Should cities be self-sufficient? An argument for vertical urban farms

Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier writes that it's time for cities to stop relying on the areas around them to survive. The answer: vertical farms.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

It's time for cities to stop relying on the areas around them to survive, Dickson Despommier writes.

Writing at McKinsey and Co., the Columbia University professor (and president of the Vertical Farm Project) argues that cities ought to pursue a "closed loop" existence -- that is, where the city's support systems are located entirely within city limits, from energy sources to food production.

He writes:

I would encourage all city planners and developers to take a long, hard look into the ways in which ecosystems behave. It is the model for how we should be handling things like water management, energy utilization, and the recycling of waste into usable resources.

In an ecosystem, assemblages of plants and animals are linked together by a common thread: the sharing of nutrients, the transfer of energy from sunlight to plants and then to animals, and the recycling of all the elements needed to ensure the survival of the next generation of those living within the boundaries of that geographically defined area.

With available technologies, we can now bio-mimic an ecosystem’s best features. If cities learned to take advantage of these new technologies, then we would be well on our way to sustainability into the next millennium.

Despommier argues that "urban sprawl literally defines the modern city," from Jericho to Tokyo. (In the U.S., he offers Atlanta as a highlight.)

Why? Not enough planning and insight into efficient use of space and resources, he argues.

"When no one is in charge of regulating these two things, cities grow in ways that are utterly unpredictable and without regard to optimizing resources," Despommier writes. "The result is cities that are congested, difficult to navigate and, ultimately, unsustainable in their use of resources."

The answer: vertical farms, or agriculture based in multistory buildings. Despommier says that scaling aeroponics, hydroponics and drip irrigation to the size of a 30-story, 3 million-square-foot building would drastically reduce trucking pollution, significantly boost efficiency and achieve a greater level of sustainability, due to water reuse and converting organic waste into energy.

Here he is in a video explaining his take:

Can cities achieve such a future? It's almost surprising that no city has attempted to do so at a significant scale with any of countless abandoned buildings. (Detroit, I'm looking at you.)

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a city leaning on its region, is there?

But the real question I'm wondering about: will vertical farming best gain traction through public mandate, via the private sector, or through a partnership?

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