Cities have long attempted to bring the rural into the urban, whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or Singapore’s new Gardens by the Bay, but urban agriculture is increasing with green roofs and other forms of urban farming as the population of cities continues to expand. Based largely on the theories of Dickson Despommier, architects have been designing the ultimate in city-based agribusiness, vertical farms inside of high rise buildings which some have dubbed plantscrapers.

What’s changing?

In Linkoping Sweden, the first skyscraper farm above ten stories, at 17 stories, broke ground in February. While feeding an entire megacity, such buildings could cut down on the transportation of food to curb emissions and allow many current farms to return to a natural state or to be used for other purposes like growing resources for biofuel. They would also eliminate the need for pesticides while reducing effects of weather, and they would reduce the time it takes food to get to market giving the food a longer shelf life. These buildings could also use the emissions of nearby factories to feed the plants thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

…researchers have sought to combine different green technologies into single farms using the principles of permafarming and The Blue Economy.

Many critics have argued such structures would not be environmentally or economically viable because of the energy needed for artificial lighting, temperature control, and other necessities for indoor farming, but researchers have sought to combine different green technologies into single farms using the principles of permafarming and The Blue Economy. The Plant in Chicago is a former slaughterhouse and meat packing plant which will become a self-sustained urban farm by combining a beer brewery, kombucha tea brewery, plant farm, fish farm, and a commercial kitchen. The plants send oxygen into the kombucha tea which then cycles CO2 back to the plants. The beer brewery’s spent grain feeds the tilapia, and the fish’s waste feeds the mushroom garden or is converted into nitrates to feed the hydroponic plants. Those plants clean the water which is cycled back into the fish tanks, and the waste from the whole building is combined with waste from other parts of the city into an anaerobic digester to generate biogas for fuel. While not a skyscraper, the Plant will test the practicality of such processes in an urban setting, but taller buildings could hold a more complex system for producing greater quantities with a more attractive economy of scale for investors.

Another group of researchers contributing to skyscraper farm technology is PlantLab, a Dutch company, which already sells its underground grown and pesticide-free produce in local grocery stores. The plants receive no sunlight, and the building uses 90% less water than a rural farm. However, they still grow a crop three times that of the average greenhouse. They say that a plantscraper only needs 1 square meter to provide a person with 200 grams of fresh vegetables and fruit per day. PlantLab even suggests growing plants in this manner on a much smaller scale—in a restaurant, a supermarket, or your own home.

Why is this important?

By 2050, 80% of the estimated 9 billion people in the world are expected to live in the city which means, more advanced forms of food supply will be necessary, but public demand for organic food and sustainability practices also are increasing and driving green technology advances. The technology necessary to make skyscraper farms economically viable are the same technologies which will make them environmentally viable by growing organic food for whole cities without resorting to fossil fuels.

Besides vegetables, fish and poultry have also been used or suggested, and other produce might one day include honey or even dairy with the methane from the cows or goats helping power some of the operations—assuming a humane and ethical space is provided. Such technologically ideal conditions may have a long road to maturity, but the research and actual construction is progressing.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.