An interview with Nona Yehia: Integral urban solutions
I envision a future where vertical greenhouses are an integral part of the urban fabric, that cities have embraced this model as a necessary tool to achieve sustainable and successful futures.
By 2050, 80% of the world’s population will live in cities, this fact is at once a substantial challenge and an opportunity.
At the same time, food deserts, where affordable and healthy food is difficult to obtain, are becoming more common in urban neighbourhoods. Add to this the fact that available land, healthy top soils, and water are becoming scarce commodities, and that costs of energy and transporting food are increasing, new responses to the way we grow food are a must to respond to the challenges of the future.
Architect and visionary
I’m an architect, and from my professional view I see the opportunities in this field are much more than just about creating space. Architecture has the potential to respond to a community need, but at the same time, reflect a community’s values and have great impact beyond the limitations of the building. It is this belief that architecture can be the physical act of social change that cemented my dedication to the idea of vertical farming. In the past ten years, the focus of my work has been to create a viable model to build cost-effective hydroponic vertical greenhouses in urban areas that not only act as innovative, environmentally sustainable models for growing fresh food, but have a substantial social impact.
We need innovative partnerships to support this vision. At this juncture, urban food production in the form of vertical farming is challenged by the cost of land, capital costs and the cost of energy. Public/private partnerships with vertical farming businesses and municipalities can help mitigate these barriers to entry by working with operators to secure unused land, invest in this unique and productive type of public infrastructure, and create opportunities to use renewable energy. Our cities leaders need to invest in tools to help drive the impact they want to see in their communities.
Commercial scale urban agriculture, much like traditional agriculture, is riddled with potential pitfalls and challenges. How to run a successful vertical farm, and then following - how to sustain that success is based on experience. In this nascent and exciting industry, it is by learning from each other’s experiences that will we be able to collectively achieve and sustain success of the industry as a whole. Until the industry is able to embrace a truly collaborative approach, we will be vulnerable to the multiple challenges that we all face.
Year round fresh produce
Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole in Wyoming USA responds to two significant needs in our community: Jackson has a 4-month growing season and imports the majority of its produce from outside of Wyoming. Jackson is now home to one of the world’s first vertical greenhouses located on vacant land next to a downtown parking garage. This 13,500 sq. ft. three-story stacked greenhouse utilizes a 1/10 of an acre to grow an annual amount of produce equivalent to 10 acres of traditional agriculture. Our project enables the community to grow produce 365 days a year despite difficulties posed by the harsh climate.
Do good, do well
Our community impact model cultivates an empowered, healthy, sustainable, and connected community. We sell locally grown, vegetables year round to Jackson restaurants, grocery stores and directly to consumers. In addition to fresh produce, Vertical Harvest produces jobs for individuals with different-abilities. Our mission is simple – we provide consistent, meaningful employment for people with disabilities (typically a 78% unemployment rate) by cultivating nutritious food for the community. Our impact is much larger – we utilise public/private partnerships as a model to create positive economic and social impact for communities.
One of the primary reasons vertical farms fail is due to labour challenges, however we are resisting the trend of moving towards greater automation and are instead looking at our labour model as an opportunity to achieve success. Employees benefit from multiple dividends; this a positive effect on our co-workers, the company’s bottom line and the community. We do good by doing well.
We see ourselves as growers first and foremost. Technology with regards to vertical farming is advancing at an astonishing rate, and while efficiency and optimization in production is always a key priority, understanding how to evaluate all of the options available to our farms is particularly challenging. Our dual mission of employing a unique population in conjunction with growing as much food as possible resulted in multiple efficiencies and innovations in our design that strengthens the bottom line of everything we are doing.
Vertical Harvest is essentially 3 greenhouses stacked on top of one another – this creates different microclimates on each floor. This structure allows for the development of a portfolio of crops that have different price points as well as risk factors. Take our lettuce carousels: these are continuous rotating systems that span the vertical southern façade of our building as well as move horizontally into the 30’ depth of our building. These unique growing systems solve three problems at once. They balance natural and artificial light, essential to managing energy costs, add a fourth floor to our three story greenhouse, and finally bring the plant directly to our farmers for transplanting and harvesting. We strive to use this metric to evaluate all of our choices in terms of technology.
My first piece of advice would be to embrace your passion: passion is convincing. Once you are passionate about an idea, there is no choice but to see it to fruition. Persistence is the key to bringing an idea to reality. I like to remind people that when you are trying to accomplish something innovative, you need to embrace your detractors as much as your supporters. It is embracing the hard questions that will give strength to your idea.
My second piece of advice would be to be collaborative. Urban farming is too big of an idea to go it alone. Being a part a multi-disciplinary team is key to successful outcomes in this field. Surrounding yourself with people who are just as passionate but come at it from a different perspective is essential to building a successful future.