I have a piece in this week’s New York Magazine about vertical farming, a concept developed by a professor of environmental health at Columbia University. The idea is to bring crop cultivation into skyscrapers in urban areas and allow farmland to be reforested. Why? Many reasons, but the main one is to stabilize weather patterns and climate change. Since the dawn of agricultural practices 11,000 years ago, the earth has lost about half of its forests.
The illustration above is the top of the vertical farm building with an urban windmill, a concept developed by Cleveland State University Professor Majid Rashid. Conventional windmills are too big to be incorporated into the urban landscape, so the idea here is for a screw to turn, bringing wind to the smaller blades, rather than giagantic blades reaching out to capture the wind.
Go to the New York Mag piece here and click through all the cool illustrations before reading the Q&A below with Prof. Dickson Despommier (special thanks to Chris Jacobs of United Future for all your hard work on this project!).
BETTING THE FARM: Q&A WITH PROF. DICKSON DESPOMMIER
How did this idea come about?
DICKSON DESPOMMIER: In 2000, in my medical ecology class, the students conducted research about how much food could be grown on rooftops in Manhattan. They discovered there’s only about 13 acres of farmable rooftops in the city. That’s not very much. So at the end of the class, I threw out the idea of farming indoors and called it “vertical farming.”
Next year’s class was given a project to find out what is being raised inside. They uncovered a NASA website about growing plants indoors because on Mars, there’s no take-out.
Why farm indoors and why in cities?
DD: If no farming was done horizontally (outdoors), this gives all the land back that you took to farm to begin with. We began 15,000 years ago taking advantage of wild crops that grew near water. Farming plays a huge role in the development of civilization. But at what expense? Imagine a city behaving like an ecosystem; vertical farming could come to the rescue of global warming, food production, urban renewal, etc.
Most people think of climate change as related to the burning of fossil fuels. What does farming have to do with it?
DD: Allowing ecosystems that are damaged to repair themselves is the only long-term solution to global climate change. The proof of this, I used three examples of damaged ecosystems: The dust-bowl in Midwest in the ‘30s. They moved away from the damaged area, by WWII, there wasn’t a shred of evidence that it ever existed. People were being covered by dust. And then there was grass. That’s how an ecosystem can repair itself.
Another example is the DMZ between North and South Korea. No one has gone into it since 1952. The claim is, there are tigers living in there. There are bears. It has completely returned to its natural state.
The third example is a research project by Gene Likens. When he was a graduate student at Dartmouth in 1967, he took a chainsaw and cut down an entire watershed and spent the rest of his life watching it grow back. Water was the indicator of the land. All the mud would wash into the river. By year two, much less mud. Within a matter of years, there was no chemical difference in the water before he chopped the trees down. That’s a very famous study, the Hubbard Brook Project in New Hampshire.
So when it comes to earth healing itself, leave it alone. That’s it. Just let it be.
But of course people still have to eat.
DD: By 2050, there will be 3 billion more people on earth, yet 80 percent of farmable land is already in use. We will need an additional landmass the size of Brazil to feed everyone. So this is more than just about climate change.
Can cities become truly sustainable?
DD: Sustainability means self-sustaining. Animals are non-sustainable. You can have plants without animals, but not vice versa. Earth could have evolved with just plants. It could not with just animals. But if we could grow our own food, and use our own waste as fertilizer, detox black water, grow plants from it, use plants to purify water for drinking, that would be pretty close to self-sustaining.