These Reinvented Urban Farms Grow Algae, Not Kale

If we’re serious about tackling the sustainability challenges that cities face, the urban bucolic vision is going to have to mean more than hipster vegetables.

Think of urban farming, and you might picture a rooftop vegetable garden. But designers from EcoLogicStudio in London think that cities should start to take a different approach to their farms: Instead of lettuce or kale, the architects are experimenting with new artificial systems that grow algae.


“Algae are everywhere in the urban environment as well as in the wild,” says studio founder Marco Poletto. “However, they are not recognized as valuable, and as an urban layer that can be designed, cultivated, and harvested. We believe that activating this layer can provide an incredible boost in the amount of energy, food, and even natural medical products that can be produced and consumed in the urban environment.”

In prototype gardens built in Sweden, London, and Paris over the last decade, the architects created hanging structures filled with algae, carefully arranged to take advantage of the light in the space. To help the microorganisms grow, visitors could move the containers around to follow the light, and blow air into tubes to provide carbon dioxide.

In Paris, the architects experimented with what they call “cyber-gardening.” As the algae grew, the garden sent out tweets reporting data like growth and lighting levels, so people could monitor it in real time from a distance. As visitors tweeted, they could help direct nutrients to the algae. The design wasn’t intended to produce algae at a large scale, but to suggest new ways that city dwellers could begin to interact with urban farms.

“When it comes to urban farming, technology is essential to condense and intensify productivity, to achieve a vision of farming that is suited to the extreme conditions of the urban environments,” says Poletto. “I love allotments and those funky urban farms that you find in cities like London or New York…but we also need to challenge these visions of ‘urban bucolic’ and begin to seriously engage the potentials of digital design and biotechnologies in reinvent the boundaries of the natural and the artificial or man-made in contemporary cities.”

Along with the gardens, the architects are also adding algae directly into building facades and roofs. Their obsession with algae stems from the fact that the microorganism can not only provide food and other products, but it can also clean the air more efficiently than plants and trees. By their estimates, a typical 10,000-square foot roof on a commercial building covered in algae could produce as much oxygen as around 10 acres of woods.

“Algae are 10 times more efficient as photosynthetic machines than large trees,” Poletto explains. “Since cities are dense and polluted, we need to harvest that power. A park full of large trees is not enough to oxygenate and feed the surrounding buildings, but the same area full of algae would be 10 times more capable.”


Their latest project, a fully algae-covered building that can be harvested to make algae ice cream, will be on exhibit at next year’s Expo Milano.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.