Farms as skyscrapers

 Images Design Livingskyscraper Blake-Kurasek-Interior2-Chicago-Copyright2009
It's been a decade since Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier launched his "Vertical Farm" project, devoted to the design of skyscrapers that house farms, instead of people or offices. It's an engagement science fiction-esque idea -- no surprise that we've followed it closely on BB (see previous posts below). Last year, the meme spread rapidly when Despomier appeared on The Colbert Report, exposing Manhattan borough president Scott M. Stringer who then evangelized it to the City of New York. For more on that, see "Country, the City Version: Farms in the Sky Gain New Interest" from the New York Times, July 15, 2008.

Of course, the practical challenges of vertical farming -- from energy needs to security -- aren't easy to wave your hand past. Still, the conceptualists press on and the Vertical Farm Project remains the hub for news on these efforts. Blake Kurasek of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Graduate School of Architecture recently published his designs for "The Living Skyscraper: Farming the Urban Skyline." I find the renderings to be incredibly exciting, giving me the same optimistic feeling that I had when I first saw the striking images below from T.A. Heppenheimer's 1977 classic book "Colonies In Space."
 Images  Settlement Coloniesinspace Cover  Images  Settlement Space Graphics Torusinterior-450

From The Vertical Farm Project:
 Images Design Livingskyscraper Blake-Kurasek-Closeup-Chicago-Copyright2009 By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

The concept of indoor farming is not new, since hothouse production of tomatoes, a wide variety of herbs, and other produce has been in vogue for some time. What is new is the urgent need to scale up this technology to accommodate another 3 billion people. An entirely new approach to indoor farming must be invented, employing cutting edge technologies. The Vertical Farm must be efficient (cheap to construct and safe to operate). Vertical farms, many stories high, will be situated in the heart of the world's urban centers. If successfully implemented, they offer the promise of urban renewal, sustainable production of a safe and varied food supply (year-round crop production), and the eventual repair of ecosystems that have been sacrificed for horizontal farming.
The Vertical Farm Project

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  1. This would probably be an easier sell if they started off with a proof-of-concept farm in a small but densely populated town, maybe somewhere with a climate or landscape inhospitable to farming.

    Office skyscrapers didn’t spring onto the scene out of nowhere either- architects had decades to learn how to build progressively larger buildings and gained a lot of valuable knowledge along the way about what worked and what didn’t.

    1. “…maybe somewhere with a climate or landscape inhospitable to farming.”

      Detroit – OCP is there!

  2. I find it quaint that the renders show people picking the produce by hand. The whole key to modern farming is the mechanization. Your work space in a city would still have to allow that mechanization. I am more inclined to think city farming would look like a parking garage with dirt and grow lights.

  3. I don’t see how this could ever work. The cost of providing the artificial light necessary to properly grow vegetables under such conditions would be astronomical. The light the plants would need could never be provided by whatever sunlight managed to pass through the glass covering the outside of the outer walls, not to mention the many floors above any given floor in the garden. Vegetables need a great deal of sunlight, far more than the house plants that decorate the interiors of office buildings.

    1. I don’t imagine any tiered structure would really work for the reasons you mention. Farming sky scrapers would have shade for most of the day from the other buildings near them and cause the same problems.

      However, should land become some valuable as to force people to build farming skyscrapers, I imagine by that point we would have a better means of generating energy or having genetically altered plants to require less light.

      Farming does favor flat land for a reason.

  4. Please, not this again.

    The “conceptualists” who continue to suggest such ideas really need to look at:

    a) How much land is require to grow food crops.
    b) How much it costs to build/rent/lease space in “the heart of the world’s urban centers”.
    c) The current cost to produce food.

    Until people are willing/forced to pay $500 for a head of lettuce, this idea is beyond ludicrous.

    1. Please! Your first two points are exactly what the people who have conceptualised this theory are looking at. The third point is irrelevant.

      a) Much less ‘land’ is required when you have multiple floors!
      b) With arable land becoming less and less available and the population getting larger and larger, it is only a matter of time before enough land for farming purposes will be far more expensive than the footprint of one skyscraper.
      c) What does the price of food today have to do with possibilities for sustainable farming in the future? That’s like saying, electric cars are stupid because petrol was cheap as hell in 1970.

      I really don’t understand why people would shut these ideas down so quickly. Technology does have the habit of getting better through necessity or profit. We just need a wealthy government with the balls to see the benefit of investing heavily in this sort of thing (like the U.S. Government saw the benefit of investing heavily in NASA creating and building upon many technologies that are now part of everyday life).

      I also suggested this last time one of these posts was up. One way to help battle the lighting issue would be to build some well placed mirror systems in the surrounding skyscrapers, this could also help with heating the building during colder months. Obviously this would mean building lots of buildings at once with the intention of making them all work together, but really that should happen anyway.

      1. It’s not a failure of imagination to say this is a crackpot idea, it’s a success of the obvious. Technology is amazing and will get us the solution, but this ain’t it: the flaws in the idea indicate very little understanding of the unchangeable facts about plant growth, food production, water usage, soil health. bugs, and disease. It’s sort of like proposing that if humans will spontaneously breed themselves tails in a few generations, suddenly we’d get smarter. It just doesn’t work that way.

        May I reiterate that there’s plenty of food on the planet if we stop wasting giant amounts of it.

        If mirrors were an effective light transfer for plants, some farmer would have figured it out many moons ago.

        Camp Freddie, diseases, yes, I can’t figure out what on earth the professor thinks is going to prevent disease in a confined environment? That it’s “controlled” like a “hospital”? There are just some basic notions about the way natural systems work that are way off base.

        1. Please read the link posted by cmaceachen.

          Soil has nothing to do with Aeroponics so soil health is irrelevant.

          Aeroponics systems can reduce water usage by 98 percent, fertilizer usage by 60 percent, and pesticide usage by 100 percent, all while maximizing crop yields. Plants grown in the aeroponic systems have also been shown to uptake more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier and potentially more nutritious.

          Also my mirror suggestion really should be taken for what the suggestion was in the first place. A way of getting more natural sunlight to a tower. I never said you weren’t going to need artificial lights, just figured with correct planning these sorts of buildings could become a lot more efficient than any skyscraper in the world currently. The trend for energy efficient skyscrapers is very new, yet the technology is advancing very rapidly. The same is to be said for aeroponic systems.

          These two things combined, along with some advances in efficient lighting and renewable energy could make these things plausible.

  5. Oh no, not vertical farming again. I was hoping this was something I would never, ever see on Boing Boing. Sigh. There is a really efficient (and way lower footprint than vertical farming) way to grow food crops. Its called “agricultural land.” Its not in the city, but that’s okay, no need to be afraid of it. Some of it is actually located really close to cities and it is a really good way of supplying urbanites with food. Instead of focusing on high tech, large input solutions like vertical farming, we could even look at more efficient transportation systems – like enhancing existing rail lines – that would make rural production and supply of cities more efficient. City dwellers, we will always depend on lands and resources outside the city to support cities. Instead of pretending this isn’t so, and coming up with Gee Whiz technical fixes that will actually serve to widen our footprint, let’s celebrate the links between the urban and rural and make this symbiotic partnership more fruitful. I’m thinking things like laws which protect agricultural land around cities, and having CSA programs linking rural farmers with urbanites. (And, no (just because someone is bound to bring it up), Havana doesn’t supply most of its food. I spent a year studying their urban agriculture and high throughput organiponicos – which are a short term solution that strip the soil and can’t actually sustain an urban population for the long run.)

  6. One advantage would be using gravity to process the produce. Growing at the top, washing etc on the way down, then distribution from the bottom. The same way that modern multistorey grain mills work.

  7. is it weird that the first thing i noticed about the top picture was the chicago skyline in the background?

  8. Our current method of farming is not sustainable in the long run, as dependent as it is on petrochemicals for both mechanical work and fertilization. So how would this be any more sustainable than what we do now?

    I’m thinking that the earth will solve the overpopulation problem the hard way, as it always does, with famine.

    In the meantime, we can all work to make farming a more glamorous occupation. For that matter, we could all do well to learn a bit about how to grow food by sweat of brow, since it’s pretty much a lost art these days.

  9. Silly rabbit, skyscrapers are for humans.

    In the US, a lot of prime agricultural land – flat, fertile, well-watered, close to markets – has been used to construct sprawling suburbs. I’d bet that you could do better by increasing population density in cities (with consequent energy efficiencies) and reclaiming some of that wasted land for agriculture, than by building ‘vertical farms’.

  10. I read the “advantages” of vertical farming on the website, and started on the essays, which describe the “advantages” in some greater detail. Most of them are…well…to be honest…kind of…crap. Minimally, the claims are completely unsubstantiated, and sound like they are made by someone who hasn’t really done much actual farming, possibly hasn’t even been on a modern farm, but did read a bunch of books on the Dust Bowl.

    “Year-round crop production” When the sun sinks yea so low in the sky, ye must heat with oil and create light with electricity to grow thine tomatoes. We can do that in greenhouses already with lots and lots of non-renewable energy, it’s not some fantastic new idea. How on earth is vertical farming supposed to magically make the sun stay in the sky during winter?

    “All VF food is grown organically” By what decree?

    “VF greatly reduces the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface.”

    Um, what?!? CAFOs (our other contained agriculture) are notorious *spreaders* of diseases.

    “We cannot go to the moon, Mars, or beyond without first learning to farm indoors on earth”

    Call me a boring luddite, but why don’t we just work on not destroying available farmland before we plan on shipping out to the moon?

    The inputs for converting a building to farming would be enormous and would probably offset any gains in not trucking food from the next state over.

    I’m just not buying it, not even if I realllllly stretch my imagination to maximum expansion size. It would be great if more people grew more food, but this smells crackpotty to me. There are much simpler, smarter solutions.

  11. wow i don’t know how they built that top building in the middle of lake michigan but maybe they should discuss that option too ;)

  12. Yes, I read Colonies in Space too – great book. Thanks for reminding me, I gotta go down in the basement and see if I still have it.

  13. I bet the motivation for this project isn’t so much that a Columbia professor and the Manhattan borough president are bursting with ideas about farming as such. Instead, some New Yorkers like this as a way to replace some other New Yorkers with something nice and quiet, like plants.

  14. Vertical farming will likely never be as necessary in the US or Europe as it will be in Asia, but only 20% of the world’s arable land is left and populations are skyrocketing. In an enclosed, controlled environment, techniques such as aeroponics can be used to vastly increase production by up to 50 times, depending on the crop. Water usage is decreased by 95% and the need for pesticides and herbicides is removed. Modern industrial farming creates giant plots of land that are monocultures with one type of plant that is designed to resist the pesticides that kill everything else and then drain into our waterways. Moving agricultural production indoors lessens the strain caused by irrigation and keeps pollutants out of our water. This also keeps gmo crops isolated so there is little risk of modified genes crossing with wild plantlife.

    No one is suggesting this be done now, or even in the near future in a city like Chicago (no, student work is not a proposal), but it will, some day, be necessary and will likely result in a great deal of positive outcomes.

    1. “an enclosed, controlled environment, techniques such as aeroponics can be used to vastly increase production by up to 50 times”

      Cite? Or are we playing crazy-make-em-ups? As an organic farmer, I’ve worked with a few university extension schools who know their production stats pretty well, and I’ve never heard anything claim to increase production *fifty* times current levels. Working with plants, soil, air, and all the other necessities to grow food is never, ever a controlled environment. No, not even if you really really wish it was. Natural systems are not machines. There’s always unpredictability. A handful of healthy soil, for instance, contains as many living microorganisms as there are humans on earth…we don’t even pretend to be able to identify 5 percent of them, much less understand what their roles are in creating healthy, living soil that grows broccoli. And yet…vertical farms pretend to create a controlled environment? There are uncountable factors that can’t even be identified, much less controlled.

      “Water usage is decreased by 95 percent”…what, plants in towers don’t get thirsty? That stat isn’t even physically possible. Overhead irrigation may be wasteful and can be reduced, but not watering at all doesn’t grow potatoes that are pre-dehydrated for your convenience. Plant cells still require a certain level of hydration to grow carrots.

      I can trot out the old point that there’s enough food wasted every year, through spoilage / not shiny enough for the machines / bureaucratic tie-ups. Again, these problems are much simpler to fix than growing sky cucumbers. Still not buying it.

      1. Who said anything about soil? As I said in my original post, I’m talking about aeroponics. The silly rendering with people in indoor fields is not what anyone who is serious about this stuff is talking about. We’re talking about intense aeroponics here- no soil. Just water and fertilizer in a closed, sterile system. And because you are losing no water to soil, runoff, or evaporation, only water actually used by the plant is lost. Take a look this. There is lots more info on aeroponics if you look around a bit.

        1. That link is awesome.

          “That’s good news for those who love marinara sauce.”

          Aeropnics is pretty awesome stuff though.

  15. Another thing that cracks me up about the mock-up image is the prominent shadows cast about the building. As if fruit trees didn’t require full sun to produce fruit. Maybe there’s a GMO apple that can be grown in a closet…or spinach that doesn’t need to photosynthesize.

  16. this is an interesting thought experiment, for sunlight I think you’d have to use fiber optics to channel natural light from outdoors into “lights” indoors. you could completely mechanize the production, you wouldnt need to let a plot lie fallow every X seasons, just scoop up that dirt, sell it as fill for someone’s backyard and put new dirt in (d’oh just thought of hydroponics after I typed that, guess you wouldnt even need dirt. If the costs for bringing things back from orbit and shielding from radiation were lower, growing in space might even be viable, use a spinning cylinder so half is exposed to sunlight at a time and just grow year-round, could work very well for luxury crops (wouldnt want your foodstuffs at risk) things like tobacco, um, er, uh, herb(s), cotton.

  17. Vertical farming should mean placing an end of PVC pipe filled with soil into the ground sticking up. Cut holes in the sides – plant yer plants. You can put hundreds of these in a person’s lawn.

  18. citing property costs is kinda silly. thats built into the fuct, existing economic system. like saying mechanization is always bad because we “lose jobs.”

    energetically, i don’t know if it could work. likely no one here does. but it does make some sense to integrate food production into human settlements.

    and, to seemingly contradict myself, I once worried over permaculture/organic-agriculture because of the man-power required. an environmental science colleague said, “don’t worry about that, man. the farmers WANT their jobs back.” and I felt better.

  19. So people in the surrounding buildings won’t mind having the sun blocked out all the time?

    You only get so much sunlight per unit of area, period. Around a kilowatt per square meter of solar energy. Sure, you can put up mirrors and lay out your vertical farm to catch more light – by taking it from OTHER places.

    And if the gains from having controlled conditions were really so great, it’d still be a heck of a lot cheaper to put covers over big stretches of flat land where you wouldn’t need to build huge structures and could still operate tractors.

    Energy-wise, this feels like the “can you make a wind-powered vehicle go downwind faster than the wind” debates. Sure, you can fudge the numbers in the short term, but there’s still only so much energy available in the system.

    Even if the energy was free and you had all the artificial light you could want – well, look at it this way: how many 100-story factories have you seen? Getting heavy equipment up there just isn’t practical, and it just plain isn’t going to happen unless this planet winds up looking like Trantor or Coruscant or something.

    Last I heard, current projections have the population peaking somewhere over 9 billion. Even if it winds up being twice that, that’s no planet-spanning metropolis.

    Rooftop gardens are cool. They’re pretty, maybe they help the air quality a bit, and they give you some vegetables. But vertical farming is a bunch of BS.

    1. You don’t have to be ‘stealing’ any light that wouldn’t be wasted anyway. I’m not saying the building next door has to have all its windows replaced with mirrors, I’m saying put well placed mirrors on buildings to deflect light that wouldn’t be going anywhere anyway. Last time I checked light doesn’t travel through a skyscraper wall. Why not utilise that? Again, this wouldn’t be an end all solution, it would be a small portion of a larger solution.
      You’re right that the world isn’t predicting a planet spanning metropolis. However there are plenty of countries where there is virtually no arable land left as it is. If population growth continues to grow in these areas than it makes perfect sense to start vertical farming; technological advances will happen to make it more feasible, they always do when necessary. In reality the only two things that are stopping this from being perfectly feasible are lighting requirements and supplying enough power to make it worthwhile. Aeroponic and hydroponic systems are already proven to create much faster growing and higher yielding plants, both of these systems also take away any need for a tractor (nothing to plough if you’re using water and air) and why not just build some robotics into the buildings structure to take care of picking and tending crops? Run a couple of tracks along the roof that run through the various rows, arm an intelligent arm with a pair of secateurs and something to pick crops, you’re pretty set.

      You’re right that the world isn’t predicting a planet spanning metrololis. However there are plenty of countries where there is virtually no arable land left as it is.

  20. This is a truly epic fail for reasons others have mentioned.
    Also, the gratuitous claim of ‘organic’. Really? You think that you can make a fully functional, high NPK biosphere in a skyscraper? I’d also reckon that controlling plant diseases would be a huge problem (sick building syndrome, but worse). There’s a reason that greenhouses are not organic farms.

    Of course, organic farming is a ridiculous waste of modern technology, which can provide huge and necessary benefits when used sensibly – but that’s an argument for a different thread (DISCOLSURE: I work in pesticide regulation).

    Also, the BB transcript fails to parse 10^9. If all we needed was 109 hectares of land, we could just plough up half of Central Park, NY.

  21. At the moment if all population of earth would concentrate in one area, it’ll barely be the size of Switzerland, so I don’t understand the urge of gaining more land to farm.
    For example, there are huge huge amounts of unexploited good land in the former USSR since the communist’s falldown.
    Or why not invest in fighting the desert in the North of Africa, by farming, that would be two birds with one stone, the only obstacle there is water but there’s loads of it deep underground, it has to be dwelled. But even so the overcost of needing electric pumps would be far less than doing it in skycreepers. You could get the electricity from the sun, it’s (as always) just a question of investment.

  22. It’s worth distinguishing between farms that look like factories, maybe on the outskirts of cities, and farms that look like skyscrapers located in city centers. The former seems a lot more feasible than the latter. For perspective, the Empire State Building has about 64 acres of floor area. So in order to make any kind of a dent, you’re going to need A LOT of farmscrapers, even with fancy aeroponics or whatever. And skyscrapers are, to put it mildly, expensive. And they exist because of the advantages of huge numbers of people living and working in dense areas, not because there is literally nowhere else to go. We city folk, I think, tend to forget just how BIG farmland is. And energy intensive – every farm is, in a sense, a gigantic solar power plant, that produces edible calories instead of electricity. And, as others have said, there is only so much sunlight per unit land, period. Stacking doesn’t change that.

  23. it’s great in concept, but the places that need this most don’t have the finances or resources to make this useful. can you see this happening anywhere in bangladesh? india? africa? latin america? not a chance.

    the only two with the resources and insanity to pull this off that come to mind are the UAE (which won’t really NEED it), and china, who might at that point be forced to care about farming again. or humans for that matter.

  24. I’m of two minds on this: on one hand, I’m shouting “Go for it!” I like gardens, I like fresh veggies, I particularly like the idea that skyscrapers could be more mixed-use than they are. In the Northeast, frost is more of a problem than a lack of sunshine in the Winter: I myself have harvested arugula for Thanksgiving Dinner. Given windmills on the roof, and solar panels, and a little luck, we might not have entire “farm skyscrapers”, but for a skyscraper to have “farm floors”. Root crops can also be “wintered over” quite successfully, and I’m still thinking how we might have bunnies, chickens, even Dexter cattle in the picture.
    “Daddy, I want a heifer!”
    “Don’t you want a pony?”
    “No a little cow, that I could feed and milk, and…well, all the other kids at the Petit Hameau Playgroup have one…Cindy’s family makes cheese!”

    On the other hand, I dislike the fact that the man seems to be deliberately misrepresenting facts. Population growth is not skyrocketing, it’s flattening out. We have plenty of farm land left, it’s just that Argentina wants to keep feeding cattle, Americans like their suburbs, and well, Africa is a political mess. It’s entirely possible for us to feed everyone in the world, with or without vertical farms, but the killer app for vertical farming isn’t that it’s going to feed the needy.

    Instead, it’s going to be one of the features that keep people in cities. Let’s face it, the more stuff a city can offer, the more likely people will want to live there. At one point it was shopping. Then it was the arts. Then it was an artisan sensibility. If what keeps people in (name Manhattan neighborhood) is that you can live there, have the advantages of city living, plus being able to tend a garden, have a little green space, and generally have it over zoning-regulated, square-shaped suburbanites, then they’re just going to flock there, economy or no.

  25. sounds like a feasible way to feed the future world-population without poissoning the entire planet.
    lamps are getting more energy-efficient by the year, and if you use the right isolation heating won’t be overly expensive either.

    traditional farming needs all kinds of poisson to grow enough for the farmer to make a decent living. indoor-farming means you don’t have to worry all that much about rabbits or fungi eating your plants (just practise extreme hygiene rules).

    the reason today’s intensive farms are famous for spreading MRSA and other nastiness is because the cows and pigs are given loads of anti-biotics to keep them ‘healthy’ despite lack of space or sunlight or normal natural food or healthy social interaction with other animals. some farmers have managed to cut down dramatically on their anti-biotics use by implementing strict hygiene-rules for workers and visitors.

    though we do not really NEED urban farms. today’s farms produce more then enough, even for all starving african children, even if all farms would turn to organic farming.
    all it takes are some social changes: not throwing half of what’s produced away because shops only buy carrots that are straight or appels that are round, eating a little less meat, and bringing back local crop-species will help a lot.

    i do not think those social changes will happen all by thenmselves, so building these agro-towers might help urbanites to realise how difficult it is to grow food. that it’s not normal to order a ‘bottom-less cup’ and then throw half of it away.
    and it will give farmers some real competition, so if they want to sell their produce they better come up with decent quality food. hopefully force them out of the idea that agriculture has to be done a certain way, just because everyone else is doing it that way, and things like organic farming and animal-walfare are only for sissi city-boys.

  26. 109 hectares is pretty small. A hectare is a hair less than 2 1/2 acres. Definitely way different from 10^9 hectares as the Vertical Farm copy says.

    1. Danlalan, there’s an energy flow problem here.

      Elois are not “Primary Producers,” that is, not getting energy from the Sun. So they’re not ‘crops,’ they’re food animals. So unless we make them photosynthetic (as long as they’re still yummy!), they would compete for crop space.

  27. OMG, brainwave. Let’s modify the Eloi to be photosynthetic.

    Better yet, let’s modify OURSELVES to be photosynthetic.

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