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By: Chad Reese
Over the last few years, the concept of the urban vertical farm has captured the imagination of many. The most recent and prolific advocate of skyscraper agriculture appears to be Dickson Despommier of Columbia Medical School and School of Public Health, who has written books and lectured extensively on the topic. However, utopian visions of vertical farming have prompted pragmatic debate on the economic and technological feasibility of such a food production system. Until important technical hurdles of growing food in large, multistory buildings with aquaponics, hydroponics and other greenhouse technologies are overcome, farming will remain grounded in simpler methodologies.
On the other end of the agricultural spectrum are the reclaimers, the resettlers, the soil and community revivers; the myriad countless dirt lovers and permaculture do-it-yourselfers that thrive on personal relationships with the detritovores that comprise the web of life. This intrepid group celebrates seasonal farming and has taken back usable urban growing space in vacant lots and building rooftops that are open to the sky.
In their groundbreaking 1993 book, “From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design,” Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd envisioned a hybrid model called the Warehouse Farm Company that combined high and low tech farming methods. They imagined a formerly derelict warehouse (located in the inner city or the suburbs) that was repurposed to grow various food and animal crops. Using an approach to agriculture that was modeled on relationships found in nature, the warehouse was divided into distinct areas of food production: lettuces on the third floor; hydroponics on the second floor; chickens, eggs, trout and catfish culture on the first floor; mushrooms and compost in the basement. The symbiotic assemblage followed a simple formula:`
Waste = Food
Since the work of Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, there have been many iterations of the Warehouse Farm Company. Galleria at Erieview, a mall in Cleveland, Ohio, mixes organic soil with hydroponics and aquaponics. As reported by FastCompany, employees of the failing Galleria mall began turning the interior into an “urban ecovillage” featuring carts of fruits and vegetables grown at the location.
A few hours west of Cleveland in Chicago, Illinois, a vertical farm and food business incubator called The Plant is currently repurposing a 93,000 square foot salvaged meatpacking facility. The ultimate goal of The Plant is to create a closed-loop industrial ecology system where waste streams from food business processes are used as inputs for other processes. At the core of a complex and tightly-integrated system is an anaerobic digester. At full capacity, a turbine powered by biogas from the digester will generate enough heat and electricity to meet all of the facility’s needs.
Regardless of growing mode, all of these agricultural pursuits attempt to lessen or eliminate food miles and the negative effects of climate change. Each promotes a philosophy of healthy living, local food production, economic autonomy, and is the solution to a conventional food system in need of repair.