Hydroponics, Rooftops, and Food Deserts in Philadelphia

While Drinking Around The World may get most of the attention in Disney’s EPCOT in Orlando, Florida, a smaller, lesser-known attraction called Living With The Land is by far my favorite Disney ride, and has a surprisingly passionate fanbase. Opened in 1982, Living With The Land is one of the oldest rides in EPCOT, taking you on a boat ride exploring Disney’s idea of the future of sustainable growth using vertical farming, hydroponics, regenerative fish farms, and more.

That ride instilled in me a curiosity about the subject that I had all but forgotten about until last night, when I stumbled upon this video of a man giving a backyard tour of his tilapia fish farm and hydroponic system. I was blown away seeing his elaborate DIY setup; not only because of its ingenuity but also because of its effectiveness. This man singlehandedly created a sustainable source of nutritious food for his family, right in his backyard using tools you can buy from a hardware store. It was the dream instantiation of Living With The Land, and reinvigorated my curiosity about the subject.

Naturally, that one video led me down a rabbit hole of YouTube hydroponics, where I next discovered this gentlemen apparently making about $1,800 a month from a DIY hydroponic system in his backyard. Watching his videos, it confirmed the claims of the first: hydroponics is amazing at growing food quickly and efficiently, especially in environments where large amounts of soil aren’t readily available. With these setups, plants don't actually require soil, and can be grown using only water, light and natural chemicals, which enables the plants to be free from its ground-restriction and instead stacked into vertical farms! This breakthrough would surely change the world, no?

Kind of. Hydroponics have been around for a long time and, while it's actively being used in space and commercially elsewhere, its world-changing impact has been...limited. With its undeniable advantages, I don't understand why it hasn't had more of an apparent impact. Maybe it has? Moreso, what's a huge surprise to me after seeing these DIY setups, is why the idea of hydroponics in cities isn’t a more sought-after approach to solving food-scarcity issues.

In Philadelphia alone, about 250,000 people experience food-insecurity. As big supermarkets move to richer neighborhoods, “food deserts” are created, which starves poorer neighborhoods from nutritious and affordable food. While programs exist to promote the opening of new grocery stores, I believe hydroponics offers a more community-driven approach to solve the problem.

Cities are a prime environment to exploit the advantages of hydroponic farming:

  • It can be used in places where in-ground agriculture or gardening is not possible (for example, dry desert areas or cold climate regions).
  • More complete control of nutrient content, pH and growing environment.
  • Lower water and nutrient costs associated with water and nutrient recycling.
  • Faster growth due to more available oxygen in root area.
  • Elimination or reduction of soil related insects, fungi and bacteria.
  • Much higher crop yields.
  • No weeding or cultivation required.

Additionally, growing the crop closer to the consumer drives the cost down considerably. These community-based farms can create a sustainable supply of nutritious, healthy food, and with the addition of greenhouse solutions, that food supply can regenerate 24/7 throughout the year.

This idea isn’t new. In 2022, Chicago permitted a company named Vertical Harvest to construct a 63,000 square-foot hydroponic farm that’ll produce around 560,000 pounds of food per year. Even better, the facility is being built right next to low-income housing, with the expectation that its 50 full-time jobs will be awarded to members of that community.

If Philadelphia could capture that same vitality in its efforts, we might see a drastic decline in the food insecurity issue. The city could make use of row-house rooftops, the tops of parking garages Cira Green-style, or any of the abandoned lots that sit covered in weeds. Seasonal gardens not covered by a greenhouse would also help cool the city down in warm weather.

The opportunity to take advantage of urban hydroponics is clear. All it takes is education, infrastructure, and community involvement. That seems to be a common theme with urban improvement, doesn’t it?