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Innovators Target Urban Farming

Urban farming has grown to be a subculture of sustainability that has received a fair amount of theoretical interest and study, but not a great deal of realization. For all of the interesting possibilities that urban farming is thought to enable, there have been enough hurdles to slow down any meaningful manifestations in U.S. cities. One group of eclectic individuals has pooled their efforts into a concept that offers a new model for urban farming with hopes that it could help jump start investment. They call their vision "Agropolis."



From the explanation on their website, Agropolis pulls on some familiar tactics pitched in other urban or vertical farm scenarios as the foundations of their design. Given that land in urban settings is scarce and often more expensive than its suburban and rural counterparts, maximizing space is essential to feasibility. Agropolis begins with forming a collaborative relationship with NASA to explore new technologies in advanced hydroponics. This is then paired with aquaponics and aeroponics. The former is growing plants or other aquatic animals in water while the latter is growing vegetation in air or mist. The result seemed to be a multi-faceted effort at minimizing resource use to grow food.

Urban farms have been heralded by supporters as new methods of creating local jobs while providing residents with clean, organic produce. Proponents like Will Allen champion new efforts for municipalities to promote and support new urban farming efforts. Jetson Green points out that the produce grown in urban farms is becoming more diverse with anything from tomatoes and lettuce to rice patties.

One can imagine a series of interlocking, co-dependent systems that could form the ecology necessary to utilize all of these methods–it certainly strikes a chord with Intercon and projects like Kalunborg's industrial ecology or the Sahara Forest Project. The team calls out fish farming in coordination with their vegetable growing systems, but I would imagine that rain water capture, grey water filtration, composting and anaerobic power production could all be integrated to enhance the system.

A rendering done by the Agropolis team depicting a concept for one of their stores

Perhaps the most prominent spin for Agropolis is the programming choice for these facilities, making them markets in addition to farms that customers can wander and shop for food within. The proposal seeks to push organic consumer tastes to the next level, beyond a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's by putting the farm right next to the aisles. If a working model could be constructed, it has numerous benefits.

The environmental accolades are easy to withdraw from the model. We spend a great deal of energy transporting and refrigerating produce from its birth in rural America to its consumption in more populated centers. It is hard to get much more efficient than a travel distance of 25 feet covered in 30 seconds. Any patch of urban surface area that can be covered with greenery means less sunlight being absorbed by building roofs and city roads–both contributing to the urban heat island effect that raises power consumption and strangles biodiversity. A well designed system should also minimize waste. What would they really need to throw away? Packaging is also minimized–one of the largest sources of waste generation in our country.

Perhaps most important is the opportunity to change social perception of the food process. People have more respect for systems that they can see. I argue quite often that sustainability's biggest problem is a lack of recognition of the interconnected nature of our activities and choices. Having a facility, better yet a store (this is America, we are nothing if not consumers), that depicts connected living ecosystems as directly resulting in food placed in a shopping cart could impart an experience with an effect that lasts longer than the shopping trip.

So will we see some of these soon? Cost and profit become stiff headwinds that proposals like this need to overcome. On one hand, the difference between this model and other schemes that focus only on food production is this allows the farm to sell food directly at retail prices instead of consumer prices–a considerable mark-up–while dodging the expense of transport.

On the other hand, part of having a consistent customer base is having a consistent supply of product that can meet demand. That has to be balanced with how much downtown, urban space a facility could afford in order to always have fresh food on the shelves. It is far from impossible though. Many restaurants in New York and Brooklyn are already erecting their own greenhouses on their roofs to defer costs of fresh produce while bolstering the trust of patrons in the source of their ingredients.

I would shop there.

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Filed under: Infrastructure + Services, Urban Planning Tagged: business, economy, environment, green, hydroponics, sustainability, urban farming