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Grow Up

If designer Gordon Graff gets his way, a new skyscraper in Toronto’s Theatre District could be the unlikely source of food for 35,000 residents.
The SkyFarm project is the concept-only design for a 58-floor tower that would produce as much food as a 420-hectare farm. The building would be 238-metres tall and contain 750,000-square metres of hydroponic growing area, with products ranging from soybeans to strawberries to high-rise fields of lettuce. A service core at the back of the tower would include irrigation and electrical systems, and an isolated lower area could house chickens bred for both eggs and meat.

skyfarm.gifThe challenges inherent in the stacked design are odour and pest control, effective drainage, and the complex system of trucking and distribution that would be required at grade. Such a structure, however, would theoretically avoid problems like seasonal droughts, diseases spread by livestock and water runoff pollution. Plus, Torontonians would gain the benefit of locally-grown produce, and growth could be greatly accelerated with a controlled artificial climate and 24-hour “sunlight” year-round.
Though the idea may seem somewhat far-fetched for a hesitant, cash-strapped city like Toronto, we have reason to be worried about our fresh food supply. Farmers are a dying breed, farmland is wasteful when it comes to space, and as we grow, we pave over our countryside with subdivisions. According to the United Nations, the world’s population growth over the next thirty years will require 60% more food than we produce now. By 2050, almost 80% of Earth’s population will live in urban centres.
Perhaps the best direction to go now is up. High-density greenhouses would be an efficient use of energy, space and water, and such a building would have a massive green-roof effect. Much of the waste could be recycled, composted and reused, and the vertical farm could operate entirely organically and without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. Though the design and construction would be extremely expensive, Graff believes that the farm could reap about $23,000,000 in annual revenue. A corporation like Loblaws or Dominion could build a revolutionary flagship hydroponic structure that could include a supercentre at its base and service its other stores, while taking advantage of the incredible global publicity that would result from such an environmentally revolutionary project. Richard Branson: call us.
Sadly, we wouldn’t likely see a farmscraper in Toronto for two more decades, but we can imagine a day when they are no longer be a novelty on our skyline. Not only in dense downtown, either—they’d be perfect for some of our troubled properties, like the desolate area formerly populated by Tent City down near the Gardiner, now owned by Home Depot. It could also be a scientific and eco-tourist attraction, and Toronto could be the first metropolis to mass-source its fresh restaurant food directly from its own inner-city urban organic farm!
We don’t currently have many problems in the West with supplying food—it’s just that the way we do it happens via disproportionately wasteful and polluting practices. It may be that vertical farming is a step in giving back some of the nature we’ve destroyed, and who can argue with cheap, local, organic produce grown right before our eyes? We shouldn’t just talk about it for decades—let’s get serious about this one, Toronto.
For more on vertical farming, including other proposed projects around the world, visit the Vertical Farm Project.


  • dave

    What a moronic location to pick, even if it is blue sky thinking.
    Could you imagine the traffic hell this thing would create at John and King?
    Stick it somewhere where there’s room to actually let the thing function. Like down near the spit or the Downsview base. Anywhere but King and John.

  • Blair

    It obviously can’t go there because of the new Film Festival building being constructed at the moment … it’s just an “example” of what it would look like downtown.

  • Ben

    I am not an engineer, but logic dictates that they would want this building to face South. If they point it slightly Eastward like this, they would be missing a lot of good sunlight.
    My garden is on the North side of my apartment, and it does get a fair bit of light later on in the day!
    This reminds me of something from SimCity 2000. It is a cool idea!

  • Matt Katz

    While that does look fantastic, location would be a key divisive issue. Not many people in the downtown area would want to live near it – even if smell was controlled, I would think. There would likely be a massive amount of trucks going in and out of the facility at all times.
    Maybe they can be built in outlying areas? The suburbs? Brampton? North Toronto? Places with the existing road-based infrastructure needed to transport farm food. Also, property would be cheaper, thus more enticing, especially to private builders. Pay attention, Loblaws!
    Sure looks cool though. Kind of like an ominious tower from so many sci-fi movies.

  • -

    Are there plans to make it organic? The chickens, in particular, sound likely to be confined to small factory-farm style cages if they’re not going organic, and more exceptions to the pesticide by-law is the last thing this city needs.

  • Marc Lostracco

    The design is just a concept of how a building could look as-built and in the context of downtown, but the technology isn’t entirely difficult. A hydroponic facility shouldn’t smell or rot, and most of the growing would be done on the interior, so sunlight isn’t crucial.
    The section on the chickens is also only a concept, as there are an entirely different set of issues behind managing large amounts of living creatures and their toxic waste.
    Probably the most interesting iteration of a design like this would be a mixed farm-attraction one, where it would be a working farm and lab, but school kids, tourists and Torontonians could walk through certain areas to see “exhibits” and watch how their food is grown. Hydroponic systems are particulary interesting to look at and often look like something out of a sci-fi movie. Exhibits could also include subjects like growing food in outer space, or how the Third World might make use of such buildings.
    Plus, an entire city eating organic (and maybe even GMO-free) food from a series of vertical farms is an extremely appealing idea purely on a health basis.
    Basically, the building would need some serious venture capital, which is why I mentioned Richard Branson. Other corporations and governments could have a serious interest in rolling out vertical farms, so perhaps money could be raised to “pilot” this building as an example for others around the world. We could potentially do it in Toronto and it could end up being an important part of our history. If we don’t, someone will build one elsewhere.

  • rek

    I have to wonder what the property value will do to the price of the radishes.

  • brokenengine

    Maybe, in the future, they could build each and every condo with this, and then they wouldn’t need trucks to go in and out. Just have a grocery store for the condo on the ground floor.
    Also, maybe they could start raising livestock? Nah, when pigs fly. ;)

  • Marc Lostracco

    Theoretically, the price of the produce should be cheaper because it’s not only grown year-round, but cuts out a lot of steps like trucking long distances. Plus, the supply chain would be more predictable without droughts, crop failures or seasonal fluctuations. The controlled environment would bypass herbicides, pesticides and harmful fertilizers too. I believe there are certain oil-based fertilizers that are environmentally benign, and most of the “gray water” waste could be recycled back into the system.
    The educational benefit to such a large “farm lab” could be just as important as the food it produces. Not only would it attract international scientists, but we’d start becoming hyper-aware of where our food is coming from and what kind of resources it takes to bring it to our table. Given the option at a similar price, most people will choose the ethically better and more sustainable one. A shift in the public supply and demand system would reverberate across the city in other areas—we’d perhaps start demanding more green roofs, better food, less cars and cleaner water with our increased awareness.
    It still amazes me that consumers have no real way of tracking the food they put in their bodies, and the recent pet food recall is a perfect example of the importance of being able to do this. Technology exists to laser-burn a trackable code into the skins of fruit (harmless and wasteless), and food products should have a scannable code that tells us where it came from and through how many steps.
    I love the idea of entering a code from a cereal box and finding out where the stuff what grown, in which countries, when it was harvested, and in which factory it was manufactured in. This would especially be useful for questionable trade products like coffee and tropical fruit, where the farmers get an unsustainable pittance while middlemen reap the financial rewards. Companies know exactly where their products come from and by which process, but so should consumers (though making this proprietary information accessible would likely be seen as dangerous and anti-competitive for the business community, and laws requiring such transparency would surely be struck down).
    With a vertical farm in Toronto, however, we know exactly what we’re eating, and who knows—perhaps “Toronto cuisine” would take its place on the palates of discerning food aficionados globally!

  • DAve

    Blair – Uh, yeah, I know the festival building is going there.
    My point is you couldn’t put it anywhere downtown in the first place so why bother mocking it up in an impossible location.

  • laurayoung

    Let’s just take a breath and think about this proposal that will need wads of subsidy money read: taxpayer funded. Go to the Vertical Farm website. Look at how much electricity is needed by their estimates to feed 50,000 people. 250 million kwh. While Toronto Hydro is claiming that one room grow ops are using our much needed electricity, we add another user to the grid? Forget about green energy. This will be a fossil fuel power sucker. Consider the carbons used to lay the massive foundation and build the structure. The large amounts of water needed – even grey and black water must be replaced sometime. And this huge structure only feeds 35,000 people. We have several million people in Toronto. Please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me this is more environmentally friendly or more “local” than say, Holland Marsh, a 15,000 acre muck soil region 20 minutes north of Toronto that could feed all of Toronto with fresh vegetables if free trade didn’t have us exporting instead. With U of Guelph’s IPM program, the nitrates in the surrounding canals are at the same level as drinking water. We’re not polluting the earth. And using soil and sunshine produces healthier food, at a lower cost and with little risk to city folk of catching a plant or animal borne virus. Imagine a vertical farm worker with a zoonosis travelling home on the subway. Would make SARS seem like a joke.
    A more realistic explanation of this white elephant project is its creator, University of Columbia’s Prof. Despommier’s explanation, “we cannot go to the moon, mars or beyond without first learning to farm indoors on earth”. American President Bush has given $100 billion to the effort to colonize the moon. Many more dollars will be needed to make the vision of exploiting the moon for commercial gain a reality. Very few will benefit, but many of us will end up paying out of our tax dollars for this international space race, as Japan, China, Russia and Europe are trying to beat each other in this effort. NASA’s proposed new habitat looks exactly like the vertical farm.
    I say, if the states would like us to participate in helping develop space agriculture, ask us. Don’t try to tell us it’s good for us here on earth, the earth environment, or give soil based outdoor farming a bad name.

  • laurayoung

    Correction – FarmCity mirrors the NASA moon colony habitat. As shown, Vertical Farm at this time does not seem to include human or “worker” habitation.

  • stephengeorge

    I really want to see this project succeed because I think this is could be a solution to are rising food shortage…I am trying to get the first working tower built: