Urban Hydroponics: A Model for Feeding a Growing Population Using Fewer Resources?

by Cole Mellino

As the global community considers the interwoven issues of food access, resource scarcity, increased urbanization and climate change, innovation in the agriculture sector is blossoming. We’re going to continue to highlight important projects and scientific developments in agriculture that help address those problems.

And sometimes, those answers are very simple ones.

Earlier this summer, New York City became home to the nation’s first commercial urban hydroponic greenhouse. Gotham Greens, the company that operates the 15,000 square-foot facility in Brooklyn, has harvested and delivered the first of its 100 annual tons of local and organic vegetables and herbs. The rooftop facility, which runs on 55-kilowatt solar panels, provides year-round produce for nearby New York grocers. This means the company can supply local lettuce, even in the dead of winter, to New Yorkers.

There are myriad benefits to urban hydroponics. Many of the problems with conventional agriculture are solved in this controlled environment. The facility uses 10 times less land and 20 times less water compared to conventional agriculture. Pesticide use and fertilizer runoff are eliminated. The company’s strict food safety program ensures that food will not be contaminated by E. coli or Salmonella. And because the food is grown and distributed in New York City, transportation costs are minimal and far less carbon dioxide is emitted than conventionally-sourced food, which travels, on average, 1,500 miles.

The greenhouse is “on a pretty sophisticated computer control system that has sensors all over the place and will deploy lights and fans and shade curtains and heat blankets and irrigation pumps automatically,” according to the Co-Founder and CEO Viraj Puri.

This type of innovative, tech-smart, urban agriculture is an important model to consider as we try to figure out how to feed a growing global population with limited resources.

— Cole Mellino is an intern on the energy team with the Center for American Progress

34 Responses to Urban Hydroponics: A Model for Feeding a Growing Population Using Fewer Resources?

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Experimental Recipes with Azolla, Super Plant (and Future Space Food?)

    Like duckweed, it seems that azolla has vast potential, leading Erik to rightfully characterize azolla as a “green gold mine”:

    In the 70ʼs and 80ʼs renewed interest in Azolla was shown by the demand for a less fossil energy-dependent agricultural technology that came after the 1973 and 1979 oil crisis. Today Azolla is used around the globe as animal fodder and as a biological fertilizer on rice and many other crops. Other more or less explored uses for Azolla are wastewater treatment, control of weeds, algae and mosquitoes, medicine and production of biofuels such as biogas, bioethanol and hydrogen.

    Azolla is also very effective at capturing and fixating CO2. The plant is believed to have had a significant role in reversing a greenhouse effect that had caused the region around the Arctic Ocean to turn into a hot, tropical environment around 49 million years ago. This episode that turned the earth towards itʼs present icehouse state is known as the “Azolla event”. (Also see Mike’s article about azolla being stored as 400 billion barrels of oil in the Artic here)

    Apparently, azolla has a crisp texture, has a mossy fragrance and tastes like lettuce. According to various azolla food experiments around the world, azolla has been featured so far in recipes like salads, Chinese spring rolls, dumplings, azolla “meat”- balls, omelets and burgers.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    That’s the real Soylent Green :))

  3. Matt says:

    The idea makes so much sense, you have to wonder why it isn’t already commonplace. What’s the catch?

  4. fj says:

    This is nice stuff further validating the Eden idea expressed in the Lovins’ Natural Capital formulism:

    A great life at a low cost-of-living highly integrated with natural capital where human capital is the most important component.

    bigroofgardenBrooklyn @inhabitatNYC

    Supermarket rooftop gardens: an exercise in community building?

  5. I absolutely love this. There is a place in KC called the Urban Farming Guys, that is doing this on a small scale. We need to stop shipping so far.

  6. Leif says:

    Connect that with wind and solar for the power requirements, green construction supplies, electric vehicles for local distribution, local labor for construction and maintance,.. Vo-la an industry that makes a difference and none of it exported!

  7. fj says:

    An X-Prize for the first netzeroNYC community should be great fun

  8. John Tucker says:

    I would be interesting to see what the real returns are and the carbon footprint over time.

    Certainly if done right the produce could be virtually free of pesticides and bacterial contaminants.

    Yields could be maximized and standardized leading to much more efficient centralized production.

  9. Raul M. says:

    very fine looking.
    Is it big enough to have a small bee hive for pollination style veggies? Maybe just a bee door somewhere on the enclosure would be good.
    And on the roof too.

  10. M Tucker says:

    It is good to see the promise of vertical farming coming true. I certainly hope they are a success and I hope the other projects succeed as well. Yes, other projects exist in other cities so while this may be the first “urban hydroponic greenhouse” it is not the first urban farm and the urban agricultural model is being explored by many entrepreneurs in several US cities. But can this model work in less developed nations where food security is the dream but a dependable water supply is an unrealized promise?

  11. Clark Meyer says:

    Wouldn’t it be cool to see a major grocery chain commit to doing something like this on the roof of every new store.

  12. Patrick Linsley says:

    Another model is that of Growing Power in Milwaukee.
    They sometimes have trips you can take there and they will show you how to set up hoop houses or aquaponic units if you’re interested. At the site they have tilapia and yellow perch and their hoop houses in the winter are heated by composting beer waste from local breweries and the beds are composted by red wigglers. Also they have chickens and goats on sites it’s really a trip to go there. Although talking to one Ag expert that did the tour was kinda iffy on the whole thing. He said, “it is what it is you know I don’t know if the yields are high enough to justify financially it considering it is getting donations, but if it’s producing something and keeping kids off the street I can’t see it as a bad thing”. So there is that too.

  13. Hugh Laue says:

    Dissapointing to see this sort of false hi-tech solution on this site. Uses fossil fuel fertiliser no doubt. And energy intensive controls. has authentic guidelines of the direction we need to take.

  14. Neven says:

    Someone asks: “What’s the catch?”


    What are the nutrients? Where do they come from? Is the supply limitless? How exactly are pesticide use and fertilizer runoff eliminated?Do the neighbours complain about light pollution? I’m sure there are instances where this works, but how scalable is this? 55 kWp of solar panels is nice, but how much energy is consumed in total?

    Also reads George Monbiot’s piece on vertical farming.

  15. Dan F says:

    The Plant is a former meatpacking plant being converted into a vertical farm in Chicago’s former Union Stockyards.

    The cool thing about this is that, along with aquaponic/hydroponics, they will also house businesses that create certain waste materials (spent brewing grains, for example) that feed into an in-house biodigester, which powers a lot of the indoor farming systems.

    I visited in the last year, during de-construction, and they have been able to reuse almost all of what they take apart in the old building. Very cool stuff.

  16. Joan Savage says:

    With a caveat that the roof can bear the weight. The Gotham Greens was constructed on top of what looks like an old factory.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    I’d like to see the business plan.
    There are some unique factors to this venture that don’t apply everywhere.
    Fresh foods can command high prices in NYC and the metropolitan area is a big market.
    Rundown factory buildings in Brooklyn are comparatively cheap.
    The NYC water supply from the Catskills is cheap and pure.
    Cost of PV solar has gone down.
    I don’t know what else is involved, but market size and operating costs are always factors!

  18. Raul M. says:

    They probably need a second farm site to make improvements in their methods hummm.

  19. Patrick Linsley says:
    Here’s a form of Aquaponics currently operating in Milwaukee with hoop houses, vermiculture, aquaculture, and heat from compost.

  20. Leif says:

    So you want to burn the remaining fossil fuel on the highways? Did you not read the part that hydroponics use a lot less fertilizer and run-off would be minimal.

  21. Zach says:

    With the way the climate is projected to go, and land use issues/degredation, this could very well be the way we get our food in the future. Imagine a skyscraper farm churning out enough food to feed a city year-round. That’s pretty exciting.

  22. Raul M. says:

    One interesting thing with hydroponics is that the root system doesn’t have to be all that extensive, not really all that much roots needed to feed a luscious plant when some of the roots (2/3?) are in nutrient water.
    My guess is that lettuce plants could root out fine in an inch of nutrient water. Makes for a light weight system.

  23. Jeff Poole says:

    I can think of nothing more dangerous to our food security than this ill-concieved idea of using ‘vertical farming’ or any kind of mass hydroponic system.

    Hydroponics are and always have been part of the problem. Fine for nutrition-free US burger bar garnish like lettuce and very, very dangerous to the health of any city if used to replace a large portion of food for the residents.

    The whole basis of hydroponics is the chemical agriculture fallacy that plants only need NPK and the ‘growing medium’ is irrelevant. They need a helluva lot more, trace elements and minerals, the very things that we are stripmining from soil with conventional agriculture.

    If you want to see profitable corporate agribusiness go hydroponic – if you want a healthy population avoid like the plague.

  24. Jeff Poole says:

    I’m with Hugh, this is the food production equivalent of biofuels – it gives people false security to believe that business as usual can be made ‘sustainable’.

    so something that could be a nice way to grow fripperies and garnishes will become the main source of food for many. Just like biofuels are great for small scale on farm use and a serious problem now that idiot governments have decided it can ‘replace’ petrol.

    And once we’re all forced into eating this nutrition-free pap folks will wonder why they are seeing malnutrition conditions normally associated with developing lands.

  25. Rice dog says:

    For my Giant Garter Snake Conservancy clients, Red Azolla and Duckweed are a formidable foe. Clogs up the water channels and is not easily controlled with herbicides. If it could harvested and converted to organic fertilizer, there are about 25,000 acres of organic rice in the area. Right now, just a very problematic aquatic weed.

  26. Michael says:

    Jeff Poole:

    Hydroponics produces year-round, high quality food on a small footprint that enables it to be located closer to major markets. Carbon footprint greenwashing crap aside, that means your food will last up to two weeks in your refrigerator, as opposed to spending a week on a truck and rotting on the shelf at the market.

    Get over the fertilizers–they’re reagent grade chemicals that ensure consistent nutritional quality and public safety. On the other hand, USDA Organic is a complete farce that has done relatively little to mitigate health risks and set high standards for ecosustainability.

    Water conservancy is highly important. Hydroponics uses 5-10% of the water of field ag, and can utilize biofilters to render it’s relatively dilute runoff innocuous, or use it to fertilize grasslands for cattle, etc. Meanwhile, farms in the west are irrigated with water that’s as nonrenewable as oil.

    Do you just whine, or do you have a better image of what the holy grail of agriculture is? Please do share.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Singapore they even practise ‘aeroponics’ where the roots are misted with nutrient-rich water vapour. There’s a million things we could do, and must, because transporting food thousands of miles and insisting on eating foods out of season, are big mistakes.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The best system, I would say, is organic agriculture, where nutrients are recycled and chemical input is as low as possible. Such recycling is the secret of the long-lasting and highly productive traditional agricultural systems in India and China. With modern derivations like permaculture and biodynamics, organic agriculture can feed humanity, do it locally and reduce ‘externalities’ like genetic pollution from GE crops, chemical pollution from toxic herbicides and pesticides, top-soil and groundwater loss, loss of crop biodiversity, nutrient decline in food crops and salinity. The only obstacle is the vested interest of capitalist agribusiness.

  29. DR.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent article on Urban Hydroponics.

    Hydroponics is a technology for growing plants in nutrient solutions (water containing fertilizers) with or without the use of an artificial medium (sand, gravel, vermiculite, rockwool, perlite, peatmoss. coir, or sawdust) to provide mechanical support. Liquid hydroponic systems have no other supporting medium for the plant roots: aggregate systems have a solid medium of support. Hydroponic systems are further categorized as open (i.e., once the nutrient solution is delivered to the plant roots, it is not reused) or closed (i.e., surplus solution is recovered, replenished, and recycled).

    In combination with greenhouses, it is high technology and capital-intensive. It is also highly productive, conservative of water and land, and protective of the environment. Yet for most of its employees, hydroponic culture requires only basic agriculture skills. Since regulating the aerial and root environment is a major concern in such agricultural systems, production takes place inside enclosures designed to control air and root temperatures, light, water, plant nutrition, and adverse climate.

    History of Hydroponics is interesting:

    “The development of hydroponics has not been rapid. Although the first use of CEA was the growing of off-season cucumbers under “transparent stone” (mica) for the Roman Emperor Tiberius during the 1st century, the technology is believed to have been used little, if at all, for the following 1500 years.

    Greenhouses (and experimental hydroponics) appeared in France and England during the 17th century; Woodward grew mint plants without soil in England in the year 1699. The basic laboratory techniques of nutrient solution culture were developed (independently) by Sachs and Knap in Germany about 1860 (Hoagland and Arnon, 1938).
    In the United States, interest began to develop in the possible use of complete nutrient solutions for large-scale crop production about 1925. Greenhouse soils had to be replaced at frequent intervals or else be maintained in good condition from year to year by adding large quantities of commercial fertilizers. As a result of these difficulties, research workers in certain U.S. agricultural experiment stations turned to nutrient solution culture methods as a means of replacing the natural soil system with either an aerated nutrient solution or an artificial soil composed of chemically inert aggregates moistened with nutrient solutions (Withrow and Withrow, 1948).
    Between 1925 and 1935, extensive development took place in modifying the methods of the plant physiologists to large-scale crop production. Workers at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station improved the sand culture method (Shive and Robbins, 1937). The water and sand culture methods were used for large-scale production by investigators at the California Agricultural Experiment Station (Hoagland and Arnon, 1938). Each of these two methods involved certain fundamental limitations for commercial crop production, which partially were overcome with the introduction of the subirrigation system initiated in 1934 at the New Jersey and Indiana Agricultural Experiment Stations (Withrow and Withrow, 1948). Gericke (1940) published a description of a quasi-commercial use of the liquid technique and apparently coined the word hydroponics in passing. The technology was used in a few limited applications on Pacific islands during World War II. After the war, Purdue Univ. popularized hydroponics (called nutriculture) in a classic series of extension service bulletins (Withrow and Withrow, 1948) describing the precise delivery of nutrient solution to plant roots in either liquid or aggregate systems. While there was commercial interest in the use of such systems, hydroponics or nutriculture was not widely accepted because of the high cost in construction of the concrete growing beds.
    After a period of ~20 years, interest in hydroponics was renewed with the advent of plastics. Plastics were used not only in the glazing of greenhouses, but also in place of concrete in lining the growing beds. Plastics were also important in the introduction of drip irrigation. Numerous promotional schemes involving hydroponics became common with huge investments made in growing systems.

    Greenhouse areas began to expand significantly in Europe and Asia during the 1950s and 1960s, and large hydroponic systems were developed in the deserts of California, Arizona, Abu Dhabi, and Iran about 1970 (Fontes, 1973; Jensen and Teran, 1971). In these desert locations, the advantages of the technology were augmented by the duration and interest of the solar radiation, which maximized photosynthetic production.

    Unfortunately, escalating oil prices, starting in 1973, substantially increased the costs of CEA heating and cooling by one or two orders of magnitude. This, along with fewer chemicals registered for pest control, caused many bankruptcies and a decreasing interest in hydroponics, especially in the United States “(Hydroponics,Merle H. Jensen, HORTSCIENCE, VOL.32(6), October, 1997).

    Hydroponic culture is an inherently attractive, often oversimplified technology, which is far easier to promote than to sustain. Unfortunately, failures far outnumber the successes, due to management inexperience or lack of scientific and engineering support. Thus, interest in hydroponics has followed a roller coaster ride since its conception. However, in recent years, extensive research and development programs in Europe have vastly improved hydroponic production systems. These new technologies are today being successfully transferred to the United States, proving hydroponics a technical reality in the high light regions of the desert southwest.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  30. Davindar Sandu says:

    Contrary to some of the anti-hydroponics commentary here, I can offer from direct personal experience having seen prolific examples of leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, squash, strawberries, all sorts of high quality food crops can be grown in urban hydroponics greenhouses and modified existing urban structures.

    Horizontal and vertical installations can be configured for various crop types, in some cases, even in buildings and on rooftops in high density urban situations.

    Hydroponics allows for very tightly controlled nutrients fed to the plants, and for recirculating water, both factors being highly relevant for sustainable urban agriculture. This concept goes far beyond merely being able to grow crops without the requirement for actual soil.

    If anything, I find it hard to imagine not utilizing the benefits of hydroponics in this context.

  31. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Hydroponics was promoted extensively in the past but declined later. It needs to be revived.

    There are many advantages::
    • No soil is needed
    • The water stays in the system and can be reused – thus, lower water costs
    • It is possible to control the nutrition levels in their entirety – thus, lower nutrition costs
    • No nutrition pollution is released into the environment because of the controlled system
    • Stable and high yields
    • Pests and diseases are easier to get rid of than in soil because of the container’s mobility
    Today, hydroponics is an established branch of agronomy. Progress has been rapid, and results obtained in various countries have proved it to be thoroughly practical and to have very definite advantages over conventional methods of horticulture.
    There are two chief merits of the soil-less cultivation of plants. First, hydroponics may potentially produce much higher crop yields. Also, hydroponics can be used in places where in-ground agriculture or gardening are not possible.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  32. Bill Goedecke says:

    Dr. Jagadeesh, thanks for taking the time to provide information on hydroponics.

  33. rjs says:

    i didnt see costs mentioned in the article, nor did i see anything about the prices they get for their produce compared to trucked in…

    as someone who’s supplied organic produce in ohio, on cheap land & with free sunlight & rainfall, im skeptical..

  34. Wyoming says:

    Hi Neven,

    A neighboring farm to mine is a hydroponic operation. They have significant problems with disease control and must be vigilant concerning pests. Lots of chemicals used. Lots of synthetic fertilizer used. Extreme vigilance on cleanliness is required, Very expensive infrastructure. Very high tech farming. Requires operators with real skill to keep operating properly. This is not really farming per say, but rather they are factories for growing greens.

    Most of the farmers I know who have sampled the product from hydroponic operations think it has a somewhat bland flavor. I am not sure why that is the case, but suspect it is because you lose a lot by not have roots in the soil taking up a lot of properly constituted micro nutrients. But maybe it is some bias as well.

    The operator has told me that many of their customers buy their greens because they do not have any reactions to them which sometimes occurs with ground grown produce. So maybe there is something to the taste thing after all.