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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.