Mike the Mad Biologist

Skyscrapers as Farms: “Skyfarming”

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Photo: Architectural Design by Rolf Mohr; Modeling and Rendering by Machine Films; Interiors by James Nelms ­Digital Artist @ Storyboards Online

A while back, I posted about apartment buildings that double as farms. New York magazine has a really interesting article about urban skyscrapers that would function as vertical hydroponic farms.

I have no idea if this “skyfarming” could work, but the idea that cities, with abundant supplies of grey water (unpotable water that can be used in agriculture), could be the next food basket is tantalizing. It could really revitalize the urban and suburban landscapes.

Cities do have abundant supplies of water, most of which is wasted. Even during a drought, New York or Boston would provide agricultural facilities with a relatively constant supply of grey water, unlike ‘outdoor’ farming.

The article is here.

Comments

  1. #1 Charles
    May 22, 2008

    On top of what the article cites, I read this and thought that it could also reduce fuel usage and drop food prices by having cities be more self-sufficient.

  2. #2 doug l
    May 22, 2008

    Terrific concept that’s been kickin’ around for a while but lately seems to be catchin’ the reading public’s imagination. I’ve heard of these being considered on the site of a couple of different major urban redevelopements; one in San Francisco, and a number of ‘em in NYC, both focusing initially on the production of high value crops like gourmet lettuce varieties for restaurant consumption and to supply nearby farmers markets, while providing jobs and a nice collaboration with eco and bio tech industries, cementing together a very attractive high-quality life-style district. All things considered I say these make more sense than the majority of greeenwashing proposals that have passed-by.

  3. #3 Edward
    May 22, 2008

    Color me skeptical that this will work – the cost of building and maintaining these things is probably an order of magnitude more than farming on flat land. A better solution would be to stop building McMansions on farmland and house people in skyscrapers near their workplaces. Far more energy is used by people driving in their cars from suburban communities than is used in trucking food to the store.

  4. #4 Charles
    May 22, 2008

    Well, then we should do both. It’d be vastly more efficient to have people live, work, and eat food grown in the cities, then.

  5. #5 tony
    May 22, 2008

    Nice to look at in pictures, but will people put up with insects, molds, and smelly organic fertilizers and pesticides ? Doubt they’ll put up with chemical insecticides. Architectural drawings are always so neat,clean and unrealistic. Having worked in a organic greenhouse for sometime, I can say it was nice to work there, and nice to leave at the end of the day. I don’t think I’d want to live attached to one. Converting rooftops to greenhouses is certainly a good idea and will compete with solar arrays and wind towers as valuable real estate space is put to better use.

  6. #6 bigTom
    May 22, 2008

    Its hard to imagine anything approaching cost parity with farm grown goods. I also would be leary of the foods, as most cities are pretty polluted, and the plants might well concentrate some of the toxins. I could see it being a recreational activity for urban gardening.

  7. #7 Art
    May 22, 2008

    Vegetable gardens in buildings, brilliant. Now we won’t need to worry about the vagaries of wind or rain or insects or disease. By isolating food production from nature we can claim our independence from nature. No longer needing nature we can then destroy nature. Of course we probably might want to keep a few select slices of nature protected. Mostly for the aesthetic value.

    I know, we could take these pieces and put them somewhere safe. Like space maybe. Lots of sun and they wouldn’t get in the way.

    Wait … this is starting to sound familiar … wasn’t there a movie?

    “Silent Running”:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067756/

  8. #8 Brian X
    May 24, 2008

    Rumor has it that “organoponics” (hydroponics using sewage and other organic waste) is a pretty big deal in Cuba. I don’t think there’s a lot of freely available information in English, but it’s a pretty fascinating idea, as is the general concept of urban agriculture. In fact, when I was a kid in the 80s, a lot of the books futurists were writing for kids had precisely this sort of idea in mind, though a lot of them included multi-story pasture buildings for raising livestock, which seems rather less practical than multi-story hydroponic greenhouses.

    The fact of the matter is that we need to make a lot of changes in our lifestyles. All those bike trails we’ve been building for the last thirty years or so are going to have to get converted back to railroad tracks sooner or later, and I agree that the exurban development that Edward talks about is a huge liability for the future.

    Art:

    Unless you know some way to feed nearly seven billion people with current models of sustainable organic farming alone, I think we need every damn cutting-edge agricultural technique we can come up with. If that means intensive urban agriculture, well, we may just have to do that sooner or later. Best to do the research and prototype design now to make sure it works later when we need it. And don’t think being alarmist about one rather outrageous concept of the consequences is a legitimate argument; in fact, it’s damn close to a Hitlerless Godwin.

    bigTom:

    You did read the “hydroponics” part, right? If necessary, the water can be filtered, and the entire setup would have to be at least somewhat climate-controlled.

  9. #9 Art
    May 25, 2008

    Pardon me if I sound a little cynical. But I have been around long enough to see all sorts of technological silver bullets offered up as solutions and all they do is dig us in deeper.

    Remember the ‘green revolution’? It was going to feed everyone. And, for a time it looked like it might. But the benefit was consumed in an expanding population, destroyed farmland, urbanization, pollution and the need to maintain the ever increasing inputs to keep it all going. What could have been a partial solution just bought us a little more time on a treadmill that is speeding up.

    What your missing there is that the seven billion people and the need and/or desire to overdrive natural systems that took millions of years to evolve are the problem. There is, never has been, an issue of suitable land to grow crops on this planet that hasn’t been caused by this overdriving or conversion of potential croplands into economically or politically more convenient purposes. Or simple waste.

    A little over a century ago the Midwest was mile after mile of rich, living soil many feet thick. There was little need for fertilizers. Now, after a century of farming practices that strong-armed extra production out of the land the farmers are essentially practicing hydroponics. The soil is dead. Much of it little more than sand. Having traveled down this road of intensive agriculture they have to keep at it. the system is geared for that. But always at an ever higher cost in terms of energy, chemical and technological inputs.

    There is no need for high-rise greenhouses or any such experimental high-tech solutions. If you want to boost food production you could start by not paying people not to grow crops, eliminate about 2/3rds of the meat production, and stop diverting food crops into energy.

    We need to get closer to the natural system not farther from them. The energy and chemical inputs can be reduced and you might not need quite so much oil. Start rebuilding the soil so the soil can feed the crops.

    You want to grow crops with sewage I think that’s great. If you want to grow crops in the cities you don’t need Buck Rogers high-rise greenhouses with swing-arm watering and robot arms. All the big-box stores and strip malls have flat roofs. Plants on roofs save energy because they both insulate and shade the building below. Another way of reducing oil consumption. Most commercial roofs are plenty strong enough and would need a minimum of modification.

    Every time we face simple problems we try to complicate things and we end up getting bit in our collective rumps by the unintended consequences. We don’t need to move farther from nature. We need to incorporate ourselves within nature. Which means simple straightforward solutions with well known and well understood technologies. I realize as Americans we are supposed to favor the big science, big money and highly engineered solutions handed to us as quick solutions.

    But that is pretty much how we got into this bind. The hole is getting deeper every year. Perhaps we should begin to think about not digging.

    Maybe if we try something different we will get different results.

  10. #10 Brian X
    May 25, 2008

    Okay, first off, big box and strip mall roofs? You have got to be kidding. Or have all those collapses under snow and heavy wind been my imagination? You’d have to rebuild most of those structures — most of them are barely capable of keeping themselves up, never mind roof farms and other miscellaneous space-saving activities.

    And for what it’s worth, a lot of what you say is correct, though the “back to nature” part is a rather loaded phrase that I am not too sure would have a meaning we agree on. You are completely correct about tapped-out soils and wasted energy, but you make it sound as if the Green Revolution was a mistake. It was a necessary step that didn’t work out — I’ll grant you that much, dubiously — but that doesn’t mean that it was a total failure, not as long as data was gathered from future efforts.

    And I didn’t deny anything you said. I’m simply saying that a) there is no reason on earth not to develop any possible technology and b) “back to nature” and high-tech food production are not mutually exclusive except to ideological purists. We do need to rebuild the soil and develop less-aggressive growing techniques, but we pretty much need every damn bit of growing capability we can come up with. What we don’t need is knee-jerk luddism.

  11. #11 Art
    May 26, 2008

    Technology has its uses and when used appropriately it can represent the best humanity has to offer. I’m neither a Luddite nor a purist. I just think that you can’t use technology carelessly and without thought of how it fits into the bigger picture or the consequences. Too often advances are tossed off as discreet pieces and get applied wastefully. It often resembles what happens if you hand a four year-old a hammer. The kid loves his new toy and proceeds to apply it vigorously to everything around them. Much to the detriment of the woodwork, glassware and siblings.

    The green revolution wasn’t a mistake so much as a missed opportunity. It was a simplistic and uncoordinated application of a technology. The logic was that more food equals less hunger.

    But what happened was that much of the increased food production went into growing the population and other negative aspects. The technology could have been used to buy time to modify the cultural and behavioral aspects away from increased family size. Real, long-lasting, progress could have been made in feeding people if the food output could be increased while population growth was controlled.

    As for rooftop farming it has been done small-scale. The roof failures are actually a very small percentage of a huge number of buildings. Many of those are attributable to poor construction and much of the remainder to extreme weather that nothing short of a bunker could survive.

    Also I’m down here in the sunny south. Not much danger of catastrophic snow loading here. But even up north flat roof are common and very few of them collapse. There are also many inner cities that have large numbers of ‘brown-fields’ and vacant areas if you really don’t want to plant on buildings. Bottom line is that there is no shortage of places to plant crops. So there is no need for specialized, purpose-built high-rise greenhouses. Keep the high-rise greenhouse for when space gets really tight. Perhaps when and if we build multi-generational colony ships.

    Closer to home, if you could economically convert the glut of condos and empty office space to farming without having to use artificial lights you might have something.

    I use the term ‘back to nature’ not as a slogan but as an understanding that natural systems represent a highly advanced and evolved natural technology. We need to understand the details of how these systems work before we dive in and start making big changes. We need to understand how the pieces fit and interact before arbitrarily deciding what parts we want to declare as bad.

    Seems we too easily see just parts of the system and declare war on those parts that displease us. ‘Insects are bad’ leads to carpet bombing everything with pesticides. So we get stronger insects. Weeds are bad has us hosing down vast swaths of land with herbicides. Which produces stronger weeds. Bacteria are bad unleashes mass use of antibiotics and antibacterials. So we get resistant microbes and, it looks like, kids with weak immune systems. I have nothing against pesticides, herbicides or antibiotics. But these are just tools. Tools that help when used carefully in a controlled and targeted manner. But also tools that cause damage when overused or misapplied.

    It is like the kid with the hammer. Give him a toy and he pounds his general environment with it. There is no self-control. No thought as to consequences and little or no long-term planning. We have to stop being kids looking for simple one-shot silver-bullet solutions to complicated problems. We have to start managing our long-term problems.

    Humans have to learn to control our numbers, inputs and outputs. Prioritizing and managing them long-term. If we can’t do this for ourselves the environment will do it for us through mass contagion, starvation and conflict. The usual messy and painful means. Until we take conscious charge of our own disposition as a species technology can’t solve problems. It just buys us a little more time running on a treadmill that get faster every year.

  12. #12 Brian X
    May 26, 2008

    You haven’t made the case against developing the technology, you know. Honestly, as I said before, I see what you’re saying, and to an extent I agree with it. To put it bluntly, people aren’t going to stop fucking anytime soon, and given how much religious mores continue to inform aid and population control efforts, the situation is not getting much better.

    Whether it’s your intention or not, you make it sound as if it’s only productive to focus on one line of inquiry at once. Think about it this way — what about Japan, where every square meter of land that can be farmed has been, and still has to compete with a population that’s just about half of ours, crammed into a much, much smaller space? What about Cuba, where they were forced to develop intensive urban agriculture due to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade partner? Even if we don’t need it now, they needed it yesterday.

    As to the Green Revolution being “used to expand the population”, I’d like to see some citations, because that sounds awfully post hoc ergo propter hoc. I mean, you’re basically invoking Parkinson’s Law, which is certainly an interesting observation but not scientific in the least (though to an extent it does apply in urban planning). Given the power inequities in the countries the Green Revolution was supposed to help (witness the Ethiopian famine of the 80s and the current Myanmar aid fiasco), that seems like a very simplistic analysis of the situation.

  13. #13 mirc
    March 21, 2009

    thanks