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Cities may sprout vertical farms

Proposed high-rise greenhouses could help solve a looming food crisis, professor says.

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Professor Despommier and Eric Ellingsen collaborated on this view of how a greenhouse skyscraper might look. Light penetration is key.

Courtesy of The Vertical Farm Project

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Farming would seem to be a horizontal occupation. Iowa corn or Kansas wheat pokes up from flat fields that stretch to the horizon.

That’s why the idea of “vertical farms” seems ripe for humor. When its biggest advocate appeared on the faux news show “The Colbert Report” earlier this year, comedian Stephen Colbert prefaced the interview by guessing it would have something to do with corn that grows sideways or perhaps “Chia blimps” that float overhead.

Such teasing hasn’t deterred Dickson Despommier, the Col­umbia University professor of public health. He sees putting crops into skyscrapers as a better way to feed a hungry world. Professor Despommier’s website, verticalfarm.com, features architectural concepts of high-rise buildings that could grow fresh produce in urban areas while at the same time being much more environmentally sustainable than conventional agriculture. [Editor's note: .]

The trouble is, he concedes, none of the beautiful drawings would work exactly as shown. “They all look pretty,” he says. “[A]t least it means they’re thinking in the right direction.”

What’s needed before millions of dollars are spent to construct or renovate an existing 30-story building into a vertical farm, Despommier says, are prototypes just a few stories high. They should be built at leading agricultural universities and tinkered with until the concept is proved. “Once it does, drive it out of the showroom and take it home,” he says.

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