Lettuce in the sky, with diamonds

Columbia professor Dr. Dickson Despommier is developing models for "vertical farms," swank-looking skyscrapers that produce agricultural products for urban locavores.

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 Stringer, the Manhattan borough president in New York.

When 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." 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.

Country, the city version: Farms in the sky gain new interest [ IHT, via Tim O'Reilly's twitterstream ]


  1. Step 1: Build skyscraper farms.
    Step 2: ????
    Step 3: Buildings in the year 2050 all look like the arcologies from SimCity 2000.

  2. @ Taukuan.

    Whilst rooftop gardening is a good idea, I think this is a much better idea. For one you could set up equipment and people to manage it much easier than getting people to go from building to building, heading up 50 floors each time (whilst carting around farming equipment!). Secondly most skyscrapers don’t exactly have flat roofs. There are reasons for this.

  3. @takuan – rooftop gardening is considered more useful overall by treehugger, so you may be on to something. i could see uses for this technology, mostly in combination with other buildings as in a “greenhouse wall” providing insulation, oxygen and food in office spaces, etc…

    awesome renderings of these technologies and many others are included in my GIANT ECO POST from a couple weeks ago. it’s the result of a few months of work.

    included in that post is a brief mention the amazing “PLASMA+TRASH=ENERGY MACHINE”, which i’ve submitted to boingboing twice without bites…

  4. fly Google Earth over any big city downtown core. Lots of unused space.Dedicated high rises might spike interest and concern – both good, but flat roof now is “free”. Though i you look at most major cities anywhere you usually see they are at or near the mouths of major rivers. Deltas where the obscenity of prime farm land being turned into parking lots continues apace.

  5. very cool GIANT ECO POST James, lots of good stuff there. I’ve seen the plasma arc incinerator mentioned in co-generation before,I can only guess capital costs and the usual municipal level corruption keeps it down.

  6. This is totally insane. It is yet another architects idea of something that looks cool and completely ignores economic realities. Basically, unless they’re planning to growing pot, there is no way goods produced will ever cover the expense of building something like this. There are good reasons why agricultural land is in the “middle of nowhere”.

  7. Here’s an idea: rooftop gardening on steroids; use the same greenhouse technology I’ve seen in Baja to add a fairly light, 2-3 story tall layer atop any skyline.

    The farm I saw were near Todos Santos (Google Map close up here) featured multi-story greenhouses in vertical rows each with mechanisms for moving and accessing different levels of plants in the stack. An instant forest of vegetation, all grown for the NAFTA market up north (aka Trader Joe’s). Dress it up with NYC architecture and it could work nicely in any space where it fits.

  8. Hundertwasser was way ahead of the game here:

    He proposed that people ought to have a tree duty and a window right… in short a duty to plant trees and a right to decorate the window of their room to within an arm’s length however the person chose.

    Many of his designs included green roofs and places for plants to have space to grow. As I read a short while ago that solar panels are much more efficient when kept cool, and that placing them over greenery keeps them cool, this may not just be a green idea for growing food in cities, but also a practicl idea in terms of making renewable energy more efficient.

    The only concern I would have is that the structural integrity of the building is examined closely to ensure that an enthusiastic gardener doesn’t collapse the building with an extra load of manure….

  9. The example picture of extra floors between for farming or special buildings for farming are way too expensive! Take the average x-story building and calculate the rents – no way could something be produced that would pay equivalent rent.

    Alternative is to add enclosed narrow three-sided glass enclosures on the outside of existing buildings. Behind this wall is a rotating ribbon belt. In the ribbon is the hydroponic system that can be rotated up and around inside the glass channel. Workers plant/harvest on the lowest floor of the ribbon. Thermal management is done with vents at the top that can be opened/closed. Modular construction is possible to have several smaller ribbon loops for very tall buildings. Clear ribbon materials allow light through into existing windowed occupants for a view of lush greenery.

    Over time, some of the external glass panels could be replaced with photovoltaics to provide the plants with shade and the building with power.

  10. A vertical farm would be a criminal waste of electricity. A farm is effectively a solar collector which converts sunlight to plant material. Stacking up a “vertical farm”, you might as well put your grow rooms anywhere and stick to pot, as it is the only economical crop to grow under artifical light.

    Rooftop gardens are another story, but they are actually really costly for the food you get. There is a huge benefit to specialization in farming, so unless you like gardening, a rooftop garden is going to do far less for the environment than rooftop solar cells will do.

  11. I’m of two minds on these projects. I do think that they are a great symbolic vision, which could do a lot to convince people that gardening is forward-thinking, useful and chic. That *is* pretty important, as many people still think of vegetable gardens as a hallmark of poverty.

    However… skyscrapers require tons and tons of glass and steel. They are pretty, but nobody should be calling them sustainable. The actual ecological effects of this project would be overwhelmingly negative.

    Takuan, I think you’re right about roof gardening. So many urban roofs are wasted space!

  12. #12:
    “A vertical farm would be a criminal waste of electricity. A farm is effectively a solar collector which converts sunlight to plant material. Stacking up a ‘vertical farm’, you might as well put your grow rooms anywhere and stick to pot, as it is the only economical crop to grow under artifical light.”

    These conceptual vertical farms are usually best described as turning a greenhouse into a skyscraper, so all the plants within have daily access to sunlight, both direct and indirect.

    Yes, this might provide less light than they’d get on, say, a rooftop… however bear in mind that you can grow some plants in places where a direct ray of light from the sun will never once strike them or anywhere near them (I have). For crops which do not require an abundance of direct, intense sunlight, having a couple hours of direct light per day, and the rest being indirect, should be plenty to grow a useful crop of food.

    With farming, a major limiting factor is, in highly developed places, always the availability of horizontal area to grow plants in. This concept, if it uses only sunlight, may well provide some relief from that limitation, and may help prevent food shortages as the world population expands, especially if prudently used and combined with new and more efficient growing and harvesting methods.

    My concern of course is whether the impact, both ecological and financial, of having to construct and maintain a big building like that is going to make it arguably not worth doing just to grow crops, food or otherwise. Even growing pot in one of those buildings might not recover the setup costs for many years, and that’s currently one hell of a lucrative cash crop, far moreso than any legal one (I’m ignoring medicinal usage for the purpose of not being even more long-winded than I already have been).

  13. The vertical farm is intended, as the article says, to “run off the grid,” i.e. produce its own electricity. The practical limitations of the concept have more to do with the economics of real estate than with thermodynamics.

    It’s important to note that Dr. Despommier, as he states himself, is not an economist or architect, but “a biologist swimming in very deep water” as he puts it. He’s primarily a parasitologist and expert on tropical diseases. Vertical farming is a pet concept project he’s been working on for many years (we talked about it when I interviewed with him for med school 3 1/2 years ago) and he recognizes its logistical limitations under the current economic conditions.

  14. How can it run off the grid? (Well, unless you put a nuclear reactor in the basement, that is)

    How can it collect light which isn’t there?

    Stacking plants, even as a “greenhouse” is stupid. Leaves are opaque solar collectors, and as you drive by your typical farm, you don’t see dirt, EVERYTHING is covered with leaves. Going up a second level, uhh, you fail, totoally, completely, and utterly.

    And even if mythical stacking in a greenhouse would work, you’d only go up 2 or 3 levels, top.

  15. #8 is right, why not just use nearby farms to grow crops? There is no shortage of farmable land in this country.

  16. Uh, so let’s say conservatively it costs $500/sf to build this thing. That’s a mighty conservative figure. Now say you want to pay off the investment in 20 years like any sane person would…selling lettuce.

    Sure, it leads to less transportation of food. But, you know how much steel and concrete and glass has to be transported to put up a $500M building?

  17. Not to pile on too much, but water is heavy. To this layman, it seems like irrigation would be a huge obstacle. Rainwater collection seems right out, given that the available collection surface is so small compared to the overall planted surface. Does anyone know how the volume of water for rational irrigation compares to normal skyscraper water usage per square foot?

  18. I remember reading about this a few weeks back. A point of focus seemed to be the idea of future populations topping 15 billion people and unstable farming due to global warming, which is missing in this discussion. I looked at this as an interesting way of looking at the future of farming. Maybe this isn’t practical now or in the near future, or in it’s current design… but local food grown in dense amounts of space seemed to be a forward thinking idea.

  19. Roof top gardens in large, polluted cities make me cringe. Unless someone has scientific evidence to the contrary, I wouldn’t drink the rain or eat the snow in New York, and I wouldn’t eat plants that grew on that water. Greenhouses using city water are another matter, but that sounds more expensive.

  20. There’s a reason most rooftop gardens are sedums. It’s a pretty harsh growing environment. In general, you don’t get nearly as much water as you would expect, the dirt is heavy (and so is the plant mass and water). I believe most of the more intensive gardens (ie, have more then a couple inches of growing medium and sedums) are irrigated with the gray water from the building.

    Which is not to knock sedum green roofs, of course. They help reduce runoff, increase the life of the roof, help insulate the building and increase habitat (depending on how it’s done).

    And as for the comment about the non-lack of farmland…you know that expanding belt of suburbs around large metropolitan areas? Guess where the best farmland used to be.

    It depends on what the pollution is and what the plant is. Different plants uptake and store different pollutants.

  21. #19 – Think of that new fandangeled ‘Freedom Tower’ that’s being built at Ground Zero.
    Basically it has a bunch of mirrors to direct a bunch of sunlight at a monument. Serving no practical purpose what so ever.
    Apply the same principals but also have glass, etc. Then stick a couple of extra mirrors on nearby towers pointing towards the tower. Lots more light! You may need some artificial lighting, but it’s not like every crop will need a HPS light sitting 6″ above it.

    #20 – What about other countries?

    #23 – Rational irrigation on a farm is going to be a whole different kettle of fish than this thing. For one the depth of the soil would likely be a whole lot less and also drainage would be able to filter down the tower onto levels below. In fact I imagine that irrigation would be a key advantage of vertical farming as gravity would do most of the work.

    And as others have pointed out. This isn’t something that’s going to work tomorrow or next year, but it might be entirely necessary to start working out in 20 years.

  22. Just think of how much room this will open up out in rural farming areas for new suburbs!

  23. #30 – The runoff effect would be an indicator of inefficiency, though; any runoff from the 30th to the 29th floor is just water that was needlessly pumped up the extra 10-15 feet. In irrigating this system, you’d want to never pump water up any farther than its intended floor — for that matter, you’d probably want to deliver the water to the soil directly, rather than to the ceiling and sprinkle it down.

    I do like the idea of using reflected light from nearby buildings as a more horizontal source; perhaps that could work if you had some kind of reflection/diffusion system on each floor to balance the sunlight (a case where the implementation of an actual solution is literally smoke and mirrors?)

  24. Of course you wouldn’t want to pump water further than you need too. And I never mentioned anything about pumping the water to the ceiling and letting it sprinkle down. However you should always have some form of drainage in any irrigation system, and if you can get your drainage to fall directly onto something else that can use the water then all the better.

    My prediction is we’ll be seeing at least some trials of these within 30 years.

  25. With gas at $4.50 a gallon and rising, what better way to use all of those empty parking lots and vacated service stations. Have you ever stood in a car culture city and looked at all of the space that is dedicated to the automobile. In Dallas its anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of every acre. I bet the average is well over 50% over the whole city. I’m not sure about citis like NY or Chicago since people there are somewhat less fasinated with internal combustion.
    The cost of fresh food seems to be increasing in ratio with gasoline and jobs seem inversely portional.
    I think bringing food production to the city is a great idea. I live in a rural area and keep a small garden. I have 4 100 sq ft beds. I use drip irrigation and intensive organic methods. You might be surprised by the amount of food that comes from this small space. I think I can still increase the productivity of my soil by over 200% too. I am currently working on trying to extend my growing season to year round.
    I don’t know if this skyscraper method will work ideally, butI would like to see it given a shot. I think it has a lot of potential.

  26. It’s an interesting idea. You could at least supplement outdoor agriculture with it.

    Small organic farms produce more food per unit of
    land. Very large farms produce more food per unit
    of capital. Transitioning to organic farming would
    make more effective use of existing farm land.

    As food prices become more expensive replacing
    larger parts of the suburban lawn with food gardens
    will become more attractive.

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