July 21, 2007
Rooftop gardens. This idea, as old as Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, has been pursued throughout history and continues to inspire. Countless organizations raise vegetation to new heights in big cities throughout the western world, for both food and flowers. The latest and most dazzling urban farm scheme yet comes from New York’s Columbia University.
Skyfarming, as dubbed in a feature in New York magazine and touted in the national and international media, is the brainchild of Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology. In one manifestation, 30-story towers, topped by high-tech solar collectors that rotate with the sun, would yield a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, grains, and animals, too, including chickens, pigs and fish. Just 150 of these futuristic greenhouse complexes, Despommier calculates, would suffice to feed all eight million New Yorkers, and with the freshest, wholesomest organic fare imaginable. Food aside, this complex would yield a surplus of fuel and of water for New Yorkers, and would even be economic (just), he notes, producing studies to prove it.
Maybe. I suspect we’ll never know skyfarming’s true financial viability because no down-to-earth businessman is likely to back a barely economic venture on business merits alone. If the business plan miscalculates by even a small amount, the business could go bankrupt. Despommier as much as admits this, openly hoping for a charitable foundation or an altruist like Ted Turner to get his urban farm off the ground.
But Despommier’s visionary scheme has great value nonetheless. Although his business plan’s risk/reward ratio may not pass muster, his basic premise – that cities have the technical wherewithal to meet their own food needs – is a matter of simple calculation and beyond dispute. Also beyond dispute is that cities can meet the food that others need: By building 300 skyfarms instead of 150, New York could feed itself and eight million others – say Montrealers, Torontonians, and those living in their environs. Paris, after all, not only fed itself exquisitely in the 19th century and into the 20th, it exported its surplus to London and elsewhere.
That cities can support themselves and others too demonstrates the bankruptcy of faddish eco-concepts such as the ecological footprints that now mesmerize governments and corporations worldwide. These footprints spread the mistaken view that we are somehow running out of space on
Earth, or that Earth is somehow running out of resources. Based on such thinking, footprint gurus insist that we must consume less of just about everything, eschew technological advances, and return to low density subsistence lifestyles.
Despommier’s high-tech environmentalism demonstrates that the footprint of urbanites is irrelevant – he calculates that city dwellers need rely on no net external inputs for their sustenance, thanks to the use of renewable energy, recycled materials, and recycled waste water. When the agriculture occurs high off the ground, other economies kick in: The absence of ground-level pests eliminates wastage and the costs associated with applying pesticides. Locating farms close to markets also minimize transportation and storage costs. Similar calculations would show that city dwellers need rely on no net external inputs for other needs, too. Despommier’s High-Tech Utopia trumps the Footprint Dystopia.
Between the extreme visions, however, lies an historical truth: Conventional urban farming is inherently profitable, and, unlike Despommier’s plan, would have no end of financial backers. Or practitioners. Thousands of agricultural startups would materialize but for one impediment. Urban farming is against the law. City governments, striving to be modern, over the course of the last century placed one restriction after another on farming and finally, when farming continued to persist, city governments banned farming altogether, typically permitting the growing of produce only for one’s own use. Toronto does have one farm – complete with pigs, sheep and goats – close to downtown within a middle-class residential district. The 7.5-acre Riverside Farm is exempt from the ban – it is run by the city’s parks department as a relic of days gone by.
If urban farmers could again operate freely, cities at low cost would be producing much of the fresh produce that urban customers relish. Tenant farmers would contract for unused backyards and roofs, and contract with specialty restaurants seeking custom crops. Farmer’s markets would shoot up in supermarket parking lots. A century ago, the roof of New York’s Ansonia, a luxurious Upper West Side apartment hotel, housed a small animal farm, daily delivering to building residents fresh eggs via the bell hop. We don’t see fresh rooftop produce today for only one reason: The farm has been overgrown by the state.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.