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Vertical Farming

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An article in today's New York Times spotlights a potential new building type that has already generated discussion in Portland and Seattle: vertical farming.

The article talks about a proposal from a Columbia University professor to build a 30-story tower in Manhattan devoted mostly to hydroponic agriculture and able to generate its own power. Once thought of as a ludicrous idea given the cost compared to regular horizontal farming in the ground, the idea has attracted supporters such as Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer. What if a land parcel near Wall Street downtown or Times Square in midtown put fresh produce a few blocks away? Well, actually such amenities exist now in the form of produce trucked in from actual farms. But with land growing ever more scarce and world populations seemingly adding another billion every few days, it's less of a harebrained scheme than it used to be.

One of the most viable proposals for vertical agriculture is one from Seattle architecture firm Mithun that won top honors at the Cascadia chapter of the Green Building Council's Living Building Challenge held here in April.

Mithun’s Center for Urban Agriculture packs over an acre of farm and forest land into a slice of downtown Seattle. The design for this as-yet unbuilt 23-story vertical farm combines many other sustainable building features, like producing its own energy and collecting and recycling its own water, in an effort to illustrate the potential and increasing value of an urban built environment that functions without drawing on scarce resources and acts in balance with its surroundings.

“As a society, we don’t really look at the true cost of all that we do," Mithun CEO Bert Gregory told AIArchitect magazine recently. "As climate change comes to the forefront, [and] as value is placed upon greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation or elimination of those, then the cost of projects like this will actually be more directly tied to their value,” Gregory says. And therefore, he hopes, it will be a lot more practical. “That’s a watershed moment we’ll face in just a few years.”

I've heard that Portland leaders were energized by the Mithun proposal and would like to make it happen here instead of Seattle. Is this a viable move for west coast cities like Seattle and Portland that still have a lot of nearby farmland? To me it seems more plausible for larger urban areas and metropolises without much available farmland nearby, like a Shanghai or, again, New York. Even so, if Portland were to become the first city to build a vertical farm, it would be a quintessential expression of the sustainable mindset that originates here.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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