Zany Vision or Critical Solution? Urban Greenhouses Aim to Help Cities Combat Climate Change
With its massive glass dome, the Plantagon Greenhouse wouldn't look out of place in a sci-fi movie. And if all goes smoothly, one may soon crop up in a city near you. In these days of global warming, its creators argue, it's not a question of if it will become reality but, rather, when.
Nestled among the skyscrapers is a gigantic glass sphere housing a mysterious spiral pathway. At first glance, the structure may look like an alien spaceship or a modernist architectural fantasy. But, in fact, it is an unusual response to climate change and the challenges of urbanization.
This UFO look-a-like is an ambitious take on the classic backyard greenhouse. Towering up to 100 meters (328 feet), it is designed to grow plants on its carefully lit and heated spiral platform. Crops are planted at the bottom of the sphere and gradually climb higher before ultimately being harvested at the top. The idea for the Plantagon Greenhouse comes from a Swiss-American company of the same name -- and they are confident that their dramatic creation will one day become a reality.
"We've moved a long way away from the drawing board," Plantagon CEO Hans Hassle told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We expect to build the first Plantagon greenhouse within the next three years."
The design was dreamt up two decades ago up by Swedish innovator and eco-farming expert Åke Olsson. But now, backed by Plantagon, a business run by the consulting company SWECORP Citizenship AB and North American Indians of the Onondaga Nation, it is finally looking feasible.
Plantagon, which says it is the first company in the world to create a practical urban agriculture system of this scale, is currently in talks with 15 cities about constructing its vertical greenhouses in them. Hassle declined to give more detail on possible locations for his futuristic dome, but he would say that talks involve cities spread out on four continents. Plantagon already has an agreement to work toward building a Plantagon Greenhouse in India, he says.
With its largest glasshouse model estimated to cost about 70 million ($104 million), the costs of such projects are huge -- but so are the environmental changes the world will face in the years to come. The stark facts of global warming, combined with population growth, speak for themselves. Global food prices have rocketed, climate change is reducing the amount of available arable land, and the World Bank estimates that the world's food needs will double by 2030.
Likewise, the pressure on food supplies will peak in urban environments. At the moment, more than half of the world's population lives in cities -- a figure which is estimated to rise to 80 percent by 2050. Such predictions led Plantagon to the conclusion that the only way to ensure that the sprawling cities of the future will be able to get enough to eat is to embed food production in the urban landscape -- and soon.
"We really need to change our values in order to survive," Hassle said. "Waiting for a political solution -- like the EU to amend its approach to agriculture -- would simply take too long."
As Hassle sees it, Plantagon is just one step in a broader rethinking of how businesses should operate. In a statement he co-wrote with the Oren Lyons, an international advocate of Native American rights, he argued that the time has come to shun short-sighted greed and use capitalism as a tool for both profit and social good.
"Today, many of the world's largest economies are corporations, not nation states, and this situation confers enormous responsibility on the owners, their boards and managers," they wrote in their 'Business As Usual Is Over' statement.
Salvation or Pipe Dream?
As global warming tops the international agenda, Plantagon is not alone in dreaming up what one might call wacky urban designs to try to secure our future food supply.
Among its contemporaries is a project aptly named DragonFly. This project involves a 600-meter-high vertical greenhouse shaped like the wings of a dragonfly. The 132-floor structure is the brainchild of Belgian designer Vincent Callebaut, who conceived it as an answer to the predicted food shortage. Its soaring form is designed to house livestock and a wide range of crops. Dramatic illustrations of his design place it on New York's Roosevelt Island, from which it dwarfs the city skyline.
Although doubts remain about the feasibility of many architectural visions like these, according to Hassle, the Plantagon project is ready to be built. The company has conducted a feasibility study, which predicted that the largest version of the structure would take three years to recoup its initial investment, while smaller versions of the greenhouse would take around 10 years.
Hassle is also convinced that bringing food production into cities will be a must within three to four decades. "It has to happen," he insists. "Otherwise, we won't have enough to eat; it's as simple as that."
"It might not be us who builds this," he adds, "but someone has to do it."
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH