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.

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