Dr. Dickson Despommier wrote, The Vertical Farm. It is an inspiring book but it is not a concept that will work. Dr. Despommier is a microbiologist, ecologist and a professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University. Here are my thoughts.
The main advantage that is alway cited as the number one reason for this idea is being able to grow food year round. A very expensive way to grow food (see below) A less expensive option I propose is a Passive Solar Greenhouse which is able to generate all of its own energy, cycles nutrients and is able to grow food with minimum inputs (other than labor) since it is a closed system (my idea comes out of the 70s and has been tested and shown to work – Dr Despommier’s idea has not been tested).
To create a vertical farm is very expensive. You either chose to convert an existing building or build a whole new one specifically designed for the project. There is just not enough income from farming, selling food, to pay for this type of project. First, a vertical farm would have to take up one city block to ensure the greatest sun exposure and least amount of shadow possible. A vertical farm that takes up a city block means the building would have a footprint of 2.5 to 4 acres at least at its base (not all city blocks are the same size).
A vertical farm needs a whole lot of artificial lighting since sunlight will only penetrate so far into a building often leaving the northern part of the building in the dark. Sure a building could make use of reflective surfaces but workers would have to wear goggles to prevent possible blindness which would hinder work in the vertical farm. In my idea the Passive Solar Greenhouse would make use of sunlight only thereby reducing the need for artificial lighting except for winter months when there is less sunlight.
The vertical farm building will cast a large shadow, depending on the overall size of the farm, behind it which means there are going to be two buildings they would have to be built side by side not behind each other. Also the shadow of this farm building would prevent buildings behind it from making use of solar energy or wind turbines.
As the good Dr. suggests a project could supply all of its own energy from pyrolysis and wind namely. This is not proven and I think he is seriously underestimating the amount of electricity such a building could produce vs. how much it uses to pump water, lighting, temperature control, fans, daily operations (office), computers, elevators and so forth. If the calculations were done his project would need far more electricity than the building could ever produce on its own.
To make such a project work there would be a need to no longer think in current economic principles, we have to think differently. There is absolutely no need to tear down what is already built to make such an idea work, just not a vertical farm as Dr. Despommier suggests. There are plenty of rooftops, balconies, window space and even outside wall space to grow food and plants. Using existing buildings would mean the project would not incur construction expense which would make the idea much more feasible.
Instead of what the good Dr. proposes, using pyrolysis to help run a vertical farm a better way I propose is to take all the waste to produce methane first, then recycling the nutrients back into the farm in a combination of aquaponics and as direct organic fertilizer. In the Dr.’s proposal the ash would have to be removed and sent to a landfill as it makes a very poor soil amendment even though some of the minerals should be returned to the soil. Ash is far too concentrated and too much ash would actually destroy the soil by killing the numerous organisms biological activity every healthy soil contains to keep up nutrients.
Dr. Despommier has a good idea based on some historical examples like the hanging gardens of Babylon and others in antiquity or terraces. He fails to see or follow the examples nature provides like the failed civilizations that have decertified the earth. By not recreating or following natures example inside his farm it can only fail. It would work initially but over time production would decline.
A better way is to reinforce a roof (if needed) and turn much of it into gardens. Garden the balconies with hanging baskets, potted plants, and trellised plants. Shelves erected in windows to hold potted plants among other spaces would create many small gardens wouldn’t grow everything a person would need but every little bit helps contributing to an overall local food security.
There is absolutely no reason why any city on the globe can’t grow much of its own food locally within city limits. In Denver Colorado where I live a survey was taken by the city to see just how much land was available to grow food. When the survey was completed twenty-five thousand acres of useable land was found to be available. Cities that are more spread out would have more space of course. Also, if all the space (i.e. roof tops, etc.) were included in the survey that space would increase significantly and food security for everyone in the area would become more of a reality.
The one thing for something like this to work is that we have to stop playing the game: stop thinking big or bigger is better, handing over control to some nameless corporation instead we need to be empowered to do more ourselves taking back control, tear down the system that controls us and controls our food. We can grow food ourselves so the corporations can go out of business so we can again flourish deciding what is best for ourselves rather than resigning to whatever corporations sell us.
By growing our own food we can get to a point where food would become free eliminating hunger and even reducing poverty. We would have to do away with barer too because food should have no monetary value, it should be shared freely. In permaculture there is the idea that once you are growing enough food you can share the excess. Why aren’t we there now?
The old system that took over food production needs to go. It doesn’t mean we need to be dirt farmers because we can do it better and with much less work than what people think of when farming is mentioned. we can grow food without impoverishing ourselves by resorting to hard work or misusing the land. We can learn to love the dirt for what it gives us – life.