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Agritecture, or vertical farming: a history and present-day applications

Updated on December 21, 2014
pop-up greenhouse by Amaury Gallon
pop-up greenhouse by Amaury Gallon | Source
a vertical farm design
a vertical farm design | Source

Agritecture: The Basics

The discovery of agriculture and its honing over time catalyzed the human transformation from nomadic or semi-nomadic societies to the sedentary civilizations most of us identify with today. The rural art of agriculture made the urban possible; funny, considering we tend to put these two things on opposite ends of a development spectrum, and all along they have been part of the very same social evolutionary process.

Throughout history, food production has taken varying forms in varying civilizations, often being integrated into the urban setting in innovative, ecologically specific, and climate-based ways that we, even now, can look back on (or forward to) with wonder. Think hanging gardens of Babylon, think floating Aztec gardens, think hydroponics. Jessica Piccolino has created a timeline of agritecture that describes some of these developments: click here to see it.

Somewhere along this approximately 10,000-year-long development, however, farming lost its psychological connection with city-dwelling, and modern urbanites find themselves relying on agriculture without really knowing anything about it.

Agritecture may be one chance for a revival of the abandoned art of urban farming, the lovely synthesis of two very human expressions: ruralism and urbanism. It can also mean the marriage of natural and built environments, efficiency and beauty, ethics and economics.

Agritecture is a trend that has been sweeping urban areas within the past decade; it represents one major solution to eliminating dependency on the global industrial food system. The idea itself is as old as agriculture, as old as a farmer wanting to maximize efficiency. Agritecture is defined as building-integrated agriculture, and it usually takes the form of innovations in indoor growing space, such as multi-story greenhouses that do not need soil to grow crops, but it can also mean outdoor building-integrated growing space, such as rooftop farms and living walls.

The components of Agritecture are as follows: maximum use of vertical height, as in stacking food production as densely as possible without blocking sunlight; utilization of light reflected off other buildings and bright interior walls; rainwater collection; and the incorporation of microclimates in building design. Microclimates, normally considered a downfall of urban areas, with masses of concrete creating “heat islands”, can be utilized by agritecture—climbing plants grow up walls and benefit from the stabilization of temperature due to thermal mass of buildings. They also benefit from the release of building heat through walls and windows. This makes the plants less prone to frost damage, and it prolongs their growing season. In this way, Agritecture can adapt food production systems to urban environments.

Agritecture also takes conservation, recycling, and decontamination into account when new structures are designed. It encourages conservation by utilizing organic cultivation and intercropping, which is when shallow-rooted crops are planted between deep-rooted crops to use resources that one of the plants would not take up on its own. These practices encourage soil biodiversity and attract beneficial insects, while counteracting the current industrial agricultural system of heavy chemical fertilization and subsequent nutrient-rich runoff and soil erosion. Agritecture endorses recycling by using a composting system for plant and food scraps and then returning those nutrients to the soil, and the plants in and on agritectural structures decontaminate the polluted, usually urban, air around them. On a different plane of soil conservation, agritecture may not require soil at all, utilizing a practice called hydroponics, which uses a nutrient-water substrate instead of earthy matter.

Economic benefits are often associated with the environmentally respectful practices of Agritecture. In Agritectural structures, there exists the production of high-yielding, high-turnover, and high-value crops, which create maximum monetary returns and maintain environmental sensitivity through their use of holistic agricultural systems. Agritectural growing operations usually use permaculture and ecological principles of diversity and companion planting to maximize yield. Permaculture and ecology have found that growing crops diversely actually increases plant production significantly. In ecology, the 'edge' between two ecosystems, where different communities interact with one another, is often the most productive place in a landscape. In permaculture, plants intentionally placed in biodiverse arrangements aid in each other's growth. Agritecture has hit on the fact that environmentally responsible food production is smart not only for health reasons, for aesthetic reasons, and for natural reasons, but also for economic reasons—no wonder it's causing a stir.

a living wall
a living wall | Source

The Benefits of Agritecture

Agritecture is the practical response to the 'food desert' effect in many cities. Since there is no horizontal growing space—that is, farmland—in the city, getting fresh, local food to urban areas is impossible according to traditional standards. But with modern innovations, urban areas have actually become more efficient food-growing spaces than rural settings. Tall, urban buildings have much more surface area and more dimensions on which to grow food than traditional two-dimensional farmland, and it has the added benefit of having less impact on ecosystem functions. Today, over 800 million hectares is committed to soil-based agriculture, or about 38% of the total landmass of the earth. It has rearranged the landscape in favor of cultivated fields at the expense of natural ecosystems, reducing most natural areas to fragmented, semi-functional units, while completely eliminating many others. The customers are also much more immediate in an urban area, so food distribution can be done with decreased fossil fuel use and reduced 'food miles'. The farm is no longer in the countryside. It is becoming the center of our cities, and it is opening the possibilities for urban self-sufficiency.

Outdoor agritectural features, like living walls or rooftop gardens, provide the benefit of increasing thermal insulation of buildings by providing an extra layer; improving storm water management by absorbing precipitation and reducing water runoff; improving air quality and aesthetics; increasing community participation by inviting citizens to tend or harvest the plants. Agritecture can also improve the overall health of a community by provide the freshest possible food. The longer the time between harvest and consumption, the more nutrients are respirated out of produce. Eating food that is minutes, hours, or days old instead of weeks, months, or years old will increase the consumer's nutrient intake.

vertically-grown strawberries
vertically-grown strawberries | Source

A Brief History of Agritecture

Agritecture has evolved in many places as something of an economic necessity. Food is grown on buildings as a means of livelihood for many people. For example, herbs are grown on rooftops in Santiago, silkworms on balconies in Old Delhi, pigeons in downtown Cairo, rabbits in Mexico City shanties, and vegetables in Haiti. Some urban farmers in warm climates attach containers to their walls and grow melons and cucumbers up them, while others keep goats and cows on rooftops.

As an educational and professional endeavor, agritecture began in eighteenth-century France: In 1786, François Cointeraux established the first School of Agritecture in Grenoble, and the second school was established in Paris in 1788. The School of Agritecture promoted the natural building technique of ramming earth into synthetic stone shells, called pisé. Economical and sturdy, pisé could be used for a variety of rural constructions, ranging from sheds to silos, and the students of the School often undertook tasks of constructing rammed earth buildings on farms. Cointeraux also taught students how to work the land for food and shelter. Despite its practical benefits, the curriculum was not adopted elsewhere, with agrarian values that did not match the growing industrial capitalism.

utopian visions
utopian visions | Source

Present-day Examples of Agritecture

The rooftop farming phenomenon is happening in most major U.S. cities, whether it is to make self-sufficient restaurants or to create a Community Supported Agriculture business and sell produce to locals who buy a share in the farm. One notable urban rooftop garden is the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn. It was created in 2009, '”as a model for the urban farming movement and the utilization of green roofs in a unique manner. Eagle Street Rooftop Farms operates a weekly farm market and caters to area restaurants“. Another flourishing urban rooftop farm is located in Philadelphia, called the Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm. It officially opened in 2012, and it was supported by the Philadelphia Rooftop Farm (PRooF), which is a nonprofit volunteer group that seeks to turn hundreds of thousands of unutilized roofs into viable farmland.

A more nuanced agricultural system that goes hand-in-hand with urban space-saving techniques is aquaponics, which is the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment. The waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water, and the cycle continues. Hydroponics is the same thing without the aquatic animals—nutrients are manually added to the water instead of entering through fish excrement. Essentially, this means that the crops are being grown without soil in both systems. A wild concept—well, no...actually, it's very domesticated. Instead of soil, nutrient-rich water is circulated around their roots. Aquaponic systems save water and energy by cycling and recycling the same water through the system, they eliminate the need for irrigation, and they conserve our precious and diminishing soil!

One classic example of aquaponic and hydroponic systems is Green Sense Farms, a Chicagoland vertical greenhouse that supplies Whole Foods Market. The greenhouse grows herbs with its tilapia, and it also utilizes aeroponic agriculture (roots are constantly misted instead of being immersed in water), with which they can cut the growing cycle of leafy greens from 60 days to 18 days. The application of cutting-edge innovations to traditional farming endeavors has been shown to increase productivity significantly.

In urban areas, vertically vegetated surfaces have been increasing in popularity, and companies that specialize in living walls are popping up all over. These are essentially walls that are used as growing space. This idea was popularized by Stephen Ritz, a teacher in the South Bronx who installed living walls in his classroom and had great positive impact on students’ lives as well as urban farming initiatives all over New York. See the video below for the inspiring story of Ritz' living walls.

Living Walls in the South Bronx

Current Exampes of Urban Revitalization through Agritecture

Predictions state that in the next 50 years, the human population will rise to at least 8.6 billion, requiring an additional 109 hectares to feed them using current technologies. This amount of land is roughly equivalent to the size of Brazil. Rather than replace natural ecosystems with agricultural land, agritecture proposes that we build up.

  • Farmadelphia, Philadelphia: The goal of this project is to convert vacant properties into productive farmland. It utilizes agritecture by building greenhouses in the empty space between two standing buildings, using neighboring buildings as support for the greenhouses when needed. As a part of this plan, greenhouses are also built inside buildings by taking out the floors and replaing the roofs with windows.

Farmadelphia | Source
Sociopolis, Valencia, Spain
Sociopolis, Valencia, Spain | Source
  • Sociopolis, Valencia: This city renewal housing project is a “shared” habitat in Spain that seeks encourage physical and social health by bringing the rural heritage of Valencia back to the city. The first phase, which built 2,500 homes on the Turia River, went under construction in 2010. The existing vegetable gardens and fertile lands are being protected, an irrigation system is being constructed and the historic country houses that exist on the land are being restored.

Singapore Vertical Farms
Singapore Vertical Farms | Source
  • Vertical Farm and Gardens by the Bay, Singapore: The first commercial vertical farm was recently built in Singapore. Its system takes up no more than sixty square feet of floor space, and it reaches thirty feet in height. It uses a system that rotates trays of crops on an aluminum A-frame. Through the rotation, each plant gets equal and adequate light, air flow, and irrigation. Gardens by the Bay is another recently-completed initiative in Singapore, constructed to revitalize the city. The most famous aspect of this plan is the three “Supertrees”, 25- to 50-meter-tall giant trees that support vertical gardens and harness renewable energy. The gardens host plants from around the world to showcase a variety of sustainable growing practices. Both innovative new additions to Singapore represent cutting-edge agritectural technology.

Plantagon design
Plantagon design | Source
  • Plantagon Vertical Greenhouse, Linkoping, Sweden: This large, science-fiction-evoking glass orb is predicted to open some years from now. Designed by the urban agricultural innovation company Plantagon, this vertical greenhouse uses conveyor belt technology to spiral plants up the orb from seedling to harvest. The roof has adjustable plates that can create ideal light conditions for the plants inside. This design will utilize a nearby power plant, feeding its crops with the excess carbon dioxide and waste heat.

Bosco Verticale, Milan
Bosco Verticale, Milan | Source
  • Bosco Verticale, Milan: This pair of residential buildings by Boeri Studio was inaugurated in October 2014. They contain 800 trees and 14,000 shrubs and plants. The buildings were designed in a way that gives each apartment a balcony on which trees can grow, making it just what the name says—a vertical forest. The purpose of this plan is to increase quality of life for residents while using minimum city land. The trees will also be a noise buffer and filter Milan's polluted air.

Further Reading has up-to-date news, informational articles, and interesting reads regarding vertical farming developments. Check it out! Very cool and comprehensive.

Algae Aquaculture Technologies is an amazingly innovative company in Whitefish, MT that has designed a system that uses industrial waste like woodchips to cultivate algae and turn it into methane. Read a layperson-friendly article here.

Anything from the Appropriate Technology movement of the 1970s, which was ignited by E.F. Schumacher's book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.

Despommier Talks About Vertical Farming


Despommier, Dickson. “The Vertical Farm: Reducing the impact of agriculture on ecosystem functions and services". Columbia University Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

“Farmadelphia (Greenhouses)”. Grounds For Change: Activating Vacant Land, 2012.

Ma, Julie. “A 'Vertical Greenhouse' Could Make a Swedish City Self-Sufficient.” GOOD Worldwide, LLC., 12 March 2012,

Petts, James. “Edible Buildings: benefits, challenges, and limitations”. Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.

“Stephen Ritz: A teacher growing green in the South Bronx”. TED Conferences, LLC. February 2012.

Scholtus, Petz. “Sociopolis, the Rurban Housing Project Brings the Campo to the City”. 28 October 2010. MNN Holdings, LLC.

“Supertrees, high-tech flowers: Singapore's incredible new attractions, Gardens by the Bay”. CNN Travel. 29 June 2012.

Tan, Jason. “Singapore News: Vertical farming boosts production of vegetables.” MediaCorp Pte Ltd. 28 January 2011.

“Towers of trees: Vertical forests in the sky are the height of green living”. Associated Newspapers Ltd. 28 October 2011.

“Vertical Farm Gets Help From Whole Foods.” News. 18 October 2012.


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    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      9 months ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      Exhaustive and informative. Thanks.

    • PheeBii7 profile image


      17 months ago from Papua New Guinea

      Interesting. Good read.

    • G Ivanova profile image

      G Ivanova 

      5 years ago

      This is highly informative and interesting and I am very much a fan of agritecture. Thanks for the great information!

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 

      5 years ago from The Great Midwest

      Impressive! You must have done a ton of research. This hub and Billybuc's "Can Urban Farming End Urban Hunger" hub may have the key to solving a host of problems from food deserts to unemployment environmental concerns. Very interesting.


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