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Ideas

If urban farming took off, what would Boston look like?

A new ordinance makes it legal, even easy, to start a farm in the city. Here’s what the future could hold.

Javier Zarracina for The Boston Globe

On Dec. 18, the Boston Zoning Commission did something that promises to give the city back a piece of its past while potentially catapulting it into a strange new future: It approved a new rule making it legal to start a commercial farm inside city limits.

Until the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t all that unusual for Bostonians to earn their living through farming, and as late as 1895, the city was producing more crops and livestock products than any Massachusetts town except Dartmouth. This changed as the city modernized and grew denser, driving real estate prices up and eventually, in 1965, leading to the passage of a citywide zoning code that introduced all kinds of bureaucratic obstacles to starting a farm anywhere in Boston.

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No longer. The new zoning ordinance, known as Article 89, explicitly lays out what kinds of farms Bostonians are allowed to start—from how many acres they can be to whether farmers are allowed to slaughter chickens on site. (The answer to that second one is no.) Thomas M. Menino signed off on the ordinance as one of his final acts as mayor, opening the door to an unfamiliar vision of Boston—as a city that grows its own food.

What will urban farming look like? The most obvious agrarian fantasies—cows grazing on the Common, like they did until 1830, or the concrete bustle of Dewey Square giving way to the peaceful swaying of corn stalks—are, perhaps just as obviously, the least likely to happen. But not every farm looks like a farm any more. A new type of agriculture has been sprouting up in urban centers like Tokyo, New York, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and Boston’s new ordinance opens the city up to a whole range of ideas about how to integrate food production into city life.

To its devotees, urban farming is not a trend but a movement—one with ambitions to improve the quality of the food city-dwellers eat, decrease the distances food must travel before it arrives in their stomachs, and provide access to nutritious produce in low-income neighborhoods. And it has inspired schemes from the very pragmatic to the wildly fanciful.

On the practical end, Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development is already accepting proposals for three separate sites in Dorchester and Roxbury that they hope will turn vacant lots into farmland. On the more inventive side, entrepreneurs are trying to reimagine the traditional mechanics of agriculture so that it might be woven into the built landscape of a dense and busy city. Now that Boston has officially signaled its interest, the possibilities are vast—maybe Boston can even become home to North America’s first skyscraper farm, an idea put forward by Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, who believes the future of agriculture lies in stacking greenhouses one on top of another.

Not everyone thinks urban farming is the future of food production, or even a good idea in the first place. As economists have pointed out, conventional agriculture in a thriving city is an extremely low-value use of square footage and one that might waste as much energy as it saves. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, author of the book “Triumph of the City,” wrote in these pages that, “it is a mistake to think that metropolitan areas could or should try to significantly satisfy their own food needs.”

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The skepticism about urban farming surely deserves a hearing, and land prices may well have the final say on whether the idea ever becomes more than a series of pilot projects. But it’s also worth opening this question up to clear blue-sky imagination: What could Boston be in for, exactly, if urban farming here didn’t just take off, but went into the stratosphere?

A-FRAME CONVEYORS

They’ve been described as Ferris wheels for plants. Up and running in Singapore since late 2012, these 30-foot-tall contraptions are basically aluminum A-frames that house long, skinny rows of plants and rotate them with belts that occasionally plunge them through a trough containing water. Inventor Jack Ng says running one of these A-frames uses about as much energy as illuminating a 60-watt light bulb—though trickily for Boston, they’re housed in glass buildings that take advantage of Singapore’s high year-round temperatures.

HIGH-RISE FARMING

Most downtown square footage is in high-rises, and Columbia University ecologist Dickson Despommier suggests that someday we’ll need to turn to greenhouse skyscrapers to help mitigate food shortages while driving down emissions. For now the idea is just that—an idea. But it takes vivid form in his 2010 book on the subject, which includes architectural renderings of vertical farm designs including one resembling an Egyptian pyramid and one inspired by the exoskeleton of a dragonfly.

ROOFTOP GREENHOUSES

If there’s a roof over your head right now, ask yourself: What’s up there? Probably a whole lot of nothing—or, looked at another way, empty acres ready to be farmed. Lufa Farms in Canada has built two prototypes, one in Montreal and one in nearby Laval, that total more than 70,000 square feet and grow, among other things, tomatoes, chard, carrots, mushrooms, and lettuce. As a nifty bonus, the farmers who work for Lufa can adjust the climate inside their greenhouses remotely using iPads.

HYDROPONIC TRAYS

Combining several other ideas on this list into one super-idea, the awkwardly named VertiCrop system grows lettuce and other leafy vegetables using a set of suspended plastic trays stacked 12 high, equipped with baths of water, and attached to a rotating conveyor belt that exposes them to light. The company that invented VertiCrop brags that the system uses 8 percent of the water and 5 percent of the space required by traditional farms to grow the same amount of food. The technology is already being used to grow food for animals at a zoo in England.

SHIPPING CONTAINER MINI-FARMS

The 40-foot steel boxes used to transport goods around the world become year-round vegetable gardens in this scheme by Boston-based startup Freight Farms, which modifies them with LED grow lights, vertical planting towers along the sides, and a drip irrigation system attached to the ceiling. Freight Farms already has three units up and running in Boston, including one adjacent to the Boston Latin School, where it is used to teach kids about farming, and may eventually produce food for use in school lunches.

TILAPIA ECOSYSTEMS

You might think a fish-powered vegetable garden would be the least viable of all the ideas on this list. But in fact, it’s one of the most well established, with fish farms all over the country using aquaponic rigs to raise tilapia—amazingly, one gallon of water can produce one pound of fish—whose waste is then converted by bacteria into nitrogen, a highly valuable nutrient that can then be pumped into soil to fertilize crops.

SHOPPING CART GARDENS

In San Diego, a group of industrious artists, designers, and amateur gardening enthusiasts figured out a way to turn the nuisance of abandoned shopping carts into a kind of guerrilla agriculture. By lining the insides of the carts with burlap sacks, they created planters that they then parked in an abandoned lot. The result is probably more witty than efficient, but it’s easy to imagine a city-dwelling hobbyist with no backyard setting up a cluster of these little guys.

CORNER FIELDS

The city of Boston owns significant quantities of vacant land—most of it in underprivileged neighborhoods like Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. The possibility that urban farmers could turn this land into thriving local businesses is one of the most exciting consequences of Article 89’s passage. The city has begun soliciting proposals for three parcels of land totaling almost 20,000 square feet, which the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development is hoping will get turned into gardens as early as this spring. Proposals are being accepted until Jan. 22. In an ideal world, the plots will create jobs for people with farming skills that most city businesses have no use for, and the owners—whoever they turn out to be—will put up farm stands where they’ll sell fresh, affordable, and nutritious produce to neighbors.

UNDERSEA EDIBLES

A coastal city like Boston has more than land to work with: Underwater farms that grow shellfish and seaweed have the potential to produce food without using any fertilizer and requiring no freshwater. These organisms also clean our waterways, by soaking up nitrogen and other pollutants from their surroundings. While the vast majority of the seawater adjacent to Boston is not nearly clean enough to produce anything edible, a group called the Massachusetts Oyster Project has launched a campaign to bring oysters back to Boston Harbor, where they used to be plentiful, so that their natural filtering powers can be enlisted in the effort to purify the water.

GREEN BASEMENTS

The Pasona Group, a company in Tokyo, planted a rice paddy and a flower field, along with various herbs, fruits, and vegetables, in the basement of its office building, where the plants bask in the factory-made rays of LEDs, metal halide grow lights, and sodium vapor lamps. Though technologically alluring, it’s also an energy hog. One possible solution would be to pump in natural light using the “remote skylight” technology featured in the proposed plans for New York’s Low Line, an underground park.

BEES

This one is already big in Boston. In fact, one of the most prominent advocates of urban beekeeping in the country is local beekeeper Noah Wilson-Rich, who has delivered a popular TED talk on the subject and helped a host of Boston businesses—including the Seaport Hotel and the Four Seasons—install beehives on their roofs. The new zoning ordinance sets forth some specific rules about keeping honeybees: For instance, hives can’t be bigger than 20 cubic feet and must be no closer than 10 feet to any public sidewalk.

CHICKENS

Article 89 clarified Boston’s rules on chicken farming, which is legal in some areas but not others. Where permitted, people can keep chickens as long as people don’t try to involve any roosters (they are “expressly forbidden”), never keep more than six hens on their lot at one time, and keep all coops and chicken runs at least 15 feet away from all habitable structures.

Leon Nefakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the effect of a new Boston zoning ordinance on the legality of keeping chickens within city limits. The practice is still permitted only in certain areas.

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