Vertical forests and farms are green spaces in which plants grown in stacked layers instead of horizontal rows. They increase urban plant biodiversity while decreasing sprawl (by growing up instead of out).
In the case of a vertical forest, a building’s exterior is designed to hold numerous growing plants. Vertical forests are a passion of Stefano Boeri Architects–this Italian firm completed a two-tower vertical forest in Milan in 2014 and they have just begun a new one in China.
The firm’s website explains that vertical forests have a wide range of benefits, including air pollution mitigation and the creation of habitats for local insects and birds. They also provide cities with a new, beautiful appearance and view. The Milan residential towers have 900 trees and over 20,000 plants growing up their sides and it took two years to design them with a team of botanists.
The eastern Chinese city of Nanjing is the site for Stefano Boeri’s new vertical forest. The two Nanjing Green Towers will host 23 species of tree and more than 2,500 plants on their exterior surfaces. They will be designed to suck 25 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. Nanjing Green Towers will be home to a hotel, offices, a museum and, fittingly, a green architecture school.
China has a serious issue with air pollution, which makes these green towers in the urban region of Nanjing an apt choice. Greenpeace explains that China’s rise to becoming the world’s second-largest economy has led to serious health impacts for its citizens. Numerous studies have linked air pollution to premature deaths and child asthma in industry-dense areas. For example, a 2017 study from the American Thoracic Society found that as exposure to fine particulate air pollution increased in Chinese cities, so did respiratory and cardiovascular disease and related deaths.
Boeri has also been asked to design entire forest cities in China, the first of which may be in the mid-sized city of Luizhou. “We have been asked to design an entire city where you don’t only have one tall building but you have 100 or 200 buildings of different sizes, all with trees and plants on the facades,” Boeri told the Guardian.
“By 2020, we could imagine having the first forest city in China.” He added that he hopes his ideas will be widely adopted and that he has “no problem if there are people who are copying or replicating” them. In June 2017, the firm announced it had begun construction on this project. They are scheduled to be completed in 2018.
Vertical farms are also sprouting upward around the globe, producing green leafy produce without using up the Earth’s limited topsoil. According to a 2014 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, farming chemicals like herbicides and pesticides, global warming and deforestation have eroded much of the soil that could potentially be used for farming. It predicts all the useable topsoil could be lost in as little as 60 years.
Vertical farms respond to this somewhat dire situation by growing indoors crops, usually in hydroponic systems — without soil — and with LED lighting. The stacked rows of produce are fed nutrients and water and can often grow more quickly than a standard crop.
The vertical farming company AeroFarms claims to be 130 times more productive than field farming. Their site explains they are on a mission to “transform agriculture by building and operating environmentally responsible farms throughout the world to enable local production at scale and nourish our communities with safe, nutritious, and delicious food.” They’ve been exploring what they call “totally-controlled agriculture” since 2004 and are now running the world’s largest indoor vertical farm in a former Newark, N.J. steel plant. Their aim is to produce 1.7 million pounds of produce annually.
CEO David Rosenberg’s told CBS that they’ve customized their LED lighting system to make it more energy efficient, since indoor lighting can be one of the main expenses for these endeavors. They’ve also received millions from backers including Goldman Sachs and Prudential, along with millions in state and local grants.
To learn more about vertical farming, check out the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF), an international non-profit that supports the vertical farming movement. It offers a variety of services, including vertical farming news, resources, tools, design competitions, workshops, identification of potential partnerships, a monthly newsletter, demonstration projects, data transparency, an Annual AVF Summit and more. It has also created an interactive map of vertical farming companies and projects around the world.
As the human race explores more inventive options for sustainable faRming and living, these types of vertical agricultural and landscaping endeavors, in which plants grow upward instead of outward, may become a more commonplace solution and site.