Cities are for people: The limits of localism

I reworked my vertical farm piece for Worldchanging, and by the time I was done, it was an entirely different article. So if you can stand one last entry about vertical farms, this one offers a somewhat more thoughtful look at some of the principles behind sustainable development.

Columbia Professor Dickson Despommier has generated a fair amount of attention with his concept for “vertical farms,” stacked, self-contained urban biosystems that would — theoretically — supply fresh produce for city residents year round. The New York Times showcased outlandish artists’ conceptions of what such farms might look like. Colbert did his shtick. Twelve pilot projects are supposedly under consideration, in locations as far-flung as China and Dubai.

The concept has captured the imagination of at least the sliver of the public that laments the enormous resource demands of our food production system and yearns for something easier on the land, easier on our aquifers, and less demanding of fossil fuels. Vertical farms seem to promise all that.

Promising, of course, is different than delivering. Construction requires a lot of energy. Keeping vegetables warm in winter requires a lot of energy. Recycling water requires a lot of energy. Generating artificial sunlight requires a lot of energy. In other words, the secret ingredient that makes vertical farms work (assuming they work at all) is boatloads of energy. No one seems to have actually done the math on the monetary and environmental costs of such a scheme, but they would no doubt be considerable.

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adam

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  1. Chad - August 13, 2008

    Gaah, the “math” is simple. This can never ever work. Except for the top floor and a tiny bit along the sides, you have to use 100% artificial light. To get that light renewably, you are going to need ten acres of solar panels for every acre of “indoor” garden. It would just be a heck of a lot easier to plant the ten acres than cover them in exotic silicon, transmit the electricity lord-knows how far (and with greater “transmission losses” than simply shipping the crops), and re-converting it back to light.
    I haven’t even touched construction costs and all that, because I don’t need to: this idea fails at the first principle and we need to go no further. Farms are light-collecting devices, and by their very nature must be spread out. You may as well accept this fact.

  2. richard schumacher - August 13, 2008

    Chad is correct. Without hundreds of TeraWatts of cheap clean power, vertical farms are the very inversion of how to minimize our footprint. Plants need to be spread out to collect inherently diffuse Sunlight and rain; it’s people that need to live stacked up in closely-spaced towers, so that their apartments can heat and cool each other through adjoining walls and so they can commute on elevators and electric trains. The best we can hope for the coming world of nine billion people is that they all live in replicas of New York City each surrounded by the maximum possible area of wilderness.

  3. Brent - August 13, 2008

    Agreed. It’s fundamentally more sustainable to promote urban in-migration so that we can preserve/recapture some of our exurbs for organic agriculture — reduces sprawl, CO2, etc., and shortens the supply chains between the food producers and consumers.

  4. Phoenix Woman - August 13, 2008

    Some vertical gardening is good (growing tomato plants upside down is an effective way to minimize pest and rot issues), but as Adam says, it’s not even close to being a viable large-scale solution to feeding city dwellers. Much better is what cities like Pittsburgh and Youngstown are doing: Turning their deserted suburbs into farmland and using bioremediation (with biofuel crops) to clean up brownfields.

  5. Kevin - August 13, 2008

    Food should not be produced in vertical towers, however, the other equation to food is a taste/aesthetic issue. What you choose to eat and what time of year and where your are located all have direct impacts on the economic/carbon footprint of feeding yourself.
    Farms may not belong in the city, but we also do not have to have strawberries from New Zealand in New York in February… although they are growing strawberries in Greenland now… maybe it will not be too long before you can get strawberries from West Chester County in February.

  6. nit - August 13, 2008

    I guess green roofs with organic farming on top of every building in big cities would be good enough… at least they will be able to provide some percentage of citizens’ need for food while still use 100% natural sunlight… :)

  7. badgergirl - August 14, 2008

    A carbon tax would be so useful. It would make plain the costs of food choices, transportation behavior, and foolish architectural fads. Best of all, it would allow individuals choice while making them pay the appropriate environmental cost of that choice and would rid us of much tiresome moralizing.

  8. Adam Stein - August 14, 2008

    Nicely said, badgergirl.

  9. michael - August 15, 2008

    Read Design with Nature by Ian Mcharg…you will find that population density can eventually lead to human neurosis…why we seek open space and a little privacy. Cities also pose other health risks…they don’t cool down well during heat spells…there are simply too many of us…