Bull Session

Urban Agriculture

June 9, 2016          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we chat about urban agriculture and its importance to the cities of the future. We’re quickly approaching 8 billion people on the planet. More than half of them live in cities, and this number will continue to grow. The agriculture industry is resource intensive, especially when it comes to water and energy usage. Around the world, as they plan for the cities of the future, people are looking at urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture has many benefits.Because food is grown locally, near where we live, it reduces the cost and environmental impact of long supply chains. Locally grown also means we always get fresh produce.

Cities benefit from the increased greenery of urban agriculture which, importantly, reduces the “heat island” effect, caused by impermeable city surfaces are and dry which make urban regions warmer than nearby rural areas. Additionally, urban farming can bring healthy food as well as jobs to underserved urban areas.

In this episode we discuss the current state of urban agriculture and its future, including vertical farms and products like the Grove Ecosystem.

Resources:
Why Chicago is Becoming the Country’s Urban Farming Capital
Grove Labs

Jon:
Welcome to episode 159 of “The Digital Life,” a show about our adventures in the world of design, and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me, as founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Howdy, Jon.

Jon:
Howdy, Dirk. For our podcast today, we’re going to chat about urban agriculture, and its importance for the cities of the future. This is a topic that I’m very interested in. We’re quickly approaching 8 billion people on the planet, and more than half of them live in cities, and this number is growing everyday. The ag industry is, as we know, resource intensive. When it comes to water, energy usage, you name it, the agriculture industry requires it. Around the world, as they’re planning for this increased population living in cities, people are really starting to look at agriculture taking place within the confines of the urban environment.

Some advantages of urban agriculture include that you’re growing food near where you live, so that reduces the environmental impact of these long supply chains that we’ve grown used to, so instead of shipping grapes up from Chile, you’re growing some kind of fruit locally. It also means that the food is fresher, because once again, you’re not in this long supply chain scenario, and cities also get a benefit from this increased greenery, because it reduces something called the “heat island effect.” What happens with cities, because it has all these impermeable surfaces that used to be absorbent surfaces, as it would be in a rural area, it just causes the whole urban region to be much warmer than the surrounding environments that have more vegetation.

The heat island effect is reduced as we have more greenery in the urban confines. Then finally, something really cool about urban agriculture, urban farming, is that it’s bringing healthy food and jobs to underserved areas. If you have areas of the inner city where you can’t get fresh produce, and jobs might be scarce, urban agriculture can be quite helpful for that. Where are we today? There are some pretty high profile urban ag areas. I mean, not specifically for urban agriculture alone, but I’m thinking especially of New York City’s High Line Park, where there’s lots of vegetation, including agriculture. Boston …

Dirk:
Have you been to High Line Park? Have you walked it?

Jon:
I have not. I have not. That is on my list of things to do when I have a moment to myself, which is not very frequent these days.

Dirk:
Because High Line Park I would call pleasant and quaint. The pleasant is definitely a compliment. The quaint is not a criticism, but they’re not gardening at scale in High Line Park. I mean, let’s be clear about that, but keep going, I apologize.

Jon:
No, no, no. Boston is in the middle of a visioning process which they’re basically trying to figure out what land they can allocate to urban agriculture. We have these, call them … Maybe modest is the wrong word, but we have these toe in the water projects where we’re beginning to see some of the fruits of urban agriculture, but nothing on a massive scale, that would be required to say, feed the city of New York, right?

Dirk:
Yeah.

Jon:
For things like that, the thought or the process, the vision for things like that is vertical farming, right? Imagine a high rise, but instead of people and offices, you’ve got, well, gardens and fields basically in the space where cars would be parked normally, or what have you. What’s so interesting about vertical farming is you get that scale that you’re looking for with High Line and at the same time, it has all of those other advantages that we talked about before, like it’s local, it’s providing the jobs, it’s providing the fresh food, et cetera. Singapore launched one of the first commercial vertical farms in the world a couple of years ago in 2012.

It is happening and it is part of this move towards urban agriculture, but we know that Singapore is pretty advanced when it comes to that kind of thinking. It’s hard to say when this will become more, permeate more cities, but it’s certainly a good start. Dirk, I’ve talked at length about this. What are your impressions on urban ag?

Dirk:
Certainly it’s interesting to read about, it’s interesting to think about. There’s a lot of unknowns in terms of a future that would theoretically require urban agriculture, and so what I mean by that is we don’t know exactly how the world is going to change as a virtue of global warming, which is the most likely cataclysmic event that will significantly change the ways in which we live. There’s a lot of scenarios of how it can go. I mean, many people envision a future of mega cities because that’s in line with what we’ve seen happening, which is to say, as you mentioned, more and more people are in cities every year. These urban agriculture solutions are being envisioned, but depending on how things go, it may be that instead of trying to build up, we build out.

Building up is expensive, so to build a high rise requires a tremendous amount of carbon emission. There’s no 2 ways about it. From the materials, to the construction, the whole 9 yards, and that’s happening while we have a majority of Canada, a majority of Russia, a majority of China. I’m talking about the largest countries in the world, a majority of them are wide open space. I think there’s an open question of whether the future is one of up, not out, because if we move into the open space that is out, it’s far cheaper. You don’t need steel, and concrete, and these other modern building materials in order to house and sustain people, basically. Starting there, now assuming it’s a future of these megalopolis’, it’s interesting. I mean, it certainly makes sense for us to have an integrated model of life, as opposed to a distributed model of life.

I mean, you mentioned the fruits being brought up from Central or South America, I don’t remember the country you cited. Chile, so South America. Yeah, I mean, it just makes no sense, and at the end of the day, there’s 2 reasons why it makes sense to do that. Number 1 is that there’s a company that can get grapes made in Chile that wants to make money, so that company has a profit motive to make that happen. The second reason is consumer demand. I want grapes, I don’t just want grapes for the 6 weeks of grape season in Eastern United States, or whatever the hell that looks like. I want grapes in January, and February, and March, and April. Those are the only 2 reasons. There’s a company that’s trying to exploit a situation and make money, and there’s people who, when they want fucking grapes, they want fucking grapes.

Those are really bad reasons to have grapes being brought from Chile to the Northeast United States, as one of the many destinations that Chilean grapes … Are there Chilean grapes, or did you just pick Chile out of a hat?

Jon:
No, there are, yeah.

Dirk:
There’s a burgeoning Chilean grape industry.

Jon:
I believe there are Chilean grapes.

Dirk:
There’s Chilean wine, so Chilean grapes certainly makes sense. Yeah, so it makes sense. Why can’t we live within our means? Why do we have to have grapes when we want grapes? I mean, the grapes that come and when they’re out of season, they don’t taste as good. What’s the point? I mean, why can’t we be … I know the reasons why, I’m talking rhetorically here. Let me even not do it rhetorically. We need to start being satisfied with, “You know what? This is the kind of food that our environment can provide. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s make the most of it.” Because of science, because of globalization, I mean, there’s foods that wouldn’t have been available in a local way 100 years ago, that now we can make available, just by virtue of our knowledge of them, and advances that have happened in [agri biz 00:09:43]. Yeah.

Jon:
Yeah. There’s so much potential, I think, in urban agriculture. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of interesting tech related startup companies here in the Boston area, and I want to talk about one in particular, because at Invo, we were privileged enough to be part of the beta test for their product. The product is called “The Grove.” It’s by Grove Labs, and you can check them out at GroveLabs.io, and essentially, what they have is a self contained mini ecosystem that involves growing food like we were growing tomato plants, and then fertilizing or providing nutrients for that food from fish, basically, which are part of this almost looks like a sophisticated looking bookcase where the top part of the bookcase is devoted to your plant life, and has your illumination, and area for water irrigation, and then the bottom part of it is where the fish reside, and of course, you have to take care of each of the parts of this ecosystem so that everything runs smoothly, and we had a lot of fun getting this up and running.

I’ve got to say that for all of you urban farmers out there, it is probably easier said than done, because we learned a lot as we were getting our Grove up and running, and we have the great folks from Grove Labs come over and school us a bit in how to take care of it. I think ultimately, having that be part of our community kitchen where we have meals together at Involution, it was a nice part of that. We did that …

Dirk:
I noticed the use of the word “was,” Jon.

Jon:
Yes. We did that for about a year, and on top of everything else going on in the studio, I don’t think we had the bandwidth to really maintain it in an ongoing fashion. I believe we’re going to be donating it to an educational institution in Arlington, but …

Dirk:
There’s a bunch of lessons there.

Jon:
There is. One of those is that urban agriculture is probably just as serious a business as any other kind of farming, right? It’s a full time occupation and we were doing the equivalent of hobbyist gardening or community kitchen here at Involution, but if you’re interested in that sort of thing, I would definitely recommend checking out Grove Labs. I know that there are community gardens and a lot of other ways to go about this, but that was a good solution for us, and it allowed us to grow produce during the Winter, as well, although we didn’t have grapes, which would have been nice.

Dirk:
Yeah, but it was just a trifle, Jon. To me, that’s the takeaway. Let’s not gloss over it. I mean, providing food, providing agriculture is not a hobby thing, at the current level of agricultural technology. I mean, it’s a profession. It’s something that you have to put a significant amount of time into, have a significant amount of expertise, and have the correct supplies and knowledge, and all of this stuff. So many things that we idealize as being part of this Utopian urban future, imagine in hobbyist ways, simply aren’t hobbyist things. This is just a great example of it.

Jon:
Yeah. It’s a good point.

Dirk:
These are things that, yes, they need to be local, yes, they need to be integrated, but that doesn’t mean that Tom, Dick, and Harry, to use the traditional and male focused list of generic names, as part of their day, screw around with their little in-house agriculture, and “ta-da,” there’s going to be food there. Maybe someday, but certainly not now. I mean, this is something that requires real professional people putting significant amount of time into to realize.

Jon:
Yeah. I think that’s an excellent point. Listeners, we’re excited to announce today, another partner in our network for “The Digital Life.” You can already find “The Digital Life” on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, and our friends at Player FM, and we’re excited to announce today that we’re also available on Google Play. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in the “The Digital Life,” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterwards if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-o-n-F-o-l-l-e-t-t, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-o-I-n-v-o.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter, @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. When people tweet at me, I always respond and engage, so if you are so compelled, it would be a joy to engage with you, and thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 159 of “The Digital Life.” For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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