Can New York City's Skyscrapers Accommodate Vertical Farming?

By: Jacob Silverman  | 
This vertical farm design, by French firm atelier SoA architectes, makes use of small windmills on the building's roof.
Image courtesy ©atelier SoA architectes

By 2050, an estimated 80 percent of the world's people will live in urban areas (currently, about 60 percent do). The population will have increased to about 9.2 billion, much of it in the developing world [Source: New York Magazine]. Many experts contend that unless we pursue drastic measures, the world could face dramatic shortages in both food and arable land. Famine and ecological catastrophes are among the possible dire consequences.

Enter vertical farming — farming in skyscrapers several dozen stories high. Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia University, developed the idea with contributions from his students.


Dr. Despommier claims that vertical farms could do more than just provide food security. They could also stave off global warming, raise standards of living in the developing world and change how we get our food and dispose of waste. It might sound far-fetched, but vertical farming is actually a very real possibility for the future.

From Horizontal Farms to Vertical Farms

The key to vertical farming is space. The Vertical Farm Project, led by Dr. Despommier, claims that one indoor acre of farming is equal to 4 to 6 outdoor acres [Source: The Vertical Farm Project]. It cites a farm in Florida that became an indoor hydroponic farm where strawberries grow in stacks. That farm now grows the equivalent of 30 acres of strawberries in a one-acre greenhouse.

By converting from "horizontal farming" to vertical farming systems, humanity would never have to worry about running out of arable land. With indoor farming, farmers could grow leafy greens and other crops all year, free of concerns about bad weather, drought or natural disasters, which would have a huge positive impact on food production.


A sealed and carefully monitored building would eliminate the need for pesticides to stop invasive insects or parasites, a particularly devastating problem in the developing world. Indoor vertical farming techniques would also allow all food to grow disease-free and organically without fertilizer.

Unlike traditional farming, indoor vertical farms don't typically entail conflicts over land, water and other natural resources, nor genetically modified foods, unwanted strains of plants or wandering animals.

These farms would spring up in the urban areas where most of the Earth's population will live. The result is that agriculture becomes more of a closed system — we grow, transport, eat and dispose food in the same metropolitan area. It would require less energy costs.

In a major city like New York City, where trucks and planes travel distances to deliver fresh produce and other foods, the difference is tremendous. Vertical farming would largely eliminate the pollution generated when we truck, ship and fly food across countries to reach its desired markets.

Because vertical farms would exist in the communities they serve, we could alter crop selection to fit the local community. It's the culmination of an idea that's gained a lot of popularity lately and that has become the subjects of a host of books and articles: Buying food from local farmers (within 100 miles or so of home) to support local growers and reduce one's ecological impact.

Finally, there's what might be the most enticing benefit: Land used for a traditional farm could become forests again. The result would be a major counterweight to global warming. Deforested areas could return to their natural states, replenishing plant and animal species, reducing CO2 in the atmosphere and providing beautiful park and woodland spaces for recreation and tourism.

The possible benefits of vertical farming are clearly numerous and dramatic, but what would a vertical farm look like, and would it work?


Vertical Farm Designs and Challenges

Vertical farm designs feature elegant lines and lots of glass.
Image courtesy Chris Jacobs

Most vertical farm designs depict them as ultra-modern, stylish skyscrapers, 30 to 40 stories tall. Each floor could potentially feature a variety of crops and small livestock. Tanks would house fish and other seafood.

Using technology to minimize waste and energy use, and to facilitate recycling, is essential.


To that end, they would contain glass walls, large solar panels, high-tech irrigation systems and incinerators that burn waste for energy. A variety of monitoring systems would ensure that energy and water go where they need to go and that temperature controls are carefully maintained.

Water and Gas Management

We would carefully distribute water through irrigation and collect and recycle any excess water. Through evaporation, we can collect dew.

We can clean sewage, also known as "black water," with algae and plants and made potable. Or we can treat them with filters and make it into "gray water," which is sterile and useable for irrigation. Cities dump billions of gallons of gray water into rivers every day.

We would collect methane gas, instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere. And we can sell any excess excess energy back to the local energy grid.

Dr. Despommier believes that 150 30-story farms could feed all of New York City. Elegantly designed, these vertical farms appear at strategic locations around a city or clustered together in a nearby development (in the case of New York City, possibly on Governor's Island). They would remain unobtrusive, or even pleasant to the eye.

Socioeconomic Impact

For vertical farming to be possible, experts from a variety of disciplines — including agriculture, agronomy, civil planning, architecture, engineering, economics and public health — have to come together.

But we're not starting from scratch.

Dr. Despommier and others have published studies describing plans for the development and implementation of vertical farms. In fact, all of the technology behind vertical farming already exists, though it could take up to 10 years to figure out how to make these technologies work together.

Even so, we already grow plants through hydroponic farming (without soil) in extreme environments and on space ships. Biomass, methane collection and waste-water collection are becoming essential tools of conservation.

Some criticize vertical farming because it would eliminate the jobs of conventional farmers and those who transport and package their goods. To those critics, one could point out that 95 percent of Americans were farmers before the Industrial Revolution, and this might simply be the next step in that evolution.

But it's also the contention of Dr. Despommier that vertical farming would create jobs.

Thousands of people would need to develop, build and maintain these systems. The socioeconomic impact could be immense, especially for those who struggle as subsistence farmers or in abject poverty.

In the developing world, the presence of a dependable food supply and improved nutrition would raise standards of living, allow the development of commerce and shift children away from agricultural work and into schools.


Biggest Hurdles for Vertical Farming

Two hurdles remain for vertical farming to become a reality: money and government support. However, Dr. Despommier is already in touch with investors and philanthropists who want to establish a Center for Urban Sustainable Agriculture.

With enough investment, the first vertical farm could be up and running (and even profitable) in 15 years, while government support would surely help in their proliferation.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Chamberlain, Lisa. "Skyfarming." New York Magazine.
  • Cooke, Jeremy. "Vertical farming in the big Apple." BBC News. June 19, 2007.
  • "Professor sees vertical farms on horizon." Knight Ridder Newspapers. Columbia Daily Tribune. Aug. 30, 2005.
  • "The Vertical Farm Project."
  • "Farm of the Future?" U.S. News & World Report. May 28, 2007.