| Vertical Farms and Future Cities|
By Maywa Montenegro
Gristmill: The Environmental News Blog
June 2, 2008
What do vertical farms, green roofs, soft cars, breathing walls, and
Dongtan, China, have in common? They were all subjects of discussion at
Friday's Future Cities event in New York City, part of the four-day 2008
World Science Festival.
To a packed house, Columbia University microbiologist Dickson Despommier
described his vision for feeding the planet's burgeoning, and increasingly
urban, population. The vertical farm takes agriculture and stacks it into
the tiers of a modern skyscraper. Instead of stopping at the corner
pizzeria for dinner, Despommier suggested, you could pluck a nice head of
lettuce, maybe some corn, and some tomatoes for a big salad, all in your
own building, on the way to your apartment. You can't get fresher or more local than that.
According to Despommier, the farms will be "grown organically: no
herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers." (Of course, being indoor, there
won't be many insects to spray for.) The farms will also require much less
irrigation since all water can be re-circulated, and they'll curb the
growing pressure to turn forest into farmland.
The vertical farm sounds (and looks) pretty amazing, and certainly
Despommier deserves much credit for thinking boldly ... but I was left
with several questions.
How, for instance, do the crops on a completely bug-free indoor farm get
pollinated? Would this system only work for a few fruits and vegetables,
or also grains? (It's one thing to imagine urbanites planting some veggies
on a veranda, but very much another to contemplate how this would work
with things like wheat, rice, sugar, and corn.) The much larger question,
of course, is yield. How many of these high-rise farms would it take to
put even a minor dent in global food consumption?
That said, I enjoyed Despommier's spirited talk enormously.
Here's a short list of the other participants in last night's panel, if
you'd like to read more about them:
• Blaine Brownell is an architect with expertise in how revolutionary
eco-materials have the potential to facilitate sustainable building and
design. He is a visiting professor in sustainability at the University of
Michigan as well as founder and director of the design/materials research
• Majora Carter is a leading environmentalist whose rallying cry is "Green
the Ghetto." A 2005 MacArthur fellow, she is the founder of Sustainable
South Bronx, a community-based organization that is spearheading efforts
to revitalize disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City and beyond.
• Dickson Despommier is a pioneering researcher in the development of
urban vertical farm skyscrapers for food production. He is a professor of
public health and microbiology in environmental health sciences at
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
• Peter Head is an expert on the sustainable development of cities and the
project leader for China's first eco-city, Dongtan. An award-winning
structural engineer, he is the director of Global Planning at Arup, the
worldwide engineering, design, and consulting firm. Head was recently
named one of "50 global green heroes who could save the planet" by The
• Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He has
been the chair and CEO of CNN and the editor of Time magazine. He is the
author of Einstein: His Life and Universe, as well as biographies of
Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.
• Mitchell Joachim is an architect and urban designer as well as a partner
in Terreform, a New York-based organization for philanthropic architecture
and ecological design. His design of a compact, stackable "city car,"
developed with the MIT Smart Cities Group, was a 2007 Time Magazine
Invention of the Year.