Urban Farming….. on the ground and on the rooftops

san francisco city garden Can you imagine an actual large scale farm in an urban environment? How about in a city that has lost over half of its population since the sixties, has been pretty much abandoned and has a really tough reputation?

Well it looks as if the vision of one financial manager to bring a working 70 acre farm in the middle of Detroit is happening, and that is just the beginning…the ultimate vision is the world’s largest urban farm.

John Hantz, one of the wealthiest residents of Detroit, has a plan to bring fresh food, jobs, education, and a new tax base to a city that has been experiencing in many ways a long, slow, painful demise. I love that this is a plan by one of the most unlikeliest candidates to create an urban farm…this is not a young ‘back to the land’ 20-something and not even an aging hippie. This is a man who had been a star stock broker at American Express and then started his own financial services company that now has 20 offices, 500 employees and $1.3 billion in assets under its management.

Are we seeing a turning point where ‘real’ business people are realizing that it is time for a paradigm change? I can thankfully say, this seems to be the case.

More about John Hantz’s Farm… You can read a lot more about it here at the Hantz Farm Detroit web site. The vision is to “redefine urban growth”.  Detroit presents a unique opportunity since so much of the city has been abandoned. Buildings and homes sit empty in neighborhood after neighborhood. The sprawling city is in fact larger than San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan combined! Now that is a lot of land, and a lot of that land has been sitting vacant for a long time and it is pretty ugly to look at. Couple that with a declining auto industry in Detroit and  you have a pretty depressed city in a lot of ways.

This vision for a real farm in the city sounds revolutionary and inspired to me. This plan will accomplish so much if it comes even close to its goal. Phase One will involve more than 70 acres of underutilized vacant land and abandoned properties on Detroit’s lower east side. The farm will grow “fresh and safe” (I am not exactly sure what that really means, but it sounds if the farms will be pesticide and herbicide free if not organic) fruit and vegetables and incorporate solar and wind power.

This will accomplish many things:

Bring employment to a city that has a 27% unemployment rate, and also offer education for those involved.

Create a new tax base for a city that needs to collect taxes for services, but was losing more of its tax base year after year.

Bring fresh fruit and vegetables to a city where residents often have to travel twice as far to a market than to a liquor store.

Bring fresh produce to restaurants who otherwise have to buy from much farther away.

Offer a model city for other cities that also are facing declining populations and perhaps inspire other cities to bring smaller farms closer, if not within the city limits.

Create a new local economy.

Bring beauty and a natural environment to city dwellers.

Bring alternative energy to the inner city. The plan includes the installation of solar panels to power itself. Hantz Farms will also harvest wind energy and utilize geothermal heat and biomass fuel from recycling compost.

This won’t be like just any old farm. The latest technology will be used including compost heated greenhouses as well as hydroponics to maximize growing potential. Trees will also be planted to create fruit orchards.

Hantz’s plan is not without controversy. Detroit already has a recent history of urban gardens, there are almost 900 smaller gardens within the city but most are just for private consumption. Hantz’s farm will be a for-profit enterprise and that also means that it will generate much needed tax revenue for the city. Many involved in the original urban gardens feel as if corporate America could be moving in to their community, and maybe they are right…but in this case is that really a bad thing? Maybe it takes something like this on a larger scale to really start a larger movement.

As I see it there are quite a few large corporations doing good out there. More to come on this in the next few days.

Another vision of urban farming is taking place on rooftops across the country. From San Francisco to Chicago and New York rooftop gardens are growing. The city of Chicago has been in the forefront of this movement with tax incentives for rooftop gardens for about ten years. Other cities are slowly catching on. The energy savings as well as reducing runoff are great incentives, not to mention something healthy and delicious to eat.

In San Francisco the roof at the California Academy of Science in beautiful Golden Gate Park is an incredible example of what can be created on a rooftop. They have a 2.5 acre garden with several microclimates, 1.7 million plants comprised of 80 different native species and four productive beehives. There are some species found in the roof garden that aren’t even on the ground. Once again the benefits are far reaching. The soil on the roof has insulated the building so well that the energy needs of the 400,000 square foot building were reduced by about 10 percent. Plus the roof retained 98% of its rainfall, preventing it from entering the storm water system, which can get over stressed with big storms. This also reduces costs for the municipal wastewater treatment.

A new company called Sky Vegetables is creating sustainable, commercial-scale hydroponic farms on urban rooftops across America. Each one of these farms in the sky will provide chemical free and locally grown produce, and reduce environmental damage.

I first learned of Sky Vegetables at the Slow Money conference held in Santa Fe last September.  I heard a short presentation about the company and found the idea fantastic. Their web site has a very cool pictorial of how this roof farm will actually work from composting, to solar and even wind energy.

Just as in Detroit, Sky Vegetables has a vision to improve the health and nutrition of city populations and also create new jobs. This is accomplished by developing urban sustainable agricultural communities whether on the ground or on rooftops.

The benefits that Sky Vegetables will bring are the same as in Detroit to a large extent. Access to fresh produce in areas where often marketing is done at the local convenience store or gas station, which means nothing fresh. Healthcare costs could be reduced over time as urban populations turn to fresher food. Green jobs will be created, as well as an education opportunity that will go along with the job. A new local and sustainable community will be established.

Sky Vegetables also sees benefits to building owners in creating or allowing a “Sky Farm” to be created. It provides a new stream of income, increases building efficiency by providing insulation in the winter and absorbing heat in the summer. Environmental benefits mentioned include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction in fossil fuel use, food is grown without pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers in what previously was unused spaced.

So we may not need to travel too far for fresh produce wherever we are if these ideas take root and become even more widely accepted. Not every city would be able to provide land for farms, small or large, but there sure are a lot of empty roof tops in the city. I love the creativity and leap into something new that both of these visions offer. Yes there have been community gardens in cities for a long time and even some rooftop gardens, but now it is time to take this to the next level where it is not just a garden for personal use and enjoyment.

The more quality food that is available across the country that is easily accessible, reasonably priced and doesn’t require a long trip to arrive at the market, the more people will benefit and so will the environment. Quietly a movement is growing called local food and the shape that it is taking is showing up in many forms. Keep your eyes open if you are a city dweller and you may find tomorrow’s salad growing closer than you imagined.