Grass Roof in Singapore

January 27, 2008

Grasi

Where are the buildings like this in the states??

Credit: flickr/vincent_flames 

By Adam Brock

Dig deep enough into the history of urban agriculture and you’re bound to come around to the story of Havana. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its only real trading partner, Cuba went through the economic equivalent of peak oil, and during the “special period” of the early nineties, was forced to relocalize. Fidel Castro began an aggressive program of local food production, and today, Havana sports government-supported community gardens and backyard vegetable plots that provide half of the city’s produce.

Cuba’s path from famine to self-sufficiency has become legendary among Forest Greens. But try and tell it to a city policymaker, and you’ll be politely shown the door: examples borne of deprivation don’t tend to be considered best practices. Instead, mobilizing urban agriculture on a large scale will take the rhetoric of optimism, and perhaps more importantly, a solid grounding in economic reality. Forget food miles and nutrition studies – farming won’t get urban in a serious way until it can turn a profit.

Fortunately, with cereal prices on the rise and the demand for local and organic food growing, there just might be a business model hiding in there amongst all those celery stalks. One of the most promising incubators for successful cityfarm strategies is Intervale, a 350-acre conglomeration of a dozen or so organic farms and natural areas just outside Burlington, Vermont. The land, owned by the Intervale Center, is leased to first-time farmers, who receive training and start-up funds for the first couple years. While the Intervale Center itself obtains its funding from grants and donors, it has birthed many agricultural endeavors that are on the path to financial self-sufficiency. Intervale Compost Products is the most successful, which processes 20,000 tons of organic waste into $750,000 of revenue.

Burlington was fortunate to have a large area of arable land so near the urban core, but most cities won’t be so lucky. The manic pace of development over the past fifteen years has made vacant land a precious commodity, and many urban centers will have to get creative about squeezing in the space for crops. Enter Philadelphia’s Somerton Tanks Farm, a prototype for the economic viability of small-scale urban ag.

Somerton Tanks developed as a collaboration between Roxanne Christiansen, a marketing specialist and urban agriculture advocate, and an unlikely ally: the Philadelphia Water Department. PWD owns about a hundred acres of vacant land around its storage and treatment facilities, and had been looking for ways to cut down on maintenance costs while preserving the land’s ecological integrity – a perfect fit for Christiansiansen’s vision of a test case for profit-generating urban farm.

In 2001 Christiansen’s non-profit, the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, began leasing a half-acre plot next to the Somerton water tanks for a dollar a month.
Working with Wally Satzewich, the founder of SPIN Farming, she worked out a design that would cut down on overhead and maximizing production. This meant installing a drip-irrigation system, focusing on high-value crops like exotic salad greens, and figuring out how to grow three crops per year. To run the operation, Christiansen hired two full-time farmers and opted for hand tools over costly mechanical equipment. Four years later, Somerton Tanks was grossing $68,000 a year from CSA and farmer’s market sales – 20% more than even Christiansen had anticipated.

IILF is currently working on a state-funded study that will use Somerton Tanks’ business model to outline the prospects for creating an agriculture industry within Philadelphia’s city limits. But before Somerton Tanks is replicated citywide, zoning codes will need to change, as well as cultural attitudes about growing food in the city. And few landowners are likely to be as generous with their land as Philadelphia Water Department.

To be sure, cityfarming as an industry is just getting off the ground – but with Intervale and Somerton Tanks, the bar has been set. Urban agriculture can turn a profit, but every city will need to devise urban ag models that fit with the cultural attitudes, land availability, political will, and, of course, climate. But the commodification of city-grown food comes with a caveat: it runs the risk of disenfranchising those who need it the most. It’s the issue of cityfarms and food justice that I’ll be exploring in the final installment of the series.

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.

Carbon Dioxide = Food

December 7, 2007

By Adam Brock

Ecodesign is all about figuring out a way to make linear processes into cycles: transforming what’s leftover when we’re done creating something into the raw materials of something else. These “leftovers” are conventionally called pollution – but in the regeneration, they’ll be increasingly seen as valuable resources.

These days, the most pernicious leftover is the one that’s contributing to climate change. Since it looks like we’ll be stuck with emitting CO2 for the short term, it makes sense to start thinking about how we can transform it into something valuable (rather than try and stuff it underground and hope it doesn’t leak).

Sustainable Design Update reports that Cornell’s Geoffrey Coates and his start-up Novomer is developing a plastic that uses CO2 and Carbon Monoxide as a feedstock. They’ve received $6.6 million in venture capital so far, and expect their products to be cost-competitive with oil-based plastics. Sounds right on so far… but is it compostable?

By Adam Brock

Revoa

I just discovered Re:Vision, a San Francisco-based site intent on utilizing the power of the masses to reinvent urban planning. Started at the beginning of 2007, Re:vision sponsors a series of contests around themes like transportation, commerce, and energy, with the final competition centered on a real site where the previous ideas can take root.

So far, two of the competitions have closed, and the winners are up. First place in Re:Volt, the energy contest, was an energy-producing playground that lights up using kid-powered LEDs. Re:Route, meanwhile, yielded Sniff, a wireless network that matches public transit riders to encourage interaction, and Intelligently Integrated Transport, a networked transit system involving car and bike rentals and real-time route info. Not a bad set of solutions, overall, though some seemed a bit unrealistic – do I really want MTA peeking into my iPod so it can suggest who to sit next to? More importantly, the contests seem to have overlooked one of the core principles of ecodesign: that it is unavoidably, unapologetically site-specific.

Fortunately, that weakness is set to be resolved for the final contest, in which Re:vision intends to partner with a municipal government and developer to sponsor a competition for a real city block. If they succeed in securing such a site, the game would change significantly. The swarm intelligence of open-source design talent paired with a site to channel that talent seems like a pairing that just might change the way we think about the design process.

Or it might not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Domino project, it’s that developers aren’t too keen on visionary thinking, and it could prove difficult to find one willing to finance a project based on an online competition. But whether or not Re:vision gets it right the first time around, there’s no doubt that it’s on to something really revolutionary – putting the planning and development process back into the hands of the people, and giving our cities a fighting chance at sustainability in the process.

By Adam Brock

The last decade has seen the environmental movement shift from pointing fingers at the Man to seducing him instead. After thirty long years of trying to guilt-trip companies into improving their environmental performance, it’s now considered much more effective to meet business on its own terms by showing that cutting down on energy and other resources can be profitable.

But despite all the hubris, the alliance of business and environmentalism remains an uneasy one: for every unexploited opportunity for increasing efficiency through resource savings, there’s another instance where rescuing the planet and quarterly earnings just don’t jive. After all, there’s a pretty serious divergence in their fundamental assumptions; corporations need to grow or die, while environmentalists maintain that unchecked growth is what’s killing us.

Last week’s BusinessWeek took aim at this conflict of interest with a profile of Auden Schendler, the disgruntled sustainability advocate at Aspen Skiing Co. The story relates struggle after struggle between Schendler and his higher-ups to make improvements that, all told, barely made a dent in the company’s environmental impact. When he tried to install CFLs in one of the resort buildings, he was told that the quality of light put out by fluorescents would detract from the hotel’s five-star ambience; after a long hard struggle, he managed to get approval for a $1 million solar array to provide a fraction of a percent of Aspen’s energy needs.

One of Schendler’s most vocal criticisms is of renewable energy credits, a system currently used by hundreds of institutions (including Aspen and NYU) that purports to offset electricity emissions by paying to support development of renewables. After doing some digging, Schendler couldn’t find any renewable energy that had come online as a result of Aspen’s RECs, and was forced to conclude that, much like personal carbon credits, the whole setup was too dubious to support. The BusinessWeek article seems to agree, explaining that the current price of RECs offers little incentive for renewable producers to ramp up:

Even many wind-power developers that stand to profit from RECs concede that producers making $91 a megawatt hour aren’t going to expand production for another $2. “At this price, they’re not very meaningful for the developer,” says John Calaway, chief development officer for U.S. wind power at Babcock and Brown, an investment bank that funds new wind projects. “It doesn’t support building something that wouldn’t otherwise be built.”

The dubious economics of energy credits aside, Schendler faces a more serious challenge: trying to green a company whose very basis is an environmentally destructive luxury activity. No matter how much Aspen reduces its carbon emissions, its clients will release thousands of tons of greenhouse gases just in getting themselves there. No matter how many LEED points Aspen’s new buildings achieve, they’ll still be sitting vacant for much of the year.

If Aspen Skiing Co. is serious about sustainability, it needs to completely redefine its mission, figuring out how to profit from actively regenerating the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. Anything less is a profitable hyporcrisy. If Auden Schendler’s experience thus far is any indication, it doesn’t sound like the “natural capitalism” approach is cutting it – so how can the message get through before it’s too late? Legislation? Consumer rebellion? What are your thoughts?

Three Shades of Green

October 26, 2007

By Adam Brock

Soon after starting WGY, I developed the “Three Shades of Green” to describe what I saw as the main approaches to sustainability. The framework has been useful shorthand for identifying different sets of verdy values, and it’s become an integral part of my thinking about the regeneration.

But, like any metaphor, the original Three Shades didn’t quite capture the way things really work: by positing them as a hierarchy, I’d fallen into that perilous and outdated trap of linear thinking. What follows is an update of the Lime, Grass and Forest spiel with a slightly more integrative perspective.

Sustainability is shaping up to be the buzzword of the decade. Global warming is now an acknowledged crisis – one that seems to be happening more swiftly than any scientist could have anticipated – and we’ve finally begun a public discussion about how (and how much) to cut our greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.

Still, a fundamental question remains unanswered: what, exactly, are we trying to sustain? A growing economy? General human happiness? Biodiversity? Ask ten different environmentalists and you’ll get ten different answers. But while there’s hardly a consensus on the kind of sustainable society we’re trying to build, there do exist certain patterns in the way environmental thinkers tend to group themselves. I’ve identified three such patterns, given them cute names, and called them the Three Shades of Green. Here goes:

First up is Lime Green – or, if you prefer, “sustainability lite.” The Lime Greens, whatever their conventional political affiliation, can be considered the conservatives of the regeneration: they’re trying to sustain as much as possible of the world we currently live in. You can count most corporations and national governments in the Lime camp, as well as everyday citizens just becoming exposed to environmentalism. Lime is the color of institutions going green for the brownie points, as in this recent ad touting Chevrolet’s green cred: “The environment and your commute. Can’t we all just get along? It’s as simple as driving a more fuel-efficient car.”

Ahh… if only it were that simple. But while Lime-colored solutions like hybrids and carbon offsets can provide crucial gateways into greener ways of living, most sustainability thinkers contend that these solutions simply won’t be enough to avert the planetary devastation we’re currently experiencing. Instead, creating an ecologically integrated society will demand much more fundamental shifts: in our politics, in our systems of production and consumption, and in our attitudes towards nature.

Enter Grass Green, the middle shade. Grassies are trying to sustain the best parts of our current way of life – material prosperity, personal freedom – while reinventing the institutions that have led to our current social and environmental devastation. They embrace zero-waste production systems, open-source technologies, innovative new materials and progressive government initiatives: think Cradle to Cradle, nanotubes, and carbon taxes. Compared to the Lime mantra of “more of the same, only greener,” the Grass approach offers something truly substantive: a marriage of industry and ecology, one that promises to provide us with ever-rising standards of living while simultaneously healing the planet.

Yet there are many environmentalists who would call even this vision nothing more than a deranged fairytale. Our pursuit of technology and economic growth, these folks claim, are themselves a product of our dominating attitude towards nature, and we can’t achieve sustainability until we leave them in the dust. These are the Forest Greens – the revolutionaries. Instead of dealing with climate change, social inequality, and peak energy one by one, say the Foresters, we need to cut to the root of our problems and “solve for pattern.” This means leaving behind our current mechanistic, rational way of thinking, and beginning to see ourselves as part of an infinitely complex, ever-changing system. Oh, and we’ll also need to localize our economies and drastically reduce our levels of consumption in the process. In short, the Forest Greens want to sustain the web of life – and they’re willing to rethink some of the basic assumptions of human civilization in order to do so.

As the most radical shade, Forest Green isn’t without some serious limitations of its own. For one thing, its purism often renders it utopian and unrealistic: whatever you happen to think of Forest Green theory, at the moment it’s pretty hard to put into practice outside of ecovillages and backyard gardens. Also, it’s traditionally been a rural movement, and therefore not very applicable to the cities in which most of us live.

It’s tempting to see these three shades as a competition, with each one vying for their place in the sustainable future. But thinking about which shade is “better” is like asking which species of frog is “supposed” to be in the rainforest. The truth is, the Three Shades of Green are as interdependent as anything else in nature, and we’ll need all of them to get us through the next few decades.

Sure, green consumerism might ultimately be a dead end – but right now, it’s the only force that can start shifting attitudes on a society-wide scale. Sure, the Grassies might have a misplaced faith in technological progress – but they’re bound to come up with some truly worldchanging stuff in the process. And sure, the ecocentric outlook of Forest Green might not work for most of us as a way of life. But it can provide valuable guidance as we move away from our 20th-century consumerist habits, and towards something better for ourselves and the planet.

So don’t fret too much if you think you’re not “green enough” – the fact that you’re even wondering if you’re green enough means you’re on the right track. Instead, pick a shade, any shade, and get to work. We’ve got a lot to accomplish together.

Photo credit: flickr/shakkai

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