This is why we should be farming in skyscrapers

A set of vertical farms designed for use in China. Image: Vincent Callebaut Architects.

If you follow architecture or design at all, you may have come across aggressively futuristic renderings of skyscrapers topped with rice paddies, or tree-shaped buildings, sprouting plant life from every orifice.

However fantastical they may look, these designs spring from two very practical problems. First: as the proportion of the world living in cities nears 55 per cent, wouldn’t it be more efficient to grow food close to these consumers, rather than shipping everything in from rural areas? And second: as the world’s overall population increases, aren’t we going to run out of flat space to farm?


In 1999, Dickston Despommimer, coiner of the phrase “vertical farming”, took these problems to a room full of medical ecology graduate students, and suggested that farming in cities could be an answer of sorts. The class looked into whether the space on New York’s urban rooftops could contribute significantly to the city’s food need if it was farmed.

Unfortunately, the answer was no.

The mental leap that brought Despommier to a potential solution was the same one made by the urban planners who needed to house cities’ exploding populations in the 19th century: if you can’t build across, build up. You can clearly see that thinking at work in this skyscraper sketch from a 1909 edition of Life magazine. Check out those gardens:

Sketch by architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas, featured in Life magazine,1909.

Once you get past the idea that farming must take place on flat, outdoor land, a whole range of other advantages become apparent. By using LED lighting and plants grown on stacked shelves, or even stacked floors in a skyscraper, you can achieve year-round crop-growing. There’s no danger from severe weather or pests, and therefore no need for pesticides. And you have a new use for abandoned or blighted buildings.

When I spoke to Despommier about his ideas last year, it became clear that his obsession with farming in cities actually springs from an obsession with places that aren’t cities. He calculated that, to match the world's 3bn population increase projected by 2050, we’d need an extra patch of farmland bigger than Brazil. Yet in regions where agriculture could expand, such as Africa, yields are low, and creating more farmland would require carbon-producing deforestation: essentially, it would take a massive toll on the environment, and wouldn’t even produce that much food.

Add to this the fact that some of our most productive farmland in India and the US lies in areas likely to be affected by climate change, and we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Despommier hopes that if the concepts behind Vertical Farming come into widespread use, ecosystems across the world could be saved from conversion into farmland.

So Despommier and his students kept working on the idea, and putting their ideas online. “When you put anything on the internet, it runs the risk of being shot down by naysayers. But just the opposite happened,” he tells me. Enthusiastic fans sent in their own fantastical designs, “most of which were impractical and would never work” – but a select handful have become reality. 

"This kind of hi-tech invention has a way of evolving towards the common human"

Japanese ecologists and agriculturalists were particularly keen on the idea, as the country has a high population density and very little growing space. Meanwhile, a history of nuclear disaster has contaminated sea and land alike, and prompted a new approach to farming. What Despommier describes as “an underground academic movement” developed in Japan, dedicated to inventing new ways to grow food in closed closed containers using high-tech methods like hydroponics and aeroponics, plus LED grow lights.

Both growing methods are still central to vertical farming: hydroponics involves submerging plants’ roots in water fortified with nutrients; aeroponics involves spraying the roots with a similar sort of solution. About five years ago, the Japanese government issued a technical report on a new industry they named “plant industries”, concluding that it could make a major contribution to Japanese daily diets.

Japanese branches of Subway grow their lettuce hydroponically in-house. Image: Subway.

The range of options in Japan is a good case study for how the industry is burgeoning elsewhere. Nuvege manufactures leafy green vegetables on a grand scale; while Pasona O2 is a mixed-use office building, where tomatoes and rice are grown on the ground floor and office workers eat the plants produced. Then there are grocery stores where plants are grown in situ, and you can harvest your own lettuces to take home. One is a large-scale, factory-like operation, while the others are, as Despommier admits, “elitist, a bit high end”. But he is adamant that the large-scale operations will win out in the end:These inventions have a way of evolving towards the common human. Everyone seems to be able to buy a car nowadays.”

Internationally, there are now companies like Plantlab, which supply technology for those looking to set up a farm. There are vertical farms across the US, ranging from commercial farms, like Michigan's Green Spirit farms, to non-profits that teach people how to grow ther own food.The world’s largest is currently a vertical farm in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And the most futuristic facility yet is currently under construction in  Linköpin, Sweden: a pilot greenhouse created by Plantagon technologies.  

Local officials break ground for the Plantagon facility planned for Linköping, Sweden, right. Images: Plantagon.

Despommier says it’s hard to compare the prices of indoor and outdoor farming directly, because traditional agriculture is so heavily subsidised. Indoor farming, despite its use of electricity to power LED lighting, uses less fossil fuels overall: yields are far higher (90 per cent rather than about 50 per cent for traditional farming), you often don’t have to transport it so far, and operations like weeding are cut out of the chain.

And the efficiency is only improving. LED light producers realised the potential for their businesses in vertical farming, and started working on more efficient LED lights which could be used to grow plants. Philips had a 28 per cent efficient model, but their lighting experts have now managed to more than double this with a 68 per cent efficient version.

When it comes to convincing investors and banks, this has made a huge difference, Despommier says. “Banks know how much kW of electricity costs, and with the old lights they knew that you were only on the cusp of being profitable because of your energy usage.” Now, more efficient lights – and others which emit only the wavelengths used by plants to minimise wastage – mean vertical farming is fast becoming a profitable option, rather than a gimmicky idea destined to stay in the domain of fancy architectural drawings.

Speakers at least year’s Vertical Farming and Urban Agriculture (VFUA) conference at the University of Nottingham ranged from community gardening organisations to representatives from MIT’s Senseable Lab, where cutting-edge indoor farming techniques are being explored. Other, smaller programs used a closed ecological system of fish and tomatoes where the fish acted as fertilisers, though this has yet to be tried out on a large scale. These smaller, more boutique offerings serve a purpose, even if they don’t feed entire cities: Tim Benton, professor and UK Global Food Security Champion (yes, this is a job), told the conference that attitudes to food can make a huge difference to waste. Food waste and over-consumption of meat also contribute to the world food problem; small, educational projects can help change attitudes towards both.

"When it comes to farming, there’s  a recognition that we literally cannot carry on as we are"

One speaker, however, veered off the beaten track. Unlike those who came laden with diagrams and even samples of farming equipment, Oscar Rodriguez, founder of design consultancy Architecture and Food, is concerned with helping farmers navigate planning obstacles to vertical farming in the UK. He has slaved over the many definitions and varieties of existing and proposed urban farms to create a vocabulary for planners to use. This is to combat what he calls “word fatigue”: “People like the sound of vertical farming, because it’s different to horizontal farming, but that term covers a huge array of different ideas.”

At the VFUA conference, Rodriguez announced his intention to get urban agriculture included in UK planning legislation, as it is in New York and Seattle. At the moment, those approaching city councils with plans for greenhouses on the roofs of disused buildings come up against blank faces, as this type of structure doesn’t fit into the existing planning discourse.

Sting's a fan. Image: Getty.

This type of regulatory backing could help formalise the industry. One presenter at the conference responded to a question about whether roofs are strong enough to bear up under the weight of greenhouses with a shrug, saying, “It seems strong, so far it’s been fine. But we’ll have to see how it’s doing in a year.” This isn't really a feasible long-term plan. 

Governmental support would also be a huge help. Hydroponic, aeroponic and LED technology are not cheap investments, but most governments already subsidise agriculture – in the USA, by as much as $20bn a year. If some of that budget were transferred to new technologies, the shift towards more inventive, efficient forms of farming might be made all the quicker.

Last year, Tim Benton noted that, for the first time, the issue of the future of agriculture is becoming a serious item on UK politicians’ agendas. While that may not translate to immediate action, he thinks it’s clear to most decision-makers worldwide that something needs to change: “When it comes to farming, there’s a recognition that we literally cannot carry on as we are.” 

Around the world, in fact, the industry is gaining high-profile supporters – Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley recently backed the idea, the Japanese government is helping out its growing industry with tax breaks and subsidies, and Holland and France’s governments are both lending a hand to establish vertical farming schemes. Oh, and Sting bought the film rights to Despommier’s book on vertical farming and is currently making a documentary based on it. 

And Despommier? He’s pretty happy with the progess made so far. “I'm really jumping out of my skin, so to speak, because this idea started as a fanciful think piece in a classroom, and it's now what you would call a growing industry.” Punning aside, he has a point.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.