Wednesday, November 4, 2009

There's a Movement Afoot

It was a night to hobnob with farmers of the urban variety. In honor of Jane Jacobs, the writer and activist to first articulate the need for humans to live in cities, the Municipal Arts Society of New York City hosted its 2nd annual panel discussion last night, featuring five authorities on urban sustainability, entitled Re-Imagining New York: Designing Urban Farms to Feed Our City. Over 300 attendees prodded and applauded the panelists, who covered issues from politics to biology over the brief one and a half hour forum (and a reception afterward.) Here's a rundown, in reverse-alphabetical, of who last night's panelists are and what they said.

UPDATE: Listen to the entire panel discussion here.

Jenn Nelkin, Founder of Gotham Greens and CEA expert: Jenn, in the opinion of the Vertical Farmer, will have books written about her someday. She was highlighted here earlier, but it's worth recapping a bit: Master's degree in Plant Sciences from the place for CEA, the University of Arizona; developing hydroponic greenhouses on Antarctica; working for Bright Farm Systems in New York and directing the operation of the Science Barge; and now she has her own urban greenhouse company, Gotham Greens. The Vertical Farmer follows Jenn's logic on how to get this idea to blossom: public support is great, but in order for urban hydroponic food production to really take root, someone has to prove that it can be commercially viable.

Dickson Despommier, Columbia Professor of Microbiology & Vertical Farm Godfather: "We can solve the hunger problem." Dickson's reputation grows with each public appearance while he holds steadfastly to his vision of sustainable urban food production across the world. Neal Pierce, the moderator of Tuesday's Jane Jacobs Forum, described Dickson's name as being "synonymous with Vertical Farming." Indeed it is; the man and the idea are equally ingratiating.

Nevin Cohen, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the New School, New York: "I like horizontal urban farming," he told me upon our introduction. He tempered the enthusiasm in the air with what some would commend--and others would scoff--as a "more realistic" take on Vertical Farming. The three biggest problems about today's food system, in Mr. Cohen's view, are its globalization, its industrialization and its centralization; he thinks we need to focus on resiliency now. With most of the discussion focused on hydroponic growing, Nevin Cohen's comment--"Let's not forget about organics"--elicited the largest ovation of the night. (NOTE: "organic" and hydroponic are not mutually exclusive.)

Colin Cathcart, Kiss + Cathcart Architects (NYC firm): Upon graduating from Columbia University with a Master's degree in architecture, Colin joined with Greg Kiss--whose family invented the photovoltaic cell--forming Kiss + Cathcart Architects. They have recently been in talks with New York City officials regarding the restructuring of city zoning laws in order to encourage the proliferation of rooftop greenhouses. Last night, Colin stressed the need to bring food to our built environment: "I want to replace asphalt with vine and fruit and root."

Dan Albert, Weber Thompson Design (Seattle firm): Pinned as the man who's principals and motivations as a designer most neatly mesh with Dickson Despommier's vision of a Vertical Farm, Dan Albert and his team will be, according to the Vertical Farmer, the leading architectural group on the world's first Vertical Farm. For Dan, the strongest reason to pursue Vertical Farming is that people should be connected to their food system; biophilia is what it's all about.

The forum was great partly because it forced me, and I presume others in the audience as well, to question my reasons for supporting Vertical Farms. Here's my reason: It is unacceptable for people to starve to death in a world of plenty. I don't care what it costs; let's feed everyone first, then deal with the next problems.

Colin Cathcart may have said it best: "It isn't a question of cost, it's a question of value." What could be more valuable than providing every single human being with adequate food and water?

Check out the MASNYC website for more info on the event.

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