Gardening on the Planet, Ministry of Controversy, Uncategorized

Plantagon!

UPDATE: See comments for a response from Plantagon Community Director Thomas Selig.

Drumroll, please. I present to you the latest development in urban agriculture: a futuristic vertical greenhouse that—making use of integrated solutions for energy, excess heat, waste, CO2 and water—will be the latest methodology for providing fresh food to city dwellers. Its name is Plantagon.


There was a groundbreaking (shown above) for the world’s first Plantagon in February at Linköping, Sweden (outside of Stockholm). Completion is expected in early 2013, at which point it will look like the rendering at top. As far as I can tell from the company’s somewhat inscrutable website, the interior of the greenhouses uses a helix-based structure, where newly potted vegetables are transported to the top of the helix and then gradually make their way down through the spiral to the bottom, by which time they are ready for harvest, and the process starts again. Consult the website for more details, and good luck to you.

Regardless of how it works, it is a really cool looking structure, and here’s the strange part. If this company really gets off the ground (investment opportunities are available), the 2nd or 3rd Plantagon may be rising in Buffalo. This could be because a principle partner in the Plantagon “companization” is the Onondaga Nation, part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy, and located in central New York, near Syracuse. The hybrid word is used because Plantagon’s organizational structure consists of a non-profit/for-profit amalgam. (Most of the “history” part of the Plantagon website consistes of letters between Plantagon and Onondaga leaders.) A spokesperson for Plantagon, Pierre Wallinder also happens to live in Buffalo.

Another possible Plantagon.

So far, Plantagon has not yet met with overwhelming enthusiasm among the few Buffalonians who have paid attention to a couple news items about it. Many involved in Buffalo’s existing food-growing scene point to the vast rural acreage that surrounds us as well as to the 7-8 urban farms within the city limits. “A vertical greenhouse is unnecessary in a city where large swaths of land are readily available,” notes one commenter. A local businessman objects to the cost: “Given a $15 million dollar investment, I can think of a number of industries that could create more than 30 jobs and generate sustainable growth. We can do better for the money, but at least this idea is an improvement over the indoor water park proposed a few years ago.”

I’m not a big indoor water park fan either, and spending a fortune on a big indoor greenhouse would also be low on my priority list for Buffalo. We do have a lot of local food-growers who have just recently begun to penetrate the market here. On the other hand, I get the basic concept behind this—a sustainable urban food source for a world population that is increasingly based in cities.

And it is pretty.

Plantagon renderings courtesy of Plantagon.com, via their press section.

Posted by on June 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Ministry of Controversy, Uncategorized.
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20 Responses to “Plantagon!”

  1. Sorry, $15M? Just seems like a great waste of taxpayer money to me. How about putting the $15M towards acquiring and improving new community garden land? A much better use in most communities I know.

    • Thomas Selig says:

      Great to see some constructive discussion. However, I feel I have to rectify some of the comments;
      1. It’s not about tax money. Our projects are funded both by shareholders and micro investors/crowdfunders. No tax money is used.
      2. The real reason to build a vertical greenhouse is to make better use of land, where such is not available, mainly in the emerging mega cities of the world. There is no reason to build vertically in rural areas.

      Thomas Selig,
      Community Director
      Plantagon

      • anne says:

        Thomas, what kind of thought has been given to the availability of water for such a project, specifically within the context of mega-cities and their water needs (and their ailing infrastructures)? Water (and waste treatment) are going to be big issues in the future (maybe waste water can be recycled in Plantagon?).

        I like the idea of this kind of urban farming, but it seems so big scale. It’s good that tax dollars aren’t being used, but what kind of return on investment will the partners and investors see (or is this a philanthropic project?)? will they expect to make profits from the project eventually? I will watch what happens with interest!

        • Thomas Selig says:

          Anne, thanks for some really interesting questions, which actually might help to clarify why we believe urban vertical farming to become essential in a not-too-distant future.

          The Plantagon greenhouses are not hermetically closed biospheres but not far from it, which means that they are more water efficient than horisontal greenhouses (water that evaporates is mostly kept within the system, as opposed to normal greenhouses, where the water leaves the greenhouse by means of lorication, due to the huge horizontally placed glas roof). Additionally, gray water can be used within the system. However, because of food security reasons, use of black water has not even been considered (to my knowledge).

          In the Linköping project, that this blog post is about, excess cooling water (which is absolutely clean) from a nearby district heating facility is used to provide both heating and water for the greenhouse. Earlier, this water was simply let out into a nearby lake (after cooling). Once again: we are talking about totally clean water, not any contaminated water used in production.

          There are other symbiotic effects as well: the Linköping greenhouse is built next to a bio gas production facility, receiving 100% organic excess material as fertilizer and sending back non-edible plant parts for production of even more bio gas. A win-win situation for all involved.

          While talking about “win”: yes, the projects are calculated to eventually give an acceptable ROI, however by no means equally fast as current industrial food production, preferably off-shore with underpaid workers and (ab)using loads of pesticides. — That’s actually one of the main reasons why I personally am involved with Plantagon: we choose to do things differently. Our goal is to move from short-term profit-thinking to long-term decisions, by combining both for-profit business ideals and idealistic driving forces into one organization. (You can read more about our point of view at http://plantagon.com/governance/companization) ;-)

          Finally, regarding the size: there are different sizes of the greenhouse, but the larger, the more cost-effective. The main reason for building the facilities is to provide mega-cities with fresh food. Recently the UN estimated that Earth’s population will increase by 40 percent and exceed 9 billion people by year 2050. By then, 80 per cent of the population will live in cities. Both the urban sprawl and the densification of the cities will create huge food security and logistical problems.

          In such mega-cities, the shear amount of people will require large-scale production (industrial food production, if you will). Our belief is simply that it is much smarter to actually produce where the product will be consumed, thus eliminating environmentally damaging and time-consuming transport — and to be able to do this without the need to use tons of pesticides or artificial fertilizers (which you are more likely to need in non-controlled environments, especially in or close to urban areas).

          Hope this answers some of your questions ;-)

          Thomas,
          Community Director,
          Plantagon

          • Anne says:

            Thomas, so much food for thought! Which gives me more questions. On the website, it says the plants will be grown in pots in a “nutrient solution”; is this an aqueous solution, or soil? Where do the nutrients come from?

            My garden is messy, but the mess is often where the nutrients come from.

            I’m a big fan of recycling blackwater, and using graywater, but there are some big issues with these; how is Plantagon thinking about these things?

          • Thomas Selig says:

            Thanks Anne, for the follow up. Great to discuss those questions!

            To start with, I believe every single person here at Plantagon would prefer *your* locally and organically grown food to something produced in greenhouses, regardless of how well the greenhouse is designed, how much thought was given to do it as sustainable as possible etc. But, we believe, that we simply have to accept, that this kind of small scale local production unfortunately will only be for the privileged ones in a foreseeable future (when taking a look at the UN prognosis earlier up in the thread).

            Now, back to your questions: lots of research is being done as to find the right material to grow the food in. The system can use both soil or stones, where stones actually have an environmental advantage as they don’t have to be replaced as often as soil has, due to food security reasons. However, to the best of my knowledge, this research is not complete yet and decisions will be based exclusively on what will give the best food quality (we are talking “real” quality, not “greenest apples after genetically manipulating whatever sells best”) and the overall impact on environment.

            Nutritients are (in the Linköping example) almost exclusively derived from the nearby bio gas facility (which actually comes pretty close to using black water, albeit industrially cleaned). Some more information about the symbiotic processes are outlined in the graphics on http://plantagon.com/urban-agriculture/industrial-symbiosis

            Thanks for an interesting discussion!

            Thomas
            Community Director,
            Plantagon

  2. I was just joking with someone this morning about Swedish produce in the markets. Everything has to be shipped here. They’ve got some of the most hideous produce selection of anywhere and what they get looks as if it was sent by wooden sailing ship which prior to docking and unloading seemed as if it had been months at sea. The produce sometimes seems to have been more weeks sitting in a warehouse.

    The Swedish word for vegetables is Grönsaks (pronounced grern.socks) or as I have rearranged it pronounciation to Green-Sucks. The prices here are insane. This government finds more ways to extract money from it’s citizens. Those vegetables IF they ever grow will be through the roof and more than likely tasteless as are most things from Idustrial Ag E.U. Most folks here have to have a small greenhouse if they want to have nice homegrown vegetables.

    So far this year weather stinks. It’s around 50 F, cold & rainy and has been this way for most of June. Wednesday my wife and I are leaving for Silkeborg Dänemark. I hope the weather is better. We’ve have had to have our heater on this summer. I’m originally from the desert areas southestern USA, so you can imagine my stinky attitude. Just finished writing my last post before leaving about Anza Borrego area’s Mesquite Dune Experiment I’ve been following for some time now. At least I have the illustion momentarily of being warm.

    As far as architecture, I hate Scandinavian Design. No artisitic creativity and warmth whatsoever. Yet it wasn’t always that way if you look at older buildings. I think there infamous million hosuing projects from the 1960s-70s ruined alot of artisitic design value in what they did. This country was heavily influenced by Soviet Era Communist equality for everyone whether you want it or not. From what I’ve seen design has never changed much.

    Can’t wait to get back home. –>> Don’t do it Buffulo !!

    Kevin

    -

    • Thomas Selig says:

      I guess, Scandinavian design is up to the taste. When I initially moved to Sweden, I really couldn’t get used to those infamous million housing projects at all. Frankly, I still don’t like them (who does?), but there was actually a whole architectural philosophy behind them: taking focus from the architecture and thus highlighting interpersonal relationship. I find the goal interesting and appalling, however, I don’t think that the architecture really succeeded ;-)

      When it comes to the design of the Plantagon, it is mostly driven of the desire to maximize energy efficiency and real estate. It is still up to everyone to either like or dislike the design, but it HAS won several international design awards.

  3. Greg Draiss says:

    Something like this was tried in Holland in 1981 and failed miserably. The answer to sustainability is EVERYONE will need solar, wind, geo thermal and gardens in their yard to supply what the “new grid” cannot. Let the large wind/solar farms provide for the energy needs of infratstructure and basic necessity. Let big food farms provide for the base food needs.

    Meanwhile provide the incentives for every private home/building to have wind and solar and mini farms to do the rest.

    The Troll

    • Thomas Selig says:

      Greg,
      here at Plantagon we wholeheartedly agree with your opinion about sustainability; small scale production, be it energy or food, is in many cases the best solution, WHERE POSSIBLE.
      However, in many areas, namely mega cities, this simply is not possible.

      Projects in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany during the seventies and eighties did not succeed due to significant design flaws and unsolved technical problems. The main problem was an extremely high need of energy (mostly lightning and temperature control), which seemed impossible to solve at that time.
      Our design and new techniques are bound to change that, promise ;-)

      Thomas Selig,
      Community Director,
      Plantagon.com

  4. commonweeder says:

    I do prefer the idea of decentralizing power via small/residential wind and solar, and many small local farms (I am lucky to live in a rural area) with greenhouses for a longer local season.

  5. Robin says:

    That’s awful. I’d rather the huge amount of money be spent on more sustainable ways of growing food on a personal level. A lot of people could be set up to grow some of their own food with the $15,000,000. Let’s not make growing vegetables more complicated and expensive than need be. This is irresponsible overkill.

  6. Fred Karp says:

    A short growing season argues in favor of indoor growing facilities. All I remember about the supermarket on the west side of Syracuse that had people swarming to buy winter tomatoes grown off the heating system was that they tasted Real.

    Denver boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. Before the last State elections I heard ideas about state involvement in helping farms to build winter grow houses. (But since then research at the Department of Energy has been directed to “expand” their mandate from renewable sources to include fossil fuels, at the same budget.)

    The debate should be about scale and location. Local solar, wind or other renewable sources are good, but energy isn’t the only input. Does it have to be downtown, or should it be in a neighborhood where the food will be distributed, or closer to the nutrient and equipment suppliers, or near a transportation hub to minimize transfers?

    Have there been pilots at smaller, middle scale?

  7. jemma says:

    I’ve toured a huge assembly-line greenhouse operation. The one I saw grew patented mini rose bushses. It was a little creepy. In a back room, Latina women potted up the stems that had been sheared off, for piecework wages. In the main greenhouses, vast trays of mini roses were watered, fertilized, and trimmed, and rotated from one greenhouse to another, automatically.

  8. Jason says:

    This is being funded by private investors, not the taxpayers. If they can make it work, more power to them. Skepticism would seem to be the order of the day, however. I can see something like this concept being more workable in a very dense, larger urban area (especially with a very short growing season), not so much in a rustbelt town with many vacant lots.

  9. Anne says:

    Plantagon looks horrible to me; it has architect-with-ego written all over the structure itself. Why bother going outside and actually trying to grow plants in real soil when you can create your own world and try and suck the rest of us into it. No thanks.

    I garden (and I suspect most everyone else does) precisely because I get to go outside and learn how to grow plants in the real world with all its horror and wonderfulness, and in the process learn something about myself too.

    I’m tired of industrial approaches that contort biology and twist ecology; somehow we humans have managed to overrun the planet in about 10,000 yrs with no plantagons…

    p.s. Timeless Environments, you are experiencing Juneary, it’s the same here in Seattle, we’re all still wearing fleece and rain gear, but at least the kale is growing like crazy!

  10. R.T. Wolfe says:

    Fascinating. What great minds can do! I’ve heard of work in India sustaining small communties by composting their waste, using solar energy for their ovens, etc. Amazing! I’ve found an interest, also, in assiting third world countries. I guess I lean toward the idea that goes along with your wonderful blog post… “Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him For a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, Feed Him For a Lifetime.” I have a link to a credible organization that purchases and delivers trees to third world countries on my website. I have a search bar.
    Thank you, Plantagon!
    -R.T. Wolfe

  11. Sandy in TX says:

    Architecturally, it’s no worse than some of the Civic Center-type buildings and convention halls I’ve seen. At least Plantagon has a *reason* for all that glass.
    Anne, I too would MUCH rather go outside and pull my own weeds – but currently I’m where Selig’s prospective customer is: My climate is impossible for more than a few weeks out of the year (for opposite reasons to Sweden!); I’ve lived in apartments and in a mobile parked on someone else’s land . . . erm, lawn . . . with no permission to plant anything.
    Yes, this would go better in central NYC than in Buffalo, but as an alternative to Monsanto and Miracle-Gro, it deserves a chance.

  12. kermit says:

    I garden, I have a messy semi-sustainable garden, and love my veggies and ornamentals. But what Thomas and his associates are doing is interesting and may be vastly important. Lots of open rural space around Buffalo? Perhaps, and perhaps in fifty years (or less) it will be seeing alternate droughts and floods from global warming. How much has Texas produced in the last two years from farmers and ranchers?

    The technology developed here may be important also for unexpected reasons. This isn’t costing the taxpayers anything; even if it fails to pay for itself we’ve learned much. But how many people here have a garden that pays for itself? Mine sure doesn’t. And I’d rather see one of these than another sports arena, multimovie complex, or coal-fired power plant.

    All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
    by Richard Brautigan

    I’d like to think (and
    the sooner the better!)
    of a cybernetic meadow
    where mammals and computers
    live together in mutually
    programming harmony
    like pure water
    touching clear sky.

    I like to think
    (right now, please!)
    of a cybernetic forest
    filled with pines and electronics
    where deer stroll peacefully
    past computers
    as if they were flowers
    with spinning blossoms.

    I like to think
    (it has to be!)
    of a cybernetic ecology
    where we are free of our labors
    and joined back to nature,
    returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
    and all watched over
    by machines of loving grace.

  13. Eliz says:

    Thanks Kermit! Richard Brautigan quotations–or even mentions–are all too rare in the garden blogging world. I’ve always liked him. That poem seems more traditional than the stuff I remember.

    I agree that this urban greenhouse project is an interesting concept and I think the structures are pretty.

    It’s just that we are just beginning to popularize the notion of food-growing by urban residents, and we have a long way to go with that.

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