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Urban Farms: Commercial real estate and urban agriculture

Marina Andrade • 5/15/2023

Rapid urban development and geographic constraints have globally reduced the arable land available for cultivation close to population centers. To potentially fill this gap, companies, organizations and building owners are turning to vertical farming operations such as hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics.

These vertical farms require less space than traditional ground farms and can be located in underutilized assets or surface areas such as rooftops and empty parking lots.

For now, only a small percentage of commercial and residential projects are incorporating vertical farming. Globally, from Asia to Europe and the United States, pioneers of urban agriculture are exploring the possibilities.

Singapore, for example, has historically been dependent on and imports 90% of its food supply, making its residents particularly vulnerable to supply problems. But ComCrop is working to change that dependency. Occupying what was once a huge car park, the rooftop farm uses hydroponic growing systems to produce vegetables and herbs, and yields six times more than a conventional farm of the same size. An added bonus, ComCrop also employs seniors and people with disabilities from nearby communities.

In Europe, Basel, Switzerland became the first city in the world to make green space a legal requirement in all new and retrofitted buildings with flat roofs. The initiative turned the city into one of the greenest in the world. The first commercial aquaponic urban farm built in Basel in 2012 produced 1500 pounds of tilapia and 7700 pounds of vegetables in its first year, sold to local restaurants.

Projects in the US include JetBlue's urban farm at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, the world's first operating urban farm at an airport. It has 2,300 plastic milk cartons in beds whose soil is created by leftover food donated by airport restaurants. Three thousand crates of sweet potatoes, arugula, beets, mint, basil and much more are produced and distributed annually.

Innovative ideas like these are demonstrating that commercial food production can be integrated into commercial buildings, both from a technical and economic perspective, and given that real estate occupants and investors are increasingly interested in sustainable practices and design , it is not difficult to imagine that commercial real estate players will have more and more incentives to consider the verticalization of agricultural operations.

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