Why Cityfarming?

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.

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9 Responses to “Why Cityfarming?”


  1. There is no doubt that farming needs to re-define itself to compliment rather than compete with densely populated areas. A new sub-acre farming method called SPIN-Farming is providing a way for farmers to downsize food crop production without downsizing their incomes. SPIN reduces the land base and operating costs of farm operations and re-casts farming as a small business in town. By serving the fresh vegetable needs of local communities, SPIN positions farming as an integral part of urban and suburban economies, rather than something isolated outside of them.

  2. Scavenger Says:

    Environmentalist’s have no common sense left. Now farmers are supposed to grow corn for fuel,as a solution to global warming then the earth freaks start screaming about food shortages and coming famines.
    And since this green fuel(grain alcohol), can’t be made economically, my tax dollars actually subsidize the wealthy who fill up thier tanks and drive thier SUV as much as they please.


  3. […] Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out. […]

  4. stephencgeorge Says:

    I really want to see this project succeed because I think this is could be a solution to are rising food shortage…I am trying to get the first working tower built: http://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/vertical-farm-in-new-york-city

  5. James Ang Says:

    Hi All,

    The idea of city farming or vertical farm is great and practical! There is some pointers that I would like to share. (Please note that I not a city farming subject expert.)

    These are:

    1. The infrastructure cost investment amount. This is whether we retrofit the building or build a purpose built building. Also, the operation maintenance cost have to be consider.

    2. Even in the most ideal situation when vertical farm is part of most urban city landscape and resolve the food shortage, it may not completely solved food security. Why? In the unlikely event of natural destruction like earthquake, we may be back to the current situation.

    Once we can resolve the above concerns in a very cost effective, cost efficient and make it simple, the idea may taken off commercially. In short, it make the cost of the food produce low. Thus, making food produce affordable for more people in the world.

    Maybe, we can start from small and progressively go to a bigger commercial scale. This is just some suggestion.

    Have a nice day!

    Best Regards,
    James Ang

    http://omnigens.wordpress.com/

    [James Ang is a Gen Y Blogger (or Gen Y Problogger – stands for Professional Blogger) who blogs mainly on innovation, peer learning, personal development and well beings.]

    About The omniGenerations Blog’s Concept

    The omniGenerations Blog (or The omniGens blog in short) is a peer learning community blog or a peer learning micro wiki blog that focus on the holistic development of our lives. The omniGens Blog leverages on the collective wisdom of our proactive community in helping us to achieve simple work – life balance and happiness. Make Life Simple.


  6. […] Reduce global warming as transportation from rural farm to market  [7] is greatly reduce  […]


  7. […] global warming as transportation from rural farm to market  [7] is greatly reduce  […]


  8. […] 6. Reduce global warming as  there is no transportation between rural farm to market [8]. […]


  9. […] With urban vertical farms locate in cities, transportation from rural farm to market is greatly redu…[7]. Thus, we can reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse effect [9]. […]


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