Urban Ag: Visions for the future

Contemplative Roof Gardens @ Boston Latin School by Studio G Architects

Contemplative Roof Gardens @ Boston Latin School by Studio G Architects

A few months ago, the Boston Zoning Commission approved a new ordinance allowing commercial farming within city limits. The zoning rule, known as Article 89, was approved by Mayor Menino during his final days in office.

 “[The change] opens the door to an unfamiliar vision of Boston—as a city that grows its own food.” – Leon Neyfakh, The Boston Globe

Which begs the question, what might an agrarian metropolis look like?  It’s doubtful that we’ll see livestock grazing in the Common anytime soon, but there are plenty of ways to integrate sustainable food production into the city, from simple interventions, to innovative technologies, to “wildly fanciful” schemes.


BLS Sustainable Roofscape Learning Center by Studio G Architects

BLS Sustainable Roofscape Learning Center by Studio G Architects

Here’s a sampling of options, as outlined by the Boston Globe:

HIGH-RISE FARMING: Most downtown square footage is in high-rises, and Columbia University ecologist Dickson Despommier suggests that someday we’ll need to turn to greenhouse skyscrapers to help mitigate food shortages while driving down emissions. For now the idea is just that—an idea. But it takes vivid form in his 2010 book on the subject, which includes architectural renderings of vertical farm designs including one resembling an Egyptian pyramid and one inspired by the exoskeleton of a dragonfly.

ROOFTOP GREENHOUSES: If there’s a roof over your head right now, ask yourself: What’s up there? Probably a whole lot of nothing—or, looked at another way, empty acres ready to be farmed. Lufa Farms in Canada has built two prototypes, one in Montreal and one in nearby Laval, that total more than 70,000 square feet and grow, among other things, tomatoes, chard, carrots, mushrooms, and lettuce. As a nifty bonus, the farmers who work for Lufa can adjust the climate inside their greenhouses remotely using iPads.

HYDROPONIC TRAYS: Combining several other ideas on this list into one super-idea, the awkwardly named VertiCrop system grows lettuce and other leafy vegetables using a set of suspended plastic trays stacked 12 high, equipped with baths of water, and attached to a rotating conveyor belt that exposes them to light. The company that invented VertiCrop brags that the system uses 8 percent of the water and 5 percent of the space required by traditional farms to grow the same amount of food. The technology is already being used to grow food for animals at a zoo in England.

BLS greenhouse design by Studio G Architects

BLS greenhouse design by Studio G Architects

SHIPPING CONTAINER MINI-FARMS: The 40-foot steel boxes used to transport goods around the world become year-round vegetable gardens in this scheme by Boston-based startup Freight Farms, which modifies them with LED grow lights, vertical planting towers along the sides, and a drip irrigation system attached to the ceiling. Freight Farms already has three units up and running in Boston, including one adjacent to the Boston Latin School, where it is used to teach kids about farming, and may eventually produce food for use in school lunches.

CORNER FIELDS: The city of Boston owns significant quantities of vacant land—most of it in underprivileged neighborhoods like Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. The possibility that urban farmers could turn this land into thriving local businesses is one of the most exciting consequences of Article 89’s passage. The city has begun soliciting proposals for three parcels of land totaling almost 20,000 square feet, which the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development is hoping will get turned into gardens as early as this spring. Proposals are being accepted until Jan. 22. In an ideal world, the plots will create jobs for people with farming skills that most city businesses have no use for, and the owners—whoever they turn out to be—will put up farm stands where they’ll sell fresh, affordable, and nutritious produce to neighbors.

UNDERSEA EDIBLES: A coastal city like Boston has more than land to work with: Underwater farms that grow shellfish and seaweed have the potential to produce food without using any fertilizer and requiring no freshwater. These organisms also clean our waterways, by soaking up nitrogen and other pollutants from their surroundings. While the vast majority of the seawater adjacent to Boston is not nearly clean enough to produce anything edible, a group called the Massachusetts Oyster Project has launched a campaign to bring oysters back to Boston Harbor, where they used to be plentiful, so that their natural filtering powers can be enlisted in the effort to purify the water.

BEES: This one is already big in Boston. In fact, one of the most prominent advocates of urban beekeeping in the country is local beekeeper Noah Wilson-Rich, who has delivered a popular TED talk on the subject and helped a host of Boston businesses—including the Seaport Hotel and the Four Seasons—install beehives on their roofs. The new zoning ordinance sets forth some specific rules about keeping honeybees: For instance, hives can’t be bigger than 20 cubic feet and must be no closer than 10 feet to any public sidewalk.


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