McKinsey & Company

McKinsey on Society


Voices Cities

Cities alive!

Dickson DespommierColumbia University

Dr. Dickson Despommier is professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology at Columbia University and president of the Vertical Farm Project. His book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, was published by Thomas Dunne Books in October, 2010.

Urban sprawl literally defines the modern city. In fact, it has always been that way, starting with the very first urban center, Jericho (population 2,000), up to today’s champion megalopolis, Tokyo (population 34 million). As populations increased, the number of people living inside the protective walls of the earliest cities spilled out into the surrounding countryside. While the walls may have come down from today’s urban centers, encroachment is still their mantra. A well-documented example of what appears to be random growth is Atlanta, Georgia. Using Landsat photography taken from 300 miles up to record the expansion of that historic Southern city at regular intervals over the last 20 years, the isotropic radiation of Atlanta’s boundaries in many ways resembles a Petri dish inoculated with bacteria. We can all understand that this kind of growth is the result of too little planning and not enough insight into efficient use of space and resources. When no one is in charge of regulating these two things, cities grow in ways that are utterly unpredictable and without regard to optimizing resources. The result is cities that are congested, difficult to navigate and, ultimately, unsustainable in their use of resources.

Cities evolve in response to an array of forces. Most urban environments arise from humble beginnings and spread out according to politics, economics, and social pressures, carving out specialized zones for transportation, trade, recreation, housing, protection (moats and walls), and such. Many early cities routinely caught on fire or were leveled to the ground by conquering armies à la “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Many others disappeared due to natural disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, or floods. Despite the fact that they were rebuilt many times over (Troy has had at least seven iterations according to most archeologists), in no case were they rebuilt with efficiency in mind.

Today, almost every built environment suffers from its past and continues to encourage a worsening of the social diseases of “sprawlism.” There are, of course, numerous exceptions to this paradigm. Portland, Oregon is one of the most outstanding examples of an enlightened view of city growth in the United States. Many medieval cities throughout Europe that survived into modern times also have put severe constraints on expansion—Freiburg, Germany, for example. However, most cities, regardless of location, have the unfortunate prospect of not being able to control their patterns of growth, despite the presence of city-planning departments in most of them.

What is needed, in my opinion, is a radical change in urban philosophy; one that is based on natural processes and mimics the best that nature has to offer with respect to balance. The balanced ecosystem is often referred to as a “closed loop” entity: everything the system needs to thrive—water, food, energy, et cetera—already exists within it (rather than being trucked in!) and is constantly recycled. I would encourage all city planners and developers to take a long, hard look into the ways in which ecosystems behave. It is the model for how we should be handling things like water management, energy utilization, and the recycling of waste into usable resources. In an ecosystem, assemblages of plants and animals are linked together by a common thread: the sharing of nutrients, the transfer of energy from sunlight to plants and then to animals, and the recycling of all the elements needed to ensure the survival of the next generation of those living within the boundaries of that geographically defined area. With available technologies, we can now bio-mimic an ecosystem’s best features. If cities learned to take advantage of these new technologies, then we would be well on our way to sustainability into the next millennium.

To be truly sustainable, cities must also learn to produce at least a portion of their own food. Right now, the world devotes an area the size of South America to growing crops and raising livestock. At projected rates of population growth, we would need an additional area the size of Brazil by 2050, but that much arable land does not exist. I have championed vertical farming as a start, to allow cities to produce large quantities of food crops in multistory buildings. This would avoid the need to encroach even more on the natural world to make room for farms that, in the long haul, are destined to fail due to unavoidable climate change issues.

Click to enlarge

The idea would be to take today’s indoor farming techniques—including aeroponics, hydroponics, and drip irrigation—and scale them up dramatically. The Vertical Farm Project estimates that a 30-story, 3 million-square-foot building could easily feed 10,000 city dwellers based on today’s technology. Such high-rise farms could provide a wide variety of produce and even poultry and pork. Since conditions could be controlled much more tightly than in traditional agriculture, we estimate that one acre of vertical farm space could produce as much as ten to twenty soil-based acres. If cities were suddenly able to produce their own food, the quality of life within them would improve dramatically. Fresh produce would mean better nutrition and a healthier life for all citizens. Fewer food-trucking miles would mean less air pollution. If we could establish an urban agriculture, we could achieve a certain measure of sustainability. By recycling water and converting solid wastes into usable energy, we would reduce the need to reach outside the city for these essential resources.

In short, by incorporating the best qualities of an ecosystem into the everyday functions of a city, there is no apparent upper limit to the size of a city. More important would be the improvements in quality of life for its inhabitants. Balance between our world and nature should be our prime goal. Making food production an integral feature of city life paves the way for the technical equivalent of a functional, sustainable ecosystem. Life imitates life!

  • Max Bourke

    I would like this concept to be feasible but even preliminary back of the envelope examination suggests huge problems, apart from the cost (once again a technofix for the rich) and they are the amount of light required to keep such systems going, much of the northern hemisphere has serious restrictions in this regard…might work well in Singapore though and they could try it.

  • I think there are huge potentials in this sort of eco-urban design, but the main benefits would not so much be in food production (a function vital to rural areas) but rather in climate control, optimal (towards zero fossil) energy cycling, and, above all, making the city a healthy and nice place to work and live (and thereby saving fortunes on e.g. health care and commuting costs). It is good to realize that there are many affordable, low-tech steps towards this aim, like green roofs, flying gardens, green parks and corridors. What is needed is designers and planners with the ability to think in life cycles, and the will to cooperate with citizens.

  • Alexis Scholtz

    Also, sprawl is not only due to bad planning. It is a result of a market led property market which effectively forces the poor on to the outskirts due to their inability to afford property. Planners then have to try and accommodate squatters on land which is not zoned or appropriate as best they can. Of course that’s just one reason – but a lot of the time the markets which could support such a vertical farm, will also result in the displacement of the poor which in turn results in the unsustainable nature of cities. Urbanisation of poverty is huge, and a serious adjustment to political models need to be looked at in addition to techno fixes.

  • Valeria Vincent Sancisi, LEED AP

    have been a gardener. Have you every tried to grow food indoors? Mites, aphids, etc. etc. Ever taste hydroponic food vs earth grown, sun ripened? Outside is irreplaceable.

    I agree with having planners, architects, designers looking at ecosystems and designing in integral fashion, but, I can’t say putting a farm in a highrise is mimicking ecosystems.

    It seems like a logical progression to think so, but highrises were designed in a era that rebuked ecosystems and so have a heritage of being devoid of the necessary systems to support life.. we stopped orienting buildings when air conditioning and hvacs came along with these highrises.

    Highrises are sophisticated engineering intensive systems, not ecosystems. They were driven by an economic model that does not acknowledge what the true product is: a place for living beings-humans.

    A lot of the existing buildings did not consider orientation when they were built, not optimizing natural light or ventilation. Hard to grow things, let alone make people feel good.
    So how can studying ecosystems help design the built environment? I think it is a larger mandate, Number 1: life is the most valuable asset. Nature’s systems are designed to enhance and support life.
    Number 2 : what supports life yields the most productivity.
    and Number 3: fulfill what are the life requirements to thrive when designing.

    I think there will be a constant negotiating and aligning of nature’s systems with man’s systems.
    It is not mimicking nature or being the technical equivalent of nature by putting orchards, produce, fisherie and livestock in rooms in a highrise with needed ventilation, greywater, living machine, structual loading, and calling it a day.

    It skews human scale putting a full farm in a highrise. The economic model would spur monster buildings to actually feed enough,
    so that no pedestrian would want to walk through, around the building to do the other things that cities are busy doing. Negotiation, keep it micro, allow some rural to weave in the urbanscape via walls, creeks, roofs, no livestock in rooms with no outside, let people be inside.
    Alignment, keep food production in contact with the outside. Perhaps neighborhood concentric. Use the the micro-climates on the walls or building envelope for ease of growing plants vertically, great for building efficiency, expanding wildlife, especially along park and creek corridors, paths, creating more species diversity in the urban environment, small scale produce on terraces and roofs, so there is contact with the outside. The idea that of highrise farms a la factory, is not recognizable to an ecosystem. There are some great components there, but needs redesign.

  • J Jeyaseelan

    What cannot be overlooked while discussing anything about cities is the fact that they are primarily economic engines. I am sure, if we take a close look at cities that had deliberately prevented the natural sprawling phenomenon, would not have also prospered economically or become a powerhouse of the economy.

    What dictates the land use pattern inside cities is the opportunity cost. I for one had moved in to the city from the countryside a few decades ago. The rapid rate at which the city has grown around me is mind boggling as compared to the very little growth that has taken place in my native village.

    I do feel nostalgic about living on almost everything that is home grown during my younger days. I have tried my hand at kitchen gardening. But the fact is that space in the cities is shrinking and we really cannot afford the opportunity cost of the kitchen garden anymore.

    In my view, it is unrealistic to expect cities to self produce even a fraction of the food it consumes. Instead of undertaking such high cost ventures, cities would be better off adopting farming villages and helping the local farmers to produce food more productively. Cities can play a very catalytic role in taking modern farming technologies to the country side.

  • Valeria Vincent Sancisi, LEED AP

    For Jeyaseelon,
    Even though the economics absolutely need to be discussed when speaking of cities, and I agree, production farming is not the best use of the precious limited space of cities, especially in economic terms of feeding the city.
    I would not rule out kitchen gardens. The human enterprise is not just economics of survival.
    There are successful cities that have based their success on other than expansion of sprawl. San Francisco can’t sprawl,because of its geography, yet it is a vibrant, residential city.
    I think this article was an attempt to address sprawl as a non sustainable feature of cities, and you are equating sprawl as the evidence of a cities success by way of expansion. These are different values within the discussion of economics.

  • Scott Mickey

    Your whole thesis implies that there is some sort of problem with sprawl without going into any kind of detail as to what those problems are. Atlanta is growing. So what? Is that a bad thing? Then you put up Portland as a poster child as to what a city should be. Why is Portland “better” than Atlanta and what evidence do you have to back that up? Have you asked anyone that lived there?

    You also assume that our agricultural technology is going to remain at today’s level as the population continues to grow. What is your basis for that? Agriculture has undergone tremendous transformation in just the past 50 years. Why wouldn’t that trend continue? I’m sure anyone that worked in the ags business could tell you that growing food in a high-rise building is a bad idea.

    I expected better from McKinsey.

  • Kajetan Zwieniecki

    How can you simultaneously compare city sprawl to a Petri dish of bacteria then claim that urban philosophy must be ‘based on natural processes’. Metaphors and buzzwords should be thought through before employed so recklessly.

    The idea of vertical farming seems to completely discard the simple economics of competitive advantage. Yes we could grow food in the middle of cities. However this would mean that workers in the city would become farmers rather than lawyers, accountants, programmers, etc. Conversely farmers in the country, whose marginal production of food is much greater than that of farmers working in agrarian skyscrapers, are no longer a part of the economy. That is the real waste.

    I know the above is a gross over-simplification, however it serves to illustrate a very simple point that is completely overlooked in the essay.

    An important counter argument to the above is the impressive transportation and storage costs associated with food production outside of a city, and this is brought up in the essay. Then should we not dedicate our creative minds and technological efforts to solving these problems rather than building vertical farms?

  • Pingback: google()

E-mail alerts

Get our latest knowledge emailed to you

Follow us