The Future of Urban Planning: The Urban Skyfarm

urban-skyfarm-9The world’s population is projected to grow to between 9 and 10 billion people by the middle of the century. What’s more, roughly two-thirds of those people are expected to live in major cities. Coupled with the expected changes caused by Climate Change (i.e. increased drought and less in the way of arable land), and its understandable why urban farms are seen as a means of picking up the slack.

That’s the concept behind the Urban Skyfarm, a concept for a skyscraper that is shaped like a tree and comes with leaf-like decks to provide space for real trees to grow. Currently, most vertical farming operations – like warehouses in Chicago, Kyoto, Singapore and a recent skyscraper built in Sweden by Plantagon – grow plants with ultra-high-efficiency systems under artificial light.

urban-skyfarm-2However, this new design concept from Aprilli Design Studio takes a different approach, using lightweight decks to provide growing space outdoors on the sides of a giant skyscraper. The architects aren’t the first to embrace the trend of sticking greenery on towers, but they may be one of the first to look at how to use the technique to maximize food production. As architects Steve Lee and See Yoon Park explained:

Our version of the vertical farm was intended to become an independent, open-to-air structure which would be purely focusing on farming activities and sustainable functions such as generating renewable energy and performing air, and water filtration.

Designed to mimic the shape of an enormous tree, the Urban Skyfarm uses leaf-like decks to provide 24 acres of space for growing fruit trees and plants. The “trunk” houses an indoor hydroponic farm for greens, and solar panels and wind turbines at the top of the tower provide enough energy to power the whole operation. The design would also capture rainwater and filter it through a constructed wetland before returning it to a nearby stream.

urban-skyfarm-5So in addition to growing food and using rainwater to provide irrigation, the building also was also designed with an eye towards energy independence. The architects envision the project in the middle of downtown Seoul, South Korea:

It seemed to be an ideal place to test out our prototype since the specific area is very dense and highly active and has been suffering for a long time by all sorts of environmental problems resulting from rapid urbanization…With the support of hydroponic farming technology, the space could efficiently host more than 5,000 fruit trees. Vertical farming is more than an issue of economical feasibility, since it can provide more trees than average urban parks, helping resolve urban environmental issues such as air pollution, water run-off and heat island effects, and bringing back balance to the urban ecology.

The design would also provide community gardens, park space, and a farmers market to cater to a demand for fresh, local food in a city where apples can cost more than $20 at local markets.

urban-skyfarm-7Vertical farming has already started in South Korea. Another project, based in Suwon, is growing food in a three-story building and may eventually expand into a skyscraper. But the outdoor vertical farm is just a concept for now. Lee and Park are confident this is the way of the future, and that demand for clean, sustainable buildings that grow fresh food is only going to increase:

We believe there will be more attention and discussions of vertical farms as the 2015 Milan Expo approaches, and we hope the Urban Skyfarm can become part of the discussion as a prototype proposal. Vertical farming really is not only a great solution to future food shortage problems but a great strategy to address many environmental problems resulting from urbanization.

And with the problems of urban growth and diminished farmland occurring all over the developed world – but especially in nations like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India (which are likely to be the hardest hit by Climate Change) – innovative designs that combine sustainability and urban farming are likely to become all the rage all over the world.


More News from Mars… Lots More!

marsIt’s a good thing I’ve come down with a cold and have little to do but sit at my computer. Because in the last week, some very interesting news stories have been piling up that just scream for recognition. And wouldn’t you know it, more than a few have to do with our big red neighbor Mars, that world many human beings will one day think of as home.

The first story comes to us from the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, where noted astronomer Robert McNaught recently sighted an new comet. From his observations, the icy interloper appeared to have originated in the Oort Cloud – a hypothetical cloud surrounding the solar system and containing billions of icy planetesimals that were cast out from our Solar System billions of years ago.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014After news of the discovery was released, the astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona looked back over their observations to find “prerecovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012. These observations placed the orbital trajectory of the comet – now known as C/2013 A1 – through the orbit of Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. This means, in essence, that this comet could very well strike the Red Planet late next year.

Luckily, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has run the calculations and indicated that their close approach data suggests the comet is most likely to make a close pass of the Martian surface. And by close, they mean at roughly 0.0007 AU, or approximately 100,000 kilometers (63,000 miles) from the Martian surface. So in all likelihood, Curiosity and Opportunity will be safe from a serious impact that could turn them into scrap metal!

But of course, predicting its exact trajectory at this time is subject to guess work, and ongoing observations will be needed. No doubt, the predictions will be refined a the next 20 months go by, and we’ll know for sure if this comet plans to miss Mars completely, or slam head-on into the surface at 200,000 km/h (126,000 mph).


Mars_curiosity_drillingThe second bit of news comes to us from the good-ole Curiosity Rover! Roughly four weeks after conducting the first drilling operation into the Martian surface, the Rover ate its first sample of the grey dust that resulted. The delivery of the two aspiring-sized tablets of dust took place on Feb. 22nd and 23rd respectively after the robotic arm delivered them into the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratories for analysis. Results expected in two weeks!

Among other things, the results from the analysis are expected to give clues as to what the color change between the red surface and the grey interior means. One theory is that it might be related to different oxidations states of iron that could potentially inform us about the habitability of Mars inside the rover’s Gale Crater landing site.

Living-Mars.2At the same time, the Mars Science Laboratory team expects to find further evidence of what life was like in previous geological eras. The Curiosity team believes that the area inside the Gale Crater, known as Yellowknife Bay, experienced repeated exposure to flowing liquid water long ago when Mars was warmer and wetter – and therefore was potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life.

The rover will likely remain in the John Klein area for a month or more to obtain a more complete scientific characterization of the area which has seen repeated episodes of flowing water. Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a year long trek to her main destination: the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of the  5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp.


mars_hieroglyphsAnd last, but not least by any stretch of the imagination, is the discovery of “hieroglyphs” on the Martian surface. While they might appear like ancient glyphs to the untrained eye, they are in fact evidence of past subsurface water. The images were caught by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed the surface area known as Amazonis Planitia.

Known as ‘rootless cones,’ these geological features are the result of an explosive interaction of lava with ground ice or water contained within the regolith beneath the flow. Vaporization of the water or ice when the hot lava comes in contact causes an explosive expansion of the water vapor, causing the lava to shoot upward, creating what appears to be a button hole on the surface.

rootlessConesIn the past, Mars scientists have used geological patterns on Earth to make sense of similar ones found on Mars. For example, when the Curiosity Rover discovered veins of hydrated calcium in the rock surface in the Gale Crater, they compared them to similar patterns found in Egypt to determine that they were the result of long-term exposure to water flows. In this case, the rootless cones found in Amazonis Planitia are comparable to those found in Iceland’s Laki Lava Flow (as seen above).

According to Colin Dunas, from the US Geological Survey, the cones are rather large and most likely very old:

“The cones are on the order of a hundred meters across and ten meters high. The age of these specific cones isn’t known. They are on a mid- to late-Amazonian geologic unit, which means that they are young by Martian standards but could be as much as a few hundred million to over a billion years old.”

terraformingOnly time will tell if any subsurface water is still there, and hence usable by future teams of terraformers and settlers. According to Dundas, the odds are not so good of that being the case. Given the surface depth at which the ice was found, not to mention that at the low latitude at which it was found (22 degrees north), shallow ground ice is unstable. Dundas added that since ice stability varies as the obliquity changes, it’s even possible that ice has come and gone repeatedly since the lava erupted.

Too bad. That could have come in really handy for hydroponics, fuel cells, and even restoring surface water to the planet. Guess future generations of Martians will just have to look for their ground and irrigation water elsewhere, huh? Just another challenge of converting the Red Planet to a green one, I guess 😉

Stay tuned for more news Mars. As it stands, there’s plenty to be had! Stick around!


The Martian Menu

A recent article on CBC tells us something interesting about the Red Planet. It seems that the good folks at NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Project are planning a menu that astronauts will be taking with them to Mars. It’s all part of a planned mission that will be taking place in 2030, involving six to eight astronauts with an expected duration of six months.

This is no easy feat, but it’s further complicated by the fact that once there, the astronauts will not be able to be resupplied at regular intervals. Yes, unlike the ISS, they can’t just send shuttled loaded with freeze dried food. Luckily, NASA knows that Mars low gravity means that once there, astronauts will be able to prepare their own food. Things things like chopping vegetables and boiling water with a pressure cooker are possible there, unlike in a zero-g environment.

So in addition to planning a travel menu, NASA is planning on equipping the mission with the means to create a “Martian greenhouse” upon their arrival. This would include a variety of fruits and vegetables — from carrots to bell peppers — kept in a hydroponic solution, meaning they would be planted in mineral-laced water instead of soil. The astronauts would care for their garden and then use those ingredients, combined with others, such as nuts and spices brought from Earth, to prepare their meals.

Not bad. And an improvement over a space menu for one simple reason. Zero-g has an effect on taste and smell. Yes, zero gravity seems to impair these things, making food taste bland. So a spicy red pepper sauce and a chili and oil sauce, when eaten in space, are pretty much paste. Not cool…

This research is an important step in ushering in the age of colonization. Much like the recent surveys which discovered of water on the moon, and tested its gravity and for minerals, it’s the sort of nuts and bolts planning that will one day go into real mission planning. First the Moon, then Mars, then Ganymede, Europa, Ceres, Titan and Oberon. All bodies with gravity that could be settled in the not-too-distant future, and that’s just within our solar system! Given the time, resources and technology, the universe really is the limit!