Despommier: “Vertical Farms Are Key to Eco-Urbanization”


Dickson Despommier, an advocate for vertical farming, asked “What if cities could function like an ecosystem?”, at the TED Mid Atlantic conference. Right now, cities are like a “black box, all these inputs go in and then out come wastes, which have to be removed.” In addition, current agriculture practices, which require the use of pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and consume 70 percent of available freshwater and 20 percent of available fossil fuels, are unsustainable. Instead, Despommier argues, people must learn from nature and apply nature’s “grandest design” to cities: the ecosystem, embedding food production and waste reuse in the city’s systems.

Twelve thousand years ago, the earth had intact ecosystems. Among the earliest communities around the world, farming was taken up in many places around the same time. However, the environmental impact was minimal — there were only a million people. Now, a global population of 6.8 billion uses farm land the size of South America. This enormous growth is biologically-driven, argues Despommier. “Life is resilient. We are resilient. We have resisted ice ages, droughts, continental drift, sea level rise, diseases, and asteroids.”

Ecosystems live within their means. “The sun creates energy and everyone gets their share of that energy. That’s our only paycheck.” Using biomimcry, communities can harness solar power to create an urban ecosystem that could recycle and reuse all wastes. Vertical farms are a key component of this new eco-city model.

Within urban vertical farming structures, hydroponics, aeroponics and drip irrigation system can be used to create produce for urban populations at a rate “ten times more efficient that an outdoor acre of farmland.” Despommier thinks these vertical farms would have many benefits. There would be no runoff, no crop loss from extreme weather, and no cessation of farming due to weather. The systems would use 70 percent less water and no chemicals or fossil fuels. They would enable further urban densification and the repair of damaged ecosystems surrounding cities. Lastly, they could improve the health of inner-city communities and create new jobs.

Despommier wants to try out a prototype designed by architects Weber Thompson in Newark, New Jersey. He has presented the ideas to local leadership and is asking for $40 million to get the first project off the ground (see earlier post). He calls for a few doable actions in the near term: More urban apartment owners should add greenhouses and rooftop farms. Also, the USDA department should create a dedicated department focused on urban farming to ensure produce remains under tight quality control procedures. This would make sense given many cities like Detroit are moving fast into urban (but not vertical) farming production.

Read an interview with Despommier and check out his new book.

Also, read a piece in Places on the history of “agrarian urbanism” from Charles Waldheim, Chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Image credit: Weber Thompson / Vertical Farming Blog

5 thoughts on “Despommier: “Vertical Farms Are Key to Eco-Urbanization”

  1. Owen Dell, ASLA 11/19/2010 / 10:00 am

    Where is the evidence that vertical farming is in any way environmentally sound? If someone can add up the real impacts of constructing huge complex buildings, filling them with plants, lighting them, pumping in water, etc., and then prove that this scheme truly makes more sense than growing food in the ground using sunlight and rainfall, then I will consider it something more than hare-brained.

    The elephant-in-the-living-room logical flaw in the concept of urban density is that packing people into cities like chickens in a factory farm makes them completely dependent on outside resources, with disastrous long-term consequences to both cities and the outlying areas that are called on to support them. While the idea of vertical farming is apparently a response to that enormous problem, I fear that it will, like so many superficially good ideas, turn out to be another disaster. We don’t need to take part in the ongoing conversion of humans into CAFO victims.

    When are we going to learn to look at the big picture?

  2. Jonathan F. 11/23/2010 / 2:15 pm

    My in-laws, brother-in-law and sister-in-law are all farmers in upstate New York. They work long hours for very little remuneration and are deeply in debt. It is what they know, so they keep at it, but none of their children are going into farming.

    The idea of urban farms are seductive, no doubt about it. At the same time, operating them will be difficult and expensive (just think about how you would go about harvesting on a downtown high-rise or delivering manure to the roof of an apartment building). I can’t see why urban farming on this very small scale will be any more financially rewarding than running a family farm in the country. Anyone who has been around an agricultural operation of any size, organic or not, knows the huge amount of dedication and hard labor that is required to grow and market food (I’m not speaking about 2000 acre industrial farms in Iowa). How many of us will be ready to give up a profession (landscape architecture, say) that is intellectually and artistically challenging, takes no back-breaking labor and whose pay makes a sort-of middle class urban life possible with the uncertainty and and lowered standard of living of a farmer? Will this work be only for the true-believer or are we hoping that the office workers and apartment dwellers on whose roofs the farm is operating will take on the work of farming as volunteers?

  3. Jonathan F. 11/23/2010 / 2:22 pm

    One other thing — the great thing about blogs is the opportunity presented for dialogue. I hope that Mr. Despommier will take the opportunity to address some of the issues discussed here (I’ll bet there will be more posts than these few).

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