will urban farming save the future or make modern politics worse?

According to a growing number of architects and urban planners, cities need more greenery and easier access to food. But will their solution cause more problems than it solves?
urban farming concept
Illustration: Monarch Sanctuary Vertical Farm

We’ve all grown up with the images of vast, green plains with lush farms in the country and cold steel and concrete blocks shaping cities. But according to mental health professionals, techies with big dreams, and urban planners, what we really need is greener cities, both figuratively and literally, and the best way to do it may be something known as vertical farming. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Take a farm, divide what it can grow, then using a large, properly wired and insulated building plant all of its crops indoors, organized by growing conditions and level, with machines taking care of most daily maintenance. When the crops are ready, use a combination of human and machine labor to harvest them, and drive them to the grocery store.

This approach gives us three major advantages. First, crops grown indoors don’t need us to use pesticides which harm the environment and undermine biodiversity, meaning that we would be eating healthier fruits and vegetables. Secondly, the grocery stores and markets to which these crops would be driven aren’t hundreds or thousands of miles away. They’re down the street. It would save gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions, helping us fight global warming. Third, and finally, it would add a much-needed splash of greenery to cities which we know would improve residents’ mental state, lowering their anxieties and improving their moods. It sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Maybe a little too perfect.

what challenges will vertical urban farming face?

With today’s technology, we can already vertically farm, but not cheaply. Outfitting buildings in ever more expensive cities poses a twofold problem. New urban farms would face massive financial overheads just for occupying space in desirable territory, even on the city’s outskirts, as developers jostle to build new structures. And since they would be used to grow crops, they would lower the number of available housing units, another endemic problem for many cities across the world. Even if all of that is dealt with, growing crops indoors means emulating the sun and the rain, which also won’t be cheap since these building would consume a whole lot of power which in many cities could come from mostly dirty, carbon-belching sources.

It’s doubtful that even short commutes to deliver the harvested crops would offset the months of emissions from generating all the energy used to grow them, and it’s even less likely that a lot of farmers won’t fight back against such projects. While we often talk about today’s biggest political crises as the products of traditionalistic, planted right-wing politics vs. progressive and nomadic left-wing ideas, they’re actually best understood as urban vs. rural. As more and more farmers go bankrupt and rebel against urbanization and globalization, they’re not going to just move to cities to work in vertical farms. Many of them will see these projects as an existential threat and fight them with all their political and populist might.

what’s the endgame for urban farming?

There are definitely solutions to all the problems above. Vertical farms could ask for incentives and tax breaks from local governments, become key parts of mixed used developments which combine typical multifamily living units with offices, restaurants, and stores, lure over farmers with steady salaries and promise of constant work, and constant investments in ramping up green energy generation can help them run cleaner and cheaper. But why should we reinvent the wheel with farming? Don’t we already have extremely productive farms? Well, we do, but while they produce a lot of food, their environmental effects are dire, and the quality of what they put out is growing more and more questionable every decade.

Ideally, and as crazy as it may sound, to prevent the degradation of our ecosystems and new pandemics from contaminated meat that comes to us from who knows where, we want to switch to tight control over both the plants and meat we consume. It will mean that we’ll end up with larger cities, more machinery, less coal, oil, and gas, and even more urbanization. But the end result will be urban hubs existing as self-contained islands making optimal use of their efficiencies while large farms will end up as relics of the past, and the fossil fuel industry slowly tapers off as the transition to renewables and hopefully new forms of energy continues apace, the territory they occupied cleaned up and returned to nature.

things will get worse before they get better

Of course, in reality, this transition will be anything but smooth. Even if it will be beneficial in the end, its pace will be uneven and have to vary greatly from city to city, depending on the local political and social pressures. There will also be negative downstream effects even from things which seem like major wins. For example, with the majority of farming done vertically and largely by machinery, there will be little need for undocumented migrant labor which is endemic on American farms. Conservatives get their law and order immigration issue solved and liberals see fewer workers exploited. But the remittances sent by the workers help their families survive, so they’ll need to turn to something else. The question is what.

Likewise, farmers giving up their land and moving to a city to work in urban farms could look forward to a steady salary. But they may also be required to study botany, biology, and make a very rapid transition to knowledge work rather than just working with their hands. How many will be able and willing to do that? We don’t know. Major businesses will drag their feet as well since transforming their entire business would be extremely expensive and things like reducing environmental damage and better water management are far from their top concerns. Profits are their number one goal and since it will take a while for urban farms to make money, they’ll sit out on the sidelines until it’s more profitable to make the switch.

In the long run, urban farming can help solve a lot of problems, but we have to accept the fact that it won’t be ideal and require a number of tradeoffs and transitional planning to make sure it can work the way we want. It won’t be able to exist without a concerted effort to make it a thing and buy ins from local governments across at least a majority of major cities in Canada and the United States. But if we ultimately want more trees and forests, less runoff in water we drink, healthier food that doesn’t have to travel the world by cargo ship to get to us, and a big incentives for cleaner, greener grids while still producing food on industrial instead of artisanal scale, it’s one of the best big ideas for the future of cities and farming out there.

# tech // environment / farming / urbanization

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