design food technology

The lovely myth of vertical farms

Linkoping in Sweden is home to a space-age new building project – the world’s first bona-fide skyscraper farm. It’s an idea that’s been kicking around for a while. Followers of green architecture and design blogs like Inhabitat or Treehugger will be familiar with them – towering greenhouses that grow food for the city, in the city.

It’s all been a bit space age until now, but as this first one gets built, perhaps they’ll get more attention. And then, hopefully, less attention.

For starters, here’s the concept image of the current project. It has a huge rotating conveyor in the centre that slowly moves plants from seedlings to harvesting areas, turning them into the light along the way. CO2 is pumped in from a nearby power station to create a better growing environment.

I have a problem with this image. If growing space is so important, why on earth is this sky-farm sitting in so much empty space? Look at all that circle of green around the base – get some crops in there, or at least some chickens and beehives among the trees. Why is there so much paving? Grow something there too. Put green roofs on those buildings in the background, and some floating gardens on the canal. Then, if you still need more growing space, by all means consider a fancy vertical farm.

This design isn’t the most outlandish, by any means. Here are concepts for South Korea on the left and New York on the right.

I love a fantasy skyscraper as much as the next man, but it’s not sensible to expect vertical farms to feed the world in the future. There’s the obvious energy needs of running water and nutrients up and down enormous skyscrapers, or consider the embedded emissions of a building project like that. You’d get your vegetables locally and save CO2 in shipping, but you’d have to grow a whole lot of carrots to offset the enormous environmental cost of shipping in the vast tonnage of cement and steel in the first place.

The biggest problem is cost. Skyscrapers are hugely expensive, and as well as the building itself, you’d need to buy the inner-city land on which to place it. Your farm would need to be more profitable than the banks or accountancy firms that would be your direct competition for the space. As George Monbiot put it, “the only crop which could cover such costs is high-grade cannabis. But a 30-storey hydroponic skunk tower would be quite hard to conceal.”

There is a place for urban agriculture, definitely, but Havana grows 50% of its fresh produce within the city limits and does it without any multi-storey greenhouses. There’s even a place for vertical farming, although it would more likely involve green walls rather than whole bespoke buildings. I suspect that Sweden’s current project will be an expensive curiosity rather than a model for future farming – but rather than end on a negative note, here are some things that actually could help feed our growing global population.


  1. you also have to factor in issues of light availability – plants need the energy from light to make sugars, so other things being equal, light is a limiting factor to growth. You can’t make a high density of vertical stacks without shading a large fraction of the plants (when the sun is overhead, you shade plants below, and when it’s near the horizon you shade plants lying horizontally behind).

  2. It´ll be so much easier to simply stabilize the population…

    Seriously, what´s soooooooo cool about having tons of babies?one or tow should be more than enough, besides, if people is really in need of more, why not adopt one?

    It´s obvious that we´ll offset our food production in the next couple decades, or even less considering extreme droughts are escalating exponentially and causing heavy losses.

    It´s also obvious that all those sci fi solutions are simply stupid with the current technology, and, as the article stated, cost prohibitive…

  3. This may not be such a silly idea for a place like Linköping. Daylight hours are long during the summer half of the year so it could make sense to grow under glass, also the sun comes in at a low angle at this latitude even in the summer.

    1. Yes, it might be possible, but why put it in the city at great expense, when you could put it in the countryside at a fraction of the cost? Is it even remotely cost effective? But this is a demonstration project from a group that hopes to sell the concept on, so it’s not going to matter. If they’re the first, Linkoping’s greenhouse might even be a tourist attraction, so the usual rules might not apply.

  4. Well said. It’s just not economically or ecologically viable. Space-aged fantasy speculations are all vertical farming enthusiasts amount to. I used to be one myself, until I looked at the numbers and the facts.

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