Sprouting up in the Concrete Jungle: Urban Agriculture Innovations

Traditional farming methods are productive, but are they sustainable? Urban agriculture could be the future of sustainable farming as it can turn previously unproductive landscapes into productive gardens and habitats for animals in an otherwise uninhabitable environment. Empty lots, rooftops, side yards adjacent to buildings and even window sills are all examples of transformable landscapes. Urban Agriculture is a dynamic concept that makes up a variety of systems, ranging from subsistence production at the household level to fully commercialized agriculture. A growing number of cities and countries are recognizing the importance of urban agriculture and are developing new policies related to the practice.

A specific example of urban farming has recently gained some attention. Window Farming, a trend developing mostly in New York City (but spreading world-wide) takes a “Do-it-Yourself” approach to urban farming. Britta Riley, 33, developed the idea of vertical, hydroponic platforms for growing food indoors. The window farms use a pumping system that periodically sends a liquid nutrient solution up to the top which then trickles down through the plants root systems that are suspended in clay pellets – that is, no soil is involved. She allowed this idea to be publicly tested through online social platforms where 18,000 people now contribute to innovative new design ideas for the system. This has allowed window farming to evolve as an open-source project, growing off of ideas from specialists around the world.

Another practice of urban farming is similar in concept, but a bit more commercialized. Instead of farmers spreading out across acres and acres of land, this type of farming suggests the future growth of crops such as lettuce and strawberries will be a bit more vertical. The concept behind vertical farming is that it will require less land and less water, while also providing year-round light and climate control. It is believed that this method of farming can produce a yield up to 350 times greater than traditional agriculture while using only 1 percent of the water. A pioneer in the vertical farming world, Ed Harwood, developed Aero Farms Systems which goes further than hydroponics, using 70 percent less water (hydroponics uses approximately 70 percent less water than traditional farming). Harwood was able to develop an ideal, soilless medium for the growth of his crops using an artificial fabric he created himself out of fibres from recycled plastic water bottles (something he later patented). Aero Farms takes abandoned buildings in the greater NYC area, some abandoned factories, warehouses, etc., cleans them out and fills them with grow towers. These towers contain L.E.D. light systems in order to allow the plants to photosynthesize. He eventually shifted from selling the grow towers versus selling the crops and was able to prosper while providing parts of NYC with sustainable and locally grown produce.


Looking to the future, it is hard to ignore the fact that the world is going to be (or already is) overpopulated. Why can’t plants live on multiple levels, just as human beings do? Socially, urban agriculture can help bring families and communities together by working toward a common goal, giving direct links to food production, creating better living environments, giving people more independent empowerment over their food production, combating hunger, and educating people who have been increasingly removed from food production, to participate in and realize the importance of it in our society. Economically, urban agriculture has the potential to create jobs and income from otherwise unproductive space, be inclusive of people from all incomes and financial background, promote growth in the local economy, and make use of valuable resources that would otherwise go to waste in a city (such as compost from food scraps). Environmentally, urban agriculture is beneficial in cleaning up local air and rain water, preventing erosion and topsoil removal, decreasing the local carbon footprint, lessening the use of water in farming, and in some cases recycling materials that would otherwise go to waste such as plastic bottles.

Policy goals associated with urban agriculture consist of poverty alleviation, food security, environmental and waste management, local economic development, social and community development, and community adaptation to climate change. With the cooperation from local governments in urban areas across the globe, this form of agriculture could be vital to pushing towards sustainable development in the future.

Do you think there is hope in urban agriculture? What sort of problems might be associated with this type of agriculture and how do we overcome them? What is policy’s relation with urban agriculture and how can we shape policy to favor it? Would any of you be willing to grow your own food in the future?








12 thoughts on “Sprouting up in the Concrete Jungle: Urban Agriculture Innovations

  1. This is a very interesting article. I would be interested to see the actual numbers of the energy used it one of these farming facilities. Maybe this truly is the future of farming, especially if it provides an environment less susceptible to storms and fires.


  2. I think these local, conservative agriculture techniques are really interesting. While I don’t know how much of an impact it will have the current agricultural system we have, it’s clear that they are great in educating, involving, and helping the community. I would definitely be open to participating in some of these small scale projects in my own home or community. It’s seems like a pretty cool piece of engineering.


  3. This fits great with the food chapter that we did this week. More urban farms would lower the demand on large cooperate farms. Having supply so close to the demand would also improve efficiency and help the economy as a whole. The larges limitation that I see is the cost of space, however little, in large cities. This cost alone will make the food from these farms more expensive than that which is imported into the city.


  4. I think that this is a pretty good idea, especially because we just went through the food chapter in class. To me, it seems like this would cut down on soil erosion and the contamination of water due to fertilizer. I like the idea that they are taking over old and abandoned factories or building and not building new facilities. The only thing I am curious about is the pricing of the food compared to traditional methods. Having “farms” in cities would help cut down on transportation emissions and costs, so I could see this as a viable source of combatting climate change due to agricultural practices.


  5. I think urban agriculture would be a great thing. It would help the environment socially, environmentally, and economically. I just got back from New York City this past weekend and already seen some urban agriculture in action. The Highline in New York is an elevated green trail that spans above a former railroad trail in Manhattan. Along the 1.5 mile trail, there are mini gardens and green scenery throughout. I think this would be a neat concept for major cities to utilize!


  6. I think this is an awesome concept! I believe that encouraging urban farming would educate consumers, and would use people to ask more questions about where their food comes from; it might promote transparency in the farm to table process. This would also be a great way to potentially reduce urban heat island effect (implementation of green roof systems) and makes the most of the land available to you. Lastly, this idea could be huge for combating hunger and poverty in a way that I feel like most people could get behind.


    1. This is a great post, especially after having read the chapter about our nation’s food system. Our food culture is all about efficiency and maximizing our output means utilizing all the space we have (vertically, on tops of buildings, or in our own homes). Seeing how much energy and time it takes to grow our food will increase the transparency and understanding of the importance of our food security. Finding a cheap way of providing this kind of agriculture would change the world as we know it, and engineers will be part of that movement.


  7. I really hope this catches on in many cities, large and small. I would love to see local Farmer’s Markets be populated with both organic, traditional, and not vertical farmers. The ability to fill empty warehouses and factories with environmentally-friendly produce is just a great thought! I hope someone down the line conducts an LCA on vertical gardening and compares it to traditional and organic farming. Also, individual/home systems anybody?


  8. This is a really cool practice, and I hope it continues to gain ground in more cities. I’m curious to see the energy input difference between these urban farms and traditional agricultural production, particularly with the LED grow towers. This would also continue to cut down fuel use/costs involved with transporting fresh produce into urban areas which in turn decreases carbon footprint. I wonder if these farms would consider using solar panels to be the energy source for any artificial light sources that might be needed in their operation.


  9. Vertical farming is interesting, however I am concern the amount of electricity use to satisfy the plant’s living standards. Overall it is a good idea because the people of the city can also buy more locally grown produce, which will help the economy


  10. I agree with Shakera. I think that vertical farming is interesting in the implementation, but it poses a few concerns, such as electricity use. The overall idea is wonderful, and I think that it would work great in urban areas. I don’t know if this idea will create jobs or just bring the jobs to the city. Great read!!


  11. This was a neat article! There are definitely still lots of issues to work out with making the urban farming trends you mentioned here truly sustainable. But I think urban gardens are really powerful from a social perspective – we are so disconnected from our food and where it comes from today. Urban gardens help bring this a little but more into perspective. I think it has great potential not only to effect people’s nutritional choices, but also to help with issues like food waste. If you have actually planted a tomato and watered it and waited months for it to grow, you might think twice about throwing it out because it has one tiny spot.


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