Vertical Farming

Union Square was recently the open air venue for a scene that was part urban agriculture, part art piece.  It brought to mind the Shaker proverb:  “Don’t make anything unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

The exhibit was a wall of Woolly Pockets: flexible pouches, made in the U.S. and comprised of recycled materials, that house plants on vertical surfaces.  An ordinary wall becomes a living thing; watching people walk around it, the verdant sculptures hooked people in.  Tourists took photos.  Some people took bites.  It was easy to the beauty and the usefulness.

But my favorite part was in the necessity of this idea.  For example, for those of us who just finished watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, we learned that there’s a problem in our schools:  Students don’t know where food comes from.  At one point, Jamie held up an eggplant before a first grade class and no one could tell him what it was.  Nor could they tell him that the French fry came from a potato.

The people behind Woolly Pockets understand this food illiteracy, so they also use their pieces to educate through vertical gardens.  For $1,000, a school can start a fifty pocket garden, fully equipped with the soil, seed packets, planting and nutritional manuals.  Their goal is to plant their unique form of gardening in 11,000 schools across the United States by 2011.

Perhaps we don’t have to go back to the land at all.  Maybe some of it can come in with us.

Unexpected Sights at Union Square

Pockets Full of Greens

Sunshine as a Basic Ingredient

Woolly Pockets and Their Paparazzi

Just When You've Seen It All, the Avatar Actors Show Up

The Long View of Beautiful, Useful, and Necessary

Professor Dickson Despommier is a dreamer and I applaud him for it.  So do many others.  Since I first posted in August about Despommier and his vision of growing food in urban skyscrapers, this blog has gotten hundreds of hits a week under the search term, “vertical farming.”  Sometimes it comes up as “vertikal farming” and I know that the Germans are curious, too.

Last night, before a sold-out crowd, the professor and other experts presented a panel entitled, “Designing Urban Farms to Feed New York” by the Municipal Art Society.  In addition to Despommier, the panel was moderated by the Washington Post columnist Neal Pierce, and included:

  • Colin Cathcart, a Brooklyn-based architect with a deep portfolio in sustainable building.
  • Jenn Nelkin, Greenhouse Director for Gotham Greens, the first hydroponic rooftop farm in New York.
  • Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the New School.  From the event literature: “His current research focuses on urban food policy, particularly innovative planning strategies to support food production in the urban and peri-urban landscape…”.
  • Dan Albert, a landscape designer out of Seattle who was part of the team that developed the conceptual Eco-laboratory, a self-sustaining building that produces its own energy, food and water.

From the evening’s discussion I learned that we are going to address our problems of food supply and climate change in many different ways.  While Despommier advocated for vertical farming, Nevin Cohen suggested growing food on urban public lands, among other ideas.  What if cities grew fruit and nut trees in the parks that the public could harvest?  Later in the talk, Cohen got cheers when he said that he still likens farming to soil, not purely hydroponics.

Jenn Nelkin offered a conciliatory acknowledgment that the answer is going to be in some of all these solutions.  (And there were many more.)  In fact, Nelkin continued, for experts in these topics, the nuances are still very much in development.  Often when she’s in a conversation about her rooftop farm, she’s asked, “Which type of hydroponic system are you using?”  The answers are evolving on many levels.

The tipping point will come when the financing solidifies.  All the panelists agreed there is a growing demand for safe, sustainable, urban food production.  We’re still searching for ways, however, to make the food affordable to the broad population and provide a good living wage to workers.  Regretfully, one of the audience questions that did not get discussed was, “Can urban farmers afford to live in New York City?”  I personally believe their role will be as important as doctors dispensing medicine, so I would hope so.

The theme of the night was big vision.  Let’s imagine what the future can hold:  Blooming verdant skyscrapers, apples from down the block, factory rooftops full of produce, and a good portion of the urban population ready to have our hands in the dirt.  As my friend Michael Beneville says when he hears a good idea, “Let’s dream that into existence.”

The French take on vertical farming for Paris. Courtesy of

The French take on vertical farming for Paris. Courtesy of

In talking about a new system of sustainable agriculture, people will ask, “So, you want to go back to the land?”  Then there’s a silence as we each imagine working the endless fields by backhoe followed by an evening around the radio.

No, thank you, I don’t want to go back in time.  Our current ways of producing our food, however, aren’t working.  We need big, new visions of our shared future.

This week’s New York Times opinion piece by Dickson D. Despommier, “A Farm on Every Floor,” is one of the inspiring visions.  Despommier sees tall buildings in urban centers, growing crops year-around through the use of hydroponic and aeroponic technologies.  I don’t know much about these methods, and there’s usually a list of “cons” alongside any “pros”, but there is a lot of potential in this approach.  Both of the technologies “behave like a functional ecosystem,” where the crops’ clean waste water and nutrients are continuously recycled.  As of today, after we irrigate our fields, the run-off water is filled with pesticides and becomes a pollutant.  According to Despommier, “irrigation now claims some 70% of the fresh water that we use.”  Imagine the relief that vertical farming could bring to areas of conflicting water rights — the American Southwest and Israel and her neighbors come to mind.

Lastly, it’s wild how a cultural groundswell works.  It becomes easier and easier to connect the dots.  Before reading this article, I heard someone at a dinner party this week suggest that we do vertical farming in abandoned buildings in areas of urban blight.  Perhaps he had read the article, but I don’t think he had.  (Around here, we’re always eager to say the words, “I just read in the Times…” and he made no mention of it.)  I believe many people are starting to look around and dream up our days ahead.

For more on vertical farming, please see: The Contagious Imagination of Vertical Farming and Other Answers.

Design Image from

Design Image from