What is an urban food desert? Often located in low-income, high-development areas urban, food deserts or “nutritional wastelands” are running over with fast food restaurants and expensive convenience stores, but little to no affordable healthy food options. For the folks who live in these areas, the fresh produce that does exist is outrageously expensive, which makes the trip to the corner fast food restaurant more appealing and economical. As one of the leading issues facing New Jersey, much has been said about the concept of urban food deserts. According to the federal government, New Jersey contains 134 “nutritional wastelands.”
How can New Jersey solve this problem locally? Enter the entrepreneurs. Much in the way that developers have found recent success in the revitalization of Downtown Newark, they are now looking to develop the urban core that once defined the city. In places like Newark’s Ironbound, vast tracts of former industrial land are up for grabs. There now exists an initiative to farm these empty lots, and harvest that fresh produce to feed the residents of Newark. But how do you grow food in the city, where land values are astronomically higher than those in the suburbs? How do you harvest food in the city, where agriculturally-trained labor is extremely hard to find?
Urban farming is not a new concept, in fact most American cities contained downtown agricultural zones right up through the Industrial Revolution. Boston’s namesake Common was actually used for cow grazing until the mid-1800s. Today, however, it is hard to find vast open areas that would support urban agriculture, so farmers have had to develop new ways of optimizing square footages and provide a yield ratio that makes sense. Rooftops over pre-existing uses have become the go-to solution, where rent is not required or justified. In public places like the Lincoln Park Community Farm, an otherwise abandoned lot behind a historical church has been put to use. In places where land must still be purchased or leased, hydroponics and aeroponics have allowed agriculture to develop vertically. Artificial lighting and non-traditional means of irrigation and fertilization must be used, but the results are quite impressive and they are cost comparative to the farmlands of central New Jersey. It is this concept—the vertical farm—that would have the most potential as an urban solution. The author and educator, Dr. Dickson Despommier, has cited vertical urban farms as the only feasible solution to human survival. The fact that our conventional agricultural industry is largely based on cheap petroleum supports this concept, where transportation costs will make the shipping and distribution of remotely-grown produce almost impossible. Factor in the ever-increasing threats of drought in agricultural areas of the country, and it seems to be a logical solution.
By way of their design, these vertical farms depend heavily on the existing city infrastructure, but that is a product of the way buildings are currently designed. While they require a substantial amount of power and water to sustain, an urban farm building could harvest enough rainwater and energy to support itself. Imagine a building containing stacked trays of hydroponically-grown produce, the lights powered by a cladding of photovoltaic panels and the irrigation supported by rooftop rainwater harvesting. All of this is possible with current technology. In fact, KSS Architects is currently working on a design that incorporates this very model. Instead of consuming huge amounts of soil, the plants are nourished by a solution of sterilized compost tea and water. Once the crop is harvested, it’s delivered locally to food markets and restaurants, which further reduces the need for large trucks and unsustainable logistics.
There has been a notable backlash to the concept of farming in a factory, whereupon people generally find it difficult to embrace the idea of “fresh” produce being created in a closed warehouse. There is a certain inherent biophilic desire for our fruit to be grown on trees and our vegetables to be grown in soil. While it is true that the environment is completely fabricated, one could say that except for the lighting, it is actually favorable when compared to current outdoor farming practices. The Monsantos and Cargills of the world have turned outdoor farming into one of the most carefully scientific processes in history. Seed production and distribution is a heavily industrialized and fully programmed industry, relying on success rates that can only be achieved through a heavily scrutinized farming method. Humans are so far removed from the system that creates their food that our biophilic connection must occur in the produce aisle, where bags of distantly-cultivated lettuce display images of 19th century farms.
Why not then, turn to a revolutionary process that personalizes the practice? A process that has the potential to reconnect humans with their agriculture, to bring the farms back to the people. This is what the urban farming movement seeks to do; to redevelop urban real estate and simultaneously reenergize our agricultural roots. Not because we can or we should, but as Despommier would say “because we have to.”