Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some Lettuce Grows in Manhattan

Decades from now 2009 may be seen as the year that vertical farming started to take hold. Time magazine named vertical farming one of last year's 50 best inventions. Proposals seemed to arrive almost weekly. And whole blogs -- or parts thereof -- are devoting themselves to the subject.

The push for more sustainable and less land-devouring, transportation-heavy, soil-depleting, ground-water-polluting practices of agriculture ranges from systems that fit inside buildings to skyscrapers devoted in their entirety to food production. The former is more immediate and realistic, while the latter's proposals are still in the realm of ideas and fantasy, at least on the large scale many envision them. Spurred by a recent Scientific American article -- penned by a Dickson Despommier, a vocal proponent of vertical farming and the president of the Vertical Farm Project -- I explored to see what forms these hypothetical vertical farms may take, and how they integrate with other functions to create a true urban agriculture, not just monocultural functionalism akin to agribusiness supplanted to the city.

[Kenn Brown Mondolithic Studios | image source]

The Scientific American article uses the above illustration -- a vertical farming campus of sorts -- to optimistically portray the possibilities, in terms of form and its relationship to the city it serves. The rendering shows not only the crops behind glass walls but also the vast amounts of infrastructure required for the functioning of such buildings, particularly power generation and water supply/reuse. Architecturally, considerations of massing, placement and solar orientation are more important than the design of the exterior envelope. The importance of sunlight even in urban vertical farming points to controls for retaining solar exposure in regards to nearby developments. This points to brownfield locations and others outside the city center as well as segregated zoning.

[WORKac for New York Magazine | image source]

A pre-2009 hypothetical proposal by Work Architecture Company for a site in SoHo terraced crops and other green uses in front of migrant housing, all above a farmer's market. Commissioned by New York Magazine, this sketch thoughtfully combines two important aspects of agricultural production while also acknowledging the surrounding neighborhood with a golf course, market and large-scale sculpture on the plaza. Hardly serious in execution but very much so in its programmatic details.

[Agro Housing by Knafo Klimor Architects | image source | via Veg.itecture]

Knafo Klimor Architects' winning entry for the Living Steel Competition also combines vertical farming with housing, the latter wrapped in a C-shape around the former. Designed for a location in China, the design resembles a community garden extruded twelve stories. I like this idea because it treats food production as a commons for personal consumption, though I doubt it could sustain all people living in the building; additional food (even ignoring meats, dairy, and other types of foods not able to be "grown" vertically) will need to be obtained from elsewhere to supplement what's grown locally.

[Designs for vertical farming | image source]

Inhabitat collects some of the more far-fetched proposals for dealing with an anticipated 3 billion more inhabitants on earth by 2050. The Inhabitat post discusses an op-ed New York Times piece by Mr. Despommier, who seems to be directing much of the discussion around large-scale vertical farming. I think proposals aligned with his thinking are many years off and small-scale urban farming should be nurtured as much, if not more than larger projects. Rooftops, windows, community gardens and other urban "sites" are ripe for exploitation for growing food, or at least for experimenting to determine the best ways to grow in such a setting, and as a way to shape future zoning laws and building codes towards embracing urban farming. Of course small-scale food production is already being done, but not as widely as it should be. The large-scale fantasies above might just have the benefit of increasing the implementation of small-scale urban farming as large-scale alternatives are designed and debated.


  1. This ideas seems to be popular at the moment and it is worth investigating, but without any real lighting analysis the designs are fanciful.

    Just as architects who can't cook should not design kitchens (Frank Lloyd Wright), architects who can't farm should not design gardens.

  2. Great article..
    I realy believe vertical agriculure will come into its own in towns and cities. Schools, hospitals and housing estates could have their own vertifarms, tended by a new generation of vertical farmers.
    No pesticides, no pollution, no soil and no weather concerns.

    In less than 20 years sustainable urban vertical farms will be commonplace

  3. I agree with Daniel.

    I'm probably not alone in the thousands of arch grads of the past couple years in saying that I had a classmate who's thesis was this topic, and he had a hell of a time convincing his committee that the sun/light worked correctly. He may have had an overly-practical thesis committee, but his building did work at the end of it. And it was super boring "looking" compared to all of these fanciful/blobby ideas coming out - in a two-dimensional magazine-splash kinda way. But that may be what is needed to get lots of plants to grow in a tall building.

  4. The idea of urban ag is certainly gaining traction, but I'm still curious about some of the practical will commercial and residential functions of buildings coexist with agricultural activities? How will workers pick vegetables and haul them out when others are working and living in buildings? It's looking like the technology is getting there, but it's really going to require another level of systems thinking as well to make the more industrial side function.
    The Neenan Company

  5. Urban Farming and Vertical Farming is not synonymous. Urban Farming has a lot of potential for shortening fossil fuel dependent logistics of food production and strengthens small scale (relative to ADM, nigh-microscopic scale) farming. There is plenty of space available to create agriculture horizontally in abandoned lots and over the wide swaths of pavement and parking. Even in New York (Queens anyone?) it can work, and on the tiniest of scales, does work. Should the government decide to (in some combination) stop subsidizing corn and other monocultural factory farms and start subsidizing fruits and vegetables, urban farming will happen.

    Vertical farming works about as well as the Missle Defense Shield or communism - great in theory, impossible in execution.

    What's not shown in any of those images;
    • Vertical Circulation - water and soil weigh a lot, a dumbwaiter ain't gonna cut it.
    • Method of Heat Dissipation (skyscrapers are load dominated, not skin dominated)
    • Sun Shading - except in winter, the sun is above your head, meaning you've chosen the least efficient planting layout combined with the least efficient (not stacked) building layout.

    I understand it looks cool, I understand why college kids in studio dig it (looks cool), but I haven't seen one thing out there that has convinced me the laws of physics somehow work differently if you stack plants in a skyscraper.

  6. Hmm.
    Looks great, but I am not sure I can see urban agriculture working. You simply cannot mesh a metropolitan and regional area into one.
    What can work are greenroofs or roofscapes or whatever you want to call them
    Maybe we should stop dreaming about sci-fi future populations that may not work on focus on something that will.
    Bella:rubber flooring

  7. The "WORKac" image is striking similar to an historical rendering out of Delirious New York (complete with a couple stories having farm activities)!

  8. in vertical farming ..which crop can be grown ??


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