Between global warming, deforestation, water shortages, poverty, and the rest, it’s easy to lose track of all of the important problems our societies will need to face in the next few decades. One of these problems is our current system of agriculture. We need to reevaluate what we’re producing, how we’re producing it, and how much of it is generated. This problem is, of course, inextricably linked to issues like global hunger and the greenhouse effect.
Huge production farms generate huge amounts of waste, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff that directly harms the surrounding environment. They are also typically inefficient with respect to their energy inputs. Furthermore, because our societies have congregated around cities, and continue to do so at an increasing rate (80% of the world population is expected to live in cities by 2050), the distance that our food has to travel (Food Miles Traveled) has a huge impact on our carbon emissions, as well as the cost of food.
One solution to this problem touted by many environmentalists is to support and popularize small-scale urban farming. The idea is that if we can get enough people utilizing what little inner-city real estate they have – windowsills, rooftops, vacant lots, etc. – we can greatly augment our production of food while reducing the harmful byproducts of farming and increasing the energy efficiency of agriculture. By growing food in city, transportation costs and emissions are reduced to near zero. The most successful example of this sort of agricultural infrastructure is in Havana, Cuba, where the government instated incentives for urban farming after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which supplied Cuba with most of its food. (For more information on urban farming in Cuba, check out this article).
But relatively recently, a new system of agriculture has risen in popularity, though it has not left the design stage of development. Vertical Farming is the concept of mass producing food in tall buildings and skyscrapers located in dense, urban environments. This is certainly an idea that appeals far more to the conventional American notions of specialization and mass production, plus it can be done more efficiently than conventional industrial farms.
One group that is trying to make vertical farming a reality is Plantagon, an organization with a utopian greenhouse structure and an ambitious vision for the future of agriculture. The Plantagon greenhouse consists of a spiral growing surface within a huge geodesic glass dome. The folks at Plantagon have entered the development stage, and are aiming to have a greenhouse up and running within three years.
In my estimation, the Plantagon structure has some strengths, as well as some serious weaknesses. Its biggest strength is that is appears to be a commercially viable solution to the problem. One of the claims is that each greenhouse can be financed from the revenue it generates. That’s one hell of an upside, assuming it works out.
Another nice thing about the Plantagon greenhouse is that it’s very pretty. Once you got over the initial oddity of having a giant, plant-filled hamster ball next to your office, it actually might be pretty nice to look at. But I think this obvious focus on the aesthetics of the building costs the structure more than it gains. Public support is great, but efficiency of production is the real goal of vertical farming. If we want vertical farms to be the best that they can be, our primary metric has to be the square footage (or acreage) of farming space compared to the footprint of the building. In this respect, the Plantagon greenhouse looks conspicuously inefficient, especially when compared to this design by Chris Jacobs:
It might not look as pretty, but a taller, narrower structure is going to have more space to grow things when compared to its building footprint. You could probably get even more efficient by giving the building a rectangular footprint, like this one by Atelier Architects:
Another consideration when thinking about urban, and especially vertical farming, is the inefficiency of incorporating animals. It’s already common knowledge (or should be) that animal protein is a drastically more inefficient source of calories than plants. And because animals need more space as well, they don’t seem to fit well into the idea of skyscraper farms. This will require, if not a complete transition to vegetarianism, at least a drastic reduction in the amount of meat consumed by our populations.
A final design I came across, and by far the most eccentric, is the Dragonfly, by Vincent Callebaut Architects. Designed to be located in New York City, it actually appears to be one of the most detailed and specific of the designs, although it is far to monumental to be constructed any time in the near future. The Dragonfly actually incorporates animal husbandry into its enormous structure and comprehensive, top-down nutrient cycle.
No matter what you think of the aesthetics, it’s clear that from standpoints of efficiency and environmentalism, agriculture has to relocate to centers of urban density. We need to begin with small-scale urban farming, as in Cuba, while we wait for vertical farms to work their way through the legal and structural logistics. In the same way that a focus on environmentalism has caused us to alter the form and function of our buildings, and to rethink the layout of our cities, it will also force us to reconsider the density and the utilitarian content of our cities. It may take a couple of decades, but I fully expect to someday eat carrots grown thirty stories above the ground.