Environment

High Rise Farms? The New Model for Sustainable Cities

Pigs on the main floor, mushrooms in the basement, a greenhouse on the top floor -- is this the future of farming?

TORONTO, Canada, Apr 3 (IPS/IFEJ) - One of the displays at an exhibition here imagines a Netherlands pig grower who, in some not-distant future, has given up his farm and now commutes to work downtown at a high-rise "Pig City."

The animals he helps to tend, conceived in the "eros room," don’t leave the open-sided, 40-storey sty until they’re slaughtered and processed.

A portion of their feed is grown in or around the building; the rest is waste from nearby food processors. Their manure is converted into fertiliser as well as biogas for heat and electricity.

Some 44 towers could supply all the Netherlands’ pork, say the designers, MVRDV of Rotterdam.

Pig City is the most provocative concept at "Carrot City," a two-month exhibition here devoted to the rapidly growing field of urban agriculture and how it interacts with the design of buildings and spaces. No one is yet prepared to build the sty-scraper, and the exact concept might never fly.

But it and the entire show are inspiring discussion about city "farms" and their role in the coming new world of food production. In both industrialised and developing nations, experts say, humans must begin to nourish themselves with crops and livestock raised in their ever-expanding metropolises.

Populations are growing, arable land is being lost to development, fuels will become expensive and scarce, and greenhouse gas emissions must be cut to curb climate change.

To those concerns add "a crisis of trust" in the current food system, says Joe Nasr, one of three professors at Toronto’s Ryerson University who organised the exhibition. "It’s increasingly showing flaws," he said. Here, warning signs include the recent deadly bacterial contamination of imported spinach, peanuts and pistachios.

These issues, along with unease about chemicals and genetic modification, as well as reduced nutritional value, have sparked interest in local food and the "100-mile" diet, as well as "small plot intensive," or SPIN farming, based on producing organic fruits and vegetables in numerous tiny backyard plots.

In the developing world, food shortages are endemic, and climate change is expected to further reduce production.

The movement to promote urban agriculture began in poorer countries, where it was intended to improve the efficiency of an already widespread practice. Expansion to the industrialised world is recent, although it circles back to older times: A downtown Toronto neighbourhood is known as Cabbagetown because in the mid-1800s, impoverished Irish immigrants grew the vegetable in their patches of front yard.

At the end of World War II, 80 percent of U.S. citizens grew food; potatoes and tomatoes sprouted outside the Roosevelt White House.

The ideas proposed by advocates of urban agriculture - nearly 50 are displayed at Carrot City - range from small and simple to large-scale and high-tech.

Many illustrate actual or potential locations - parks, rooftops, former warehouses and arenas, front and back yards, the vast open areas around many suburban apartment towers and even under elevated expressways.

Others propose products to get more from those areas - easily watered and aerated containers, giant soil-filled bags for temporary sites, low-maintenance chicken coops and vertical planting boxes for walls. A few present designs for projects such as Pig City that amount to large-scale intensive agriculture.

Proponents claim the high-tech concepts would create ideal growing conditions, without risk of crop failure, drought or pests, letting them produce far more food per square metre than conventional farms. A hectare inside a vertical farm proposed for Dubai could match the output of four to six hectares on the ground, its designers say.

They are intended to be closed-loops: They’d use their wastes as a source of feed, heat or energy; recycle and purify water; and require virtually no herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics. With their small footprint, they might allow farmland to revert back to its natural state, able to conserve water, prevent erosion, cleanse the air and store carbon.

They’d also dramatically reduce emissions associated with on-farm machinery and transportation to processors and markets.

Typical is a project called Agropark. Its main floor would house 100,000 pigs. In the basement, manure from upstairs would feed mushrooms and generate biogas to warm fish tanks. In the top-floor greenhouse, commercial flowers would absorb carbon dioxide from the mushroom beds. Their residue would, in turn, help to fuel the biogas digester.

In the Vertiscape, designed by a Ryerson student, diners would ride a glass elevator to a restaurant atop several storeys of crops and livestock - the menu ingredients.

The exhibition showcases several arguments for urban agriculture.

Whether muddy-handed planting in a community garden or punching computer keys in a high-tech high rise, the farms aim to reconnect city dwellers with the production of their food, after decades in which globalised industrial agribusiness has made it as abstract as calculus.

"Vertical farming allows us to dynamically thrive in the local place where we live while linking in to the global flows to embrace modernity and simultaneously return to our roots," say the proponents of the Dubai project. "Those roots simply exist 1,000 feet (305 metres) above the ground."

Food production could transform a city’s character. Whether leafy towers or front-yard gardens, "when the designs are visible, they attract attention and change the experience of walking down the street," says Ryerson architecture professor Mark Gorgolewski.

There’s also a social policy dimension. In Chicago’s Growing Home programme, for example, ex-inmates tend gardens and greenhouses on four vacant lots in a disadvantaged south-side neighbourhood. They acquire life skills and job experience; residents get fresh food in an area abandoned by supermarket chains.

Carrot City also makes the case that good design and the prospect of being on the leading edge could make a necessary change acceptable.

"People don’t see edible plants as attractive or part of the landscaping," says the third organiser, June Komisar.

Urban agriculture suffers from "assumptions based on the dirty city," Nasr adds. "Things from there are unsafe; bad for you."

In wealthy countries, it faces a cultural stigma: "Food production is for the poor, not for modern people."

Talk of high-rise farms, particularly towers of chicken or pigs, often sparks derision or hostility. But even front-yard gardens are a tough sell to the many who demand the lush green grass that now covers 12 million hectares of the United States and costs 30 billion dollars a year to maintain.

"How far have we come from the core of our humanity that the act of growing our own food might be considered impolite, unseemly, threatening, radical or even hostile," writes Fritz Haeg, a California "social designer" in his book "Edible Estates – Attack on the front lawn."

The range of sizes is important. While critics complain high-rise projects are another form of industrial agriculture, supporters say they’re required for volume. In any case, there’s plenty of scope for small-scale farming, Komisar says. "If everyone realises they can do some of their own - in gardens or containers on a balcony - it will give people more control over their nutrition and ensure access to good food."

How much could urban agriculture produce? For a start, Gorgolewski says, it might meet 30 percent of the needs of low-income people. "With a fundamental rethink, we could push that proportion to the entire city."

This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ -International Federation of Environmental Journalists ­ for Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

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