Urban Vertical Farming: Maybe in Detroit?

We come across this very depressing article about how Detroit is becoming 'unsettled', in that it is suffering from a massive population decrease, leading to some unprecedented solutions:

But a new momentum has taken hold here that embraces just that: shrinking the city in order to save it.

"There's nothing you can do with a lot of the buildings now but do away with them," said Mae Reeder, a homeowner of 35 years on the southeast side, where her bungalow is surrounded by blocks that are being reclaimed by nature, complete with pheasants nesting in vacant spaces where people once lived.

The residential vacancy rate in Detroit is 27.8 percent. This is up from the 10.3 percent rate found in 2000 by the United States census.

One of the problems with the 'unsettling' (or is it 'desettling') approach is that urban areas have massive amounts of 'hard' infrastructure: asphalt, concrete, sewer pipes, water mains, electrical wiring, and so on. Unlike farms from a couple of hundred years ago, which were basically wood structures with some stone, modern settlements--that is, cities--have all sorts of stuff that just doesn't rot very well (and can even be toxic when it does so).

But I think there's an opportunity here: why not convert the 'unsettled' parts of Detroit to vertical farms? These are essentially multi-story hydroponic farms (and China has adapted the concept to combine farming with apartment buildings).

One knock against vertical farming is that many urban areas don't have space for it: would anyone knock down parts of Manhattan or Paris to build farms? From an economic perspective, it's probably not practical. But some cities, like Detroit, have large areas that aren't being used: former industrial areas, or neighborhoods in decline. These areas already have much of the infrastructure needed for vertical farming--there's no need to build high-volume water mains or waste disposal systems as there might be in suburban or rural areas which typically don't (and can't) cope with that much infrastructure burden.

So, is this totally crazy, or could this be a partial solution towards revitalizing some of our down-on-their-luck urban areas?

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Detroit can ill-afford to establish a hydroponic farming infrastructure. Such systems, especially in such a destitute city would be impossible. They are extremely high cost in terms of infrastructure and maintenance, there is probably no one in the area with the appropriate skill sets, and water is no longer the free commodity people often think of it as.

Regarding the water, these systems use partially cleaned 'gray water', not clean water, which most cities have in abundance.

i was about to mention that the water infrastructure is already in place, as Mike pointed out, negating that part of Thomas' objection --- but gray water infrastructure is definitely not in place in Detroit. probably not anywhere in Michigan; water conservation and reuse is not on many people's agendas here.

it's a neat idea, but probably financially unfeasible in a city that hosts things like this and this. if the buildings themselves can't be kept up, what hope of converting them to farms? it's not like even hydroponic farms produce anything highly-valued. highly needed, yes, but who ever got rich off farming?

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

I love this idea. From what I've read, it seems like it's possible to build vertical farms to be fairly energy- and water-efficient. Plus, growing the food close to where lots of food consumers lives saves on transportation resources.

Pilot testing something like this in Detroit makes sense because the space is cheaper. If it would supply jobs in an economically depressed area while testing out an environmental solution, foundations might be willing to fund it.

In regards to discounting the infrastructure, there is also the issue of building proper units that are able to perform hydroponic farming adequately. I suppose you can refer to it more as a "capital expense" as opposed to infrastructure, but it's definitely not an insignificant sum (and who is going to foot the bill?). Greenhouses are not a cheap expense by any stretch of the imagination. Plus ... it's Detroit. Your energy expenditures are going to go through the roof come winter.

While it'd be nice to find something useful for Detroit (aside from the auto industry), I doubt hydroponic agriculture is going to be the city's savior.

You can do this, but I'm not convinced that vertical farming is actually more cost and energy and resource effective than simply removing buildings and allowing the prairies to come back - if you haven't been to Detroit lately, you'll be stunned by the degree to which the prairies are coming back anyway. The same infrastructure that already exists can be partly demolished and partly used.

The high cost of converting aging and decaying structures to vertical farming suggests to me that this is a more complex strategy than is really needed in Detroit - it might make sense to do this in some of the sprawl cities instead, or to convert underused urban office space in dense cities that overbuilt for example, but rather than create complex, self contained systems, Detroit residents can actually use the complex self-contained system nature provides, with some comparatively low input retrofits, mostly involving bulldozers.


Detroit, for obvious reasons, was developed based on the auto as the primary transportation tool. The result was sprawl beyond description. Much of the sprawl went undeveloped so the city is covered with unimproved land, interlaced into the built infrastructure. A recipe for failure with a golden opportunity hidden inside. Detroit is probably one of the few cities in the US with the current means to actually feed its entire population.

You don't want towers, you want neighborhood gardens. Towers isolate the citizen from the process. If you opt for organic the cities waste stream can be mined for its recycled organic fraction for fertilization which provides the added benefit of water efficiency (compost is hydroscopic and can hold 4.5 times its own weight in water).

In the right hands (probably the citizens) it could serve as a testing ground for all US cities to learn what's involved in feeding their poulations..

By rich albertson (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

if you haven't been to Detroit lately, you'll be stunned by the degree to which the prairies are coming back anyway.

maybe, but they really shouldn't be. Michigan is too far east to be naturally prairie; the state was deciduous forest before people started changing the landscape.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Detroit's growing season is about 4 months, and that's in an "average" year. Even large industrial farms can't easily break even with that growing season using standard farming. The expenses associated with vertical farming would make it tough to break even in the south with a 7-month growing season. It's just not feasible in Michigan.

Rich's suggestion that you'd be better off with neighborhood gardens is pretty scary when you're talking about an industrial town like Detroit. I live in a smallish town (pop. 12,000) that has not had any major industrial involvement, and yet, it has proven virtually impossible to find a "clean" patch in town for a neighborhood garden. Pretty much any community that was occupied for most of the last century has very polluted soil. I suspect Detroit is particularly contaminated.

I love the idea of vertical gardening, but anyone who undertakes it will do so because they like the aesthetics or the feel-good aspects. It's not something that will be profitable (or even cost-offsetting) for years to come, if ever.

i think this an unusually good idea the problem seems to be funds. i am a college student in Detroit an i have been interested in getting involved in an idea like this but i wonder who would want to invest in this idea though?

By David Hunter (not verified) on 07 Aug 2010 #permalink

I too am a college student who just finished a research report on vertical farming. I think this is a revolutionary idea, and the implementation should take place sooner rather than later. I recognize there is a high cost associated with vertical farming, but the long-term environmental and economic benefits significantly outweigh the cost. The only reason people are scared of the cost is because they do not know if vertical farms will succeed or not. Professor Dickson Despommier, the brain behind the concept, estimates that a modest vertical farm would cost 20-30 million to build. If you think about it, that is not an entirely outrageous price for such a project. The New Yankee Stadium cost roughly 1.3 billion to build, and it doesn't even get used every day! Many buildings cost millions and billions of dollars, and we don't even blink an eye. Besides, I highly doubt vertical farm projects are going to ask any of us to pay for it, most likely, the money will come from private investors, so why do we care what it costs? If Sting wants to put some cash down into vertical farming, let him! If I had a million dollars to spare, I would definitely invest in vertical farming. There is no doubt that the world population is going to increase by at least 3 billion people in the next 40 years, and vertical farming could be the single most important invention of this century. 40 years is not far away, we will still be alive and so will our children. Running out of arable land, and natural resources such as water, are not problems that we can ignore, and dump on future generations. Vertical farming will use solar and wind technology for energy, hydroponics and aquaponics for cultivation, among other technologies that will lessen the agricultural and human impact on this planet. People told Bill Gates his idea would never work, McDonalds was also told they would never succeed, and just 15 years ago people thought the internet and cell phones were just fancy toys, and would never take off. I hope that 15 more years down the road, people who thought vertical farms would never succeed are eating a salad, harvested from a vertical farm.

By Heather M. (not verified) on 08 Aug 2010 #permalink

The idea is great and future of farming. In crowded cities, of course, it may be difficult to find space for VFs. But when malls can come in crowded cities why not VFs? Depending upon the need of the time and those who have the resources and knowhow to set up, VFs are going to come and shall become popular.

By G L Bansal (not verified) on 06 Oct 2010 #permalink

Taxpayers could partially fund vertical farms. Why would it all have to be on the backs of private investors? Food is just as much a necessity as water.

By Aaron from Wic… (not verified) on 04 Dec 2011 #permalink