January 9, 2008
By Adam Brock
The following is the first in a four-part series on the current state of urban agriculture. In this and the next three sections of the series, I’ll be showing the ways in which urban agriculture is quickly spreading its roots, and assessing the potential of cityfarming from the perspectives of business, equity and leisure.
Environmentalists have been warning of the fragility of our food systems for years, but the recent spike in food prices has made more mainstream outlets take note, as well. The December 6th cover story of the Economist declared the “end of cheap food”, while a recent Guardian article warned that “the risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years.”
There’s no avoiding it: like many other aspects of industrial civilization, our current agricultural system is in a state of crisis. In California and the Midwest, factory farming is eroding thousands of square of miles of topsoil every year, slowly drawing the nutrients from some of the world’s most fertile farmland. What’s to blame? Overproduction and chemical fertilizers, which, being petroleum based, are themselves nearing the end of their shelf life. Add to these concerns the possibility of herbicide-immune pests and land competition from biofuel production, and it becomes pretty clear that, within a generation or so, we’re going to have to completely reconfigure the way we cultivate and transport food.
The first line of defense, of course, is family farms, which are back on the upswing after decades of decline. But the small farms currently in existence won’t provide nearly enough to feed the massive appetites of our large cities, and rising fuel costs might make even a trip of several hundred miles uneconomical. In that case, it might make sense to procure our food from even closer to home – as close, perhaps, as our own backyards and rooftops.
How much food are we really talking about here? Is it possible that we’ll soon be feeding ourselves entirely from the city limits? I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a class last year that tried to estimate how much land it would take to grow all of New York’s produce within the five boroughs. The Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, which handles most of NYC’s conventional produce, has a throughput of 2.7 billion pounds per year. Growing that amount using permaculture techniques would require about 100,000 acres, or three times the entire parkland in the city. Possible? Sure. Feasible? Not so much.
That is, unless you take the farming indoors – and go up. The vertical farm, a high-rise building solely dedicated to the intensive cultivation of produce, has made headlines recently as the answer to the food crisis of the 21st century. Its main proponent is Dickson Despommier, a Columbia professor that’s led courses examining the feasibility of vertical farming for the last few years. His students have explored the viability of everything from buildings full of gourmet lettuce to complicated ecosystems of chickens, tilapia and dozens of crops.
As crazy as it sounds, the vertical farm isn’t completely without precedent: greenhouses like the massive Eurofresh complex in Arizona have been utilizing hydroponics to grow high-yielding indoor crops for years. But in its stacked growing rooms, use of cutting edge materials, and of course its location, the vertical farm is indeed something entirely new. Theoretically, a vertical farm has the potential to provide for a neighborhood of 50,000, making our cities agriculturally self-sufficient. But getting one off the ground would take an investment of hundreds of millions, and it’s bound to be decades before they start proliferating.
Food security is a vital and oft-overlooked component of sustainable cities, albeit one that might take decades to acheive. In the meantime, though, there are a host of other reasons why cityfarming makes sense in the short term. In fact, the urban ag revolution has already begun: from backyards to rooftops to vacant city-owned lots, urban farms are popping up all over the place – and in the process, they’re transforming not only food systems, but underprivileged communities, urban economics and even our brain chemistry. If the twentieth century accomplished the urbanization of the countryside, the twenty-first will see the pastoralization of the city, proving once and for all that crops and condos can peacefully coexist.