This is a story about something that is right in this world. It’s a story of inspiration and real world solutions, a down to earth celebration of the most basic yet profound connection we have to the planet that sustains us — its soil and crops. It’s also a simple appeal for support of a transformational project that combines human ingenuity, ecological healing, and more widespread and equitable access to life-enhancing nutrients for everyone.
Farmer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Will Allen has been a giant in the urban farming and food justice movement for years. His organization Growing Power is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary of connecting inner city residents with the land they live on, developing community farms and food centers that provide access to high-quality, safe, healthy, affordable food for everyone.
One of the biggest challenges of growing enough healthy local food in dense urban areas is to secure enough acreage to run a viable farm, so Growing Power’s most recent endeavor is the realization of a state of the art, 5-story Vertical Farm in the middle of Milwaukee. Their design was recently nominated as a finalist out of entries from 100 countries in the Architecture & Farming category of the Architizer A+ Awards.
If the following description of the vertical farm doesn’t convince you, please follow me below the fold to learn more about Will Allen and his vision to grow healthy food, people, and communities.
Imagine a five-story farm in the middle of a city! This innovative design developed by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. will expand Growing Power’s greenhouse and aquaponics operations currently spread over a two-acre site in the City of Milwaukee. Five stories of south-facing greenhouse areas allow production of plants, vegetables, and herbs year-round. Educational classrooms, conference spaces, demonstration kitchen, food processing and storage, freezers, and loading docks further support Growing Power’s mission as a local and national resource for sustainable urban food production.
Cast-in-place tilt-up concrete panel construction provides an affordable, energy efficient, structurally stable, and long-lasting building shell appropriate for intensive farming operations.
Energy and water flows throughout the building are carefully designed. The building absorbs sunlight and takes advantage of solar convective currents. Heat generated by the sun is stored via underground thermal mass and used to warm the building in winter. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels and thermal solar panels generate a portion of building energy needs. Use of natural daylight reduces energy use. A closed loop of water and nutrients circulates throughout the building; fish wastes are used as food for plants, while plants clean and filter the water for fish. Rainwater falling on the building is collected and stored to support the system.
The Vertical Farm expands and improves year-round retail space selling fresh, nutritious, and affordable food. The Vertical Farm also creates an active outdoor market area that will become a community gathering place for work, learning, and social activities.
I first heard of Will Allen when Ecocity Builders, the non-profit I’m advising for was collaborating with an African American community in the Village Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland to draw up a plan for a sustainable cultural district. While we were drafting the larger ecocity blueprint for the district, community members were eager to get going on shovel-ready projects, and the Village Bottoms Farm on a former industrial lot was the perfect place to start.
There was one problem, of course. As with so many industrial sites in cities across the U.S. that are spread across low-income neighborhoods, the soil was so contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals that you wouldn’t want to grow food in it. The good news was that Will Allen had encountered the exact same problem when he first started a farm stand not far from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project, and in the decade since not only figured out ways to overcome this obstacle but made it his mission to teach other communities to do the same.
After a trip to Milwaukee to attend several workshops with Allen, the Village Bottoms delegation returned with the skills and knowledge they needed to get their own farm going. They built and scraped together the raised beds they needed, nourishing their own healthy soil with food waste compost…
They learned about vermicompost, using red wiggler worms to create a nutrient-rich, organic fertilizer and soil conditioner…
The most ambitious project the Bottoms farmers were also the most excited about was the aquaponics tank. Aquaponics is a method of growing crops and fish together in a re-circulating system, and in the Growing Power aquaponics model crops grow vertically on raised beds.
The MacArthur “Genius Award” winner describing the Growing Power model in his own words…
You get the idea. Will Allen is not about lofty talk or abstract concepts about how we might some day save the planet, but about hands in the dirt, back to basics urban reconnection with the turf we walk on, empowering us all to not only raise up beds of vegetables but ourselves and our communities.
In his recently published book, The Good Food Revolution, Will writes:
Children often come into my facility for the first time with their pockets filled with candy, acting wild. Something changes in them when they walk up to my worm systems and put their hands in the soil for the first time. They mellow. It can be a spiritual thing simply to touch the earth if you have been disconnected from it for so long.
The Good Food Revolution is a highly recommended read. It chronicles the son of a sharecropper who never dreamed of becoming a farmer himself but is reconnected with his farm roots during a stint as a professional basketball player in Belgium. It’s not until he’s back in the United States working as a salesman for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble when he discovers the two-acre plot in the middle of an urban food desert and cashes in his retirement fund to start his own farm stand.
The book is filled with moving personal stories of hardship, perseverance and transcendence, about Allen himself but even more so about the inner city youth who find their footing through the work and community on this little plot. It is a tribute to the author’s authentic humility and earthy grace that he places just as much importance on the small personal victories of one of his employees’ son as he does on a collaboration with First Lady Michelle Obama, who is eager to learn from the Growing Power model in her fight against childhood obesity and food insecurity.
I had the pleasure of meeting Will during his book tour last summer, and that was when I first heard about his plans for the Vertical Farm. You could tell how excited he was about the project as he was talking about it. I sneaked in for a snapshot as I could sense that this was something truly monumental he was unveiling…
What’s so brilliant and beautiful about this vertical farm is that it is truly integrative, addressing a whole range of overlapping areas that are pivotal to any kind of meaningful long-term solutions to our planetary ailments. From food security to community outreach, from sustainable development to equal access, from green building design to high density land use, the vertical farm is a natural fit for the compact ecological cities we need to build and design if we want to get serious about dealing with the roots of climate change and a whole host of other environmental, energy and social problems.
So take it in one more time, and don’t forget to VOTE by March 8th.