Extreme Greenspaces: 21st Century Greenhouses and Urban Gardens

By Sara Elliott
Published: December 31, 2019 | Last updated: April 30, 2021 12:50:49
Key Takeaways

The planet is running out of cultivable land to feed an ever-increasing population, but that’s not stopping innovative problem solvers from coming up with solutions. Here’s a look at some extreme growing strategies to inspire and excite your own future gardening goals.

The face of agriculture is changing. Spurred by an ever-growing demand for new ways to feed a human population expected to hit around 9.7 billion by the year 2050, commercial growers are developing new ways to turn urban, arid, hostile and indoor landscapes into the verdant farmlands of the future.


You’ve heard the doom and gloom: uninterrupted green expanses perfect for crops are becoming more and more a thing of the past in many areas of the world. Depleted soils, changing weather patterns, pollution, dwindling aquifers, shifting human demographics, insect assaults, plant diseases, and threats to beneficial insects and other wildlife are taking their toll. In response, agriculture is expanding into new territories to meet current and expected future demands.

Where and how growers are developing successful greenhouses and gardens might surprise you. Look up, down, in town and on the waterfront, and you’re likely to see someone cultivating the crops of tomorrow. The plants may be familiar, but the real estate is, in one example, literally out of this world. Let’s take a look at some extreme growing strategies devised to solve classic problems in design and function. They aren’t all necessarily hobbyist-friendly, but their audacity, creativity and style might give you some interesting ideas about your own future growing goals.


Gardening On the Walls

You’ve probably seen architectural renderings of the vertical gardens of the future. In these striking drawings, vegetation wends its way up tall skyscrapers, creating parks and pastures out of glazed and steel-girded cliffs. These visuals show cityscapes that have reclaimed square footage for cultivation from the excesses of urban sprawl. The current reality may be a little more modest, but still impressive.

Read More: Starting a Vertical Garden at Home

Gardening On the Roof

Companies like Gotham Greens are at the forefront of commercial hydroponic gardening for urban applications, starting on the roof. Their rooftop facilities produce tomatoes, leafy greens and a variety of herbs for New York and Chicago locavores who believe that farm fresh is as important to city dwellers as country folk. Based on their estimates, one of their half-acre hydroponic growing set-ups produces 200 tons of vegetables annually.


Vertical Farms

In areas of the world where even the roof doesn’t provide enough room to grow adequate food, commercial farmers are still looking up, just in a different format. Singapore is an excellent example. One of the most densely inhabited cities on the globe, Singapore’s 250 acres of available farmland isn’t remotely adequate to feed its estimated 5-million residents. This means the locals must rely heavily on imported produce or develop methods to maximize their available space for food production.

Vertical farming is a dynamic solution in Singapore and other areas where land for food production is unavailable for one reason or another. In megacities where populations can be counted in the many millions, and land for farming is almost non-existent, growing up instead of out using vertical cultivation methods is one long-term solution to the threat of food shortages and the ongoing problem of high transportation costs for basic foodstuffs.


Read More: The 10 Biggest and Best Vertical Farms

One of the first successful vertical farms in Singapore was developed by Sky Greens. It uses a hydraulic, water-driven vertical system to rotate plant-filled troughs up and down a 30-ft.-high, A-frame, aluminum tower.

One A-frame tower contains 22-26 plant-filled troughs. These towers provide plants with light, ventilation and access to water and nutrients. Each tower has a footprint of around 60ft and is housed inside netting suspended from a PVC roof. Because the weather is warm year-round, temperature control is considered a minor issue.

To keep energy demand low, the system uses a gravity-assisted water-pulley system. The builder reports that the electrical energy demand for each tower is about what would be necessary to power a single 60-W lightbulb.

Gardening On the Corner

If you like your urban produce closer to terra firma, proximity might be the key to success via small, hydroponic farms that offer fresh produce available within walking distance of where it’s grown and sold.

There’s a good chance even your favorite bistro maintains a small, seasonal garden that yields a tidy harvest of lettuce and herbs during the summer months, so the idea of picking greens fresh from the garden for a restaurant meal is probably well within the average chef’s wheelhouse. To make your favorite entree during the winter, that chef might soon be turning to the future of just-in-time harvesting: mobile set-ups that bring the greenhouse right to the large restaurant or institutional user.

If this sounds outlandish, check out the new hydroponic greenhouses on the block: custom, converted shipping containers that offer adequate growing space, excellent temperature control and good energy efficiency thanks to LED lighting. Close proximity ensures a fresh product, and reduced transportation costs, especially in the case of crops sourced over long distances during the winter months, keep prices down.

If you doubt the value of this trend, take a look at the National Restaurant Association’s latest report. Based on customer surveys, one of the biggest trends they’re seeing is a preference for locally grown foods by nearly 85% of consumers in the family, in both the casual and fine-dining categories. That trend is expected to continue.

Read More: Contain Yourself - Seven Reasons to Consider Container Gardening

Gardening In the Office

Before we leave the city in our search for interesting and innovative growing methods, let’s look at the office farm. It’s hard to imagine a city more congested than Tokyo, Japan, but this seething metropolis is home to an interesting experiment in commercial gardening and habitat enhancement. The Pasona’s Yaeton-Tokyo office building is teeming with life, both human and vegetative.

Originally intended as a learning tool for budding urban gardeners, the staffing and recruiting agency that occupies the building has interspersed hydroponic and other gardens among its functional areas. Its extensive exterior vertical garden includes nine stories of trees and flowers, and numerous interior hydroponic enclaves featuring such diverse crops as squash, berries, lemons, passion fruits, eggplants, broccoli and bok choy.

The 215,000-sq.-ft. interior is a successful ecosystem with approximately 43,000 sq. ft. of space dedicated to plant production. Although several design and technical strategies are used to cultivate different plant varieties, including a thriving rice paddy in the lobby, the design is notable for its success in integrating functional underground and vertical spaces for plant production and maintenance.

Read More: How Office Workers Can Benefits from Having a Garden On Site

Gardening On the Water

We aren’t talking about hydroponics or aquaponics here. We’re referring to greenhouses situated on the water that also use estuary, bay or ocean water as a resource. No, this isn’t an experimental set-up that grows GMO corn in seawater. Our first offering is the Jellyfish Barge, an experimental fusion of architectural design and biological function created to explore the notion of using coastal waters to grow food in areas where cultivable land is scarce—a condition expected to become more widespread in the future.

This innovative greenhouse prototype is the brainchild of Studiomobile, an Italian design firm, working in concert with botanist Stefano Mancuso of the University of Milan. It relies, in part, on distillation technology, and uses a solar panel to power the apparatus that removes salt from seawater.

The technique can also be used to remove minerals and other pollutants from freshwater. The water treatment equipment on-board can produce nearly 40 gal. of freshwater daily, which is supplemented with some seawater to reintroduce mineral salts to the growing media.

Referred to by the acronym PNAT (Plants Nature and Technology), the Jellyfish Barge contains 753 sq. ft. of growing area that can house up to 1,200 plants. It uses both interior and exterior space to accommodate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

Expanding on the idea of a floating food factory, a Spanish firm in Barcelona has developed an ambitious design for what it calls the Smart Floating Farm, a triple-decker, 2.2-million-sq.-ft. installation that includes hydroponic gardens, fish farms and a desalinization plant. Still, in the theoretical stages, this type of farm would be portable, thanks to clean energy provided by roof-mounted photovoltaic solar cells, wind turbines and energy mined from the motion of ocean waves.

Designed with sustainability in mind, the Smart Floating Farm would incorporate some of the principles employed aquaponics where fish waste feeds the plants, and the plants provide food for the fish. Many of the world’s most populous cities are in coastal areas near-classic shipping trade routes. Sustainable, floating farms positioned offshore in these locations could help feed millions in a way that’s more energy-efficient and Earth-friendly. Are the potential costs prohibitive? We’ll have to wait and see.

Gardening Under the Sea

Let’s travel under the waves about 20 ft., where we’ll find our next candidate for extreme green, the Jules Verne version of agricultural potential: underwater farming. Your backyard pond may not be the best site for this type of approach, but you’re headed in the right direction. At least the brain trust behind the Nemo’s Garden project thinks so.

Nemo’s Garden is a series of five underwater biospheres off the Italian coast. These greenhouse environments are designed to take advantage of the flat real estate, stable temperature and easy access to carbon dioxide on the ocean floor to grow outstanding plant specimens. Thanks to Sergio Gamberini and other members of the Ocean Reef Group, the talented minds behind the project, Nemo’s Garden is opening new vistas in future farming. This isn’t a commercial project yet, but the idea of farms growing tomatoes in whale territory inspires the imagination.

Greening the Cosmos

From gardening with the whales to space exploration, greenhouses are definitely on the move. As a precursor to eventual colonization, NASA has confirmed its plans to place a greenhouse on Mars in 2021. It’s a landmark move because it will be the first time man has placed living, multi-cellular organisms on another planet. The greenhouse will be a modified satellite case, or CubeSat, containing Arabidopsis seeds and enough air and water for the plants to survive for a couple of weeks. The project is called the Mars Plant Experiment, or MPS. Look for it in the news as launch time approaches.

Mighty beginnings, like the one planned for the MPS, can start small. The first greenhouse was probably created around 300 AD to cultivate cucumbers for Roman Emperor Tiberius. It was portable, and it’s only fitting that another portable greenhouse will help lead us to a better understanding of plant cultivation on Mars.

Green Inside Out

Our final example is back here on Earth, where architect Bengt Warne has inspired a Stockholm couple, Marie Granmar and Charles Sacilotto, to make a greenhouse a home by enclosing their existing house and garden inside a shell made of thick safety glass. When outside temperatures are below freezing, the home’s interior second story hovers near or above 60˚F without the aid of solar panels. Heating is necessary in extremely cold weather, but the couple has reduced their energy costs by about 50% while being able to grow a variety of plants out of season.

The concept is actually a few decades old. The first nature house, built in the mid-1970s, was designed to be self-sustaining, somewhat like the theory behind the Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona. Whatever side of the glass you’re standing on, it’s an interesting idea.

Read Next: Greenhouse Growing 101


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Written by Sara Elliott | Gardener, Writer

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Sara Elliott is a professional writer with extensive horticultural knowledge acquired through theoretical study and practical experience. You can find her gardening and lifestyle pieces in print and online.

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