,000 city dwellers, Despommier posited growing food vertically, inside multi-story and high-rise buildings. The students took it from there, eventually creating Verticalfarm to spread the idea.

Though the project began in 2000 (we actually gave it some coverage a couple years back), the concept’s finding some new traction in the media, at least, with a recent piece in Smithsonian magazine’s 40th Anniversary issue, and Despommier’s new book, The Vertical Farm: The World Grows Up, soon to be released.

There are many advantages to this approach, according to Despommier and his team. For starters, there’s year-round crop production, no weather-related failures, all food can be grown hydroponically with no herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers, and you get the elimination of agricultural runoff by recycling black water. As for its impact on regular old “horizontal” farming, the method would provide for the return of existing farmland to nature, which is always a plus. Add fossil fuel-free food production and even feeding methane from composting back into a city’s electrical grid and, well, maybe they have something here.

Not everyone’s convinced that such an approach makes sense, and some say that cost and resource issues make the efficiency of such grand-scale endeavors to be no more than pie in the sky thinking. But the facts on the ground remain regarding populations, pollution and climate issues being on a collision course scheduled to meet up sometime in the not-too-distant future. It’s never too early for creative thinking. Especially when we’re going to need some unique solutions to, perhaps, get us off the ground.

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott@adelson.org.