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Cities may sprout vertical farms

Proposed high-rise greenhouses could help solve a looming food crisis, professor says.

(Page 2 of 2)

By bringing high-rise agriculture to urban areas, transportation costs are eliminated, and the produce is fresher.

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The problem of bringing light to the plants could be solved through artificial lighting, powered by solar, wind, or other methods, Despommier says. All cities have a huge source of unused energy: human sewage. It could be burned to create a significant energy source.

“It’s not a perpetual [motion] machine because you’ll have to supplement from the outside,” he says. But the energy requirements would still be lower than those of conventional farming, with its use of heavy machinery, fertilizers, and long-haul transportation.

Critics remain far from convinced. “The notion of filling a building [with plants] and artificially supplying the light for the plants … from any kind of energy system is one of the weirdest ideas I’ve ever heard of,” says Richard Register, author of “EcoCities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature.” “It’s not serious agriculture. It’s just not.... It’s an intellectual plaything.”

A better answer is to develop, over time, more compact, energy-efficient cities along the European model, he says. That would free up land near urban areas for conventional agriculture with “100-percent-free solar energy” falling on it. Urban community gardens and high-intensity conventional commercial gardens could also supply part of the need.

Despommier’s students, in fact, first looked at using rooftop gardens to feed Manhattan. They found that farming on flat rooftops could supply only about  2 percent of the island’s food needs. That’s when Despommier hit upon using some of the city’s abandoned buildings to create vertical greenhouses.

He received further inspiration from a children’s book his wife gave him. “Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House,” by Judi Barrett, tells the story of an apartment building supervisor who fills his building with vegetable plants and farm animals as tenants. While Despommier doesn’t see cows or pigs moving into vertical farms anytime soon, he thinks aquaculture could be part of the mix.

“You can start with mollusks – mussels and clams,” he says. Shrimp, striped bass, catfish, and flounder are other possibilities – or chickens, ducks, and geese. “This will have to be done in a way that’s agreeable to consumers, so consumers will set the standard,” he says.

The first working vertical farms are likely to be built outside the United States, Despommier says, where the need is greatest. He’s received interest from Shanghai, China, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and is currently on a trip to India to address the Indian Institute for Architecture in Bangalore.

Next spring, a class at the Massa­chu­setts Institute of Technology will look into the idea. Some 15 to 20 seniors majoring in civil and environmental engineering will form teams and create design projects to see just how vertical farming might be accomplished.

“The potential for doing something is great, but frankly I don’t know yet what’s going to happen,” says Herbert Einstein, the engineering professor who will conduct the class at MIT. “If there’s something viable, hopefully we’ll know more by the end of the spring term.”

[Editor's note: The captions for the vertical and horizontal captions were inadvertently reversed in the original version.]