What would it take for Brooklyn to be food self-sufficient?

Reading time: Approximately 3 minutes

If anything underscores the importance of local food production, it’s this summer’s brutal drought in the Midwest.

At its core, resiliency is about redundancy. It’s about creating smaller, more local, more resilient alternatives to take up the slack for huge, centralized systems – in this case our food production/delivery systems – when they break.

Local food production provides this redundancy, and it’s catching on in a big way. Whether it’s front yard vegetable gardens, new innovations such as aquaponics systems, or rooftop gardens, the experimentation that is happening to build more redundant and resilient food systems is encouraging.

Brooklyn Grange is one of the innovators doing something about it and has developed a really cool rooftop farm in Queens.

And now Bright Farms Inc., an organization that designs, finances and manages hydroponic greenhouse farms is beginning construction on another rooftop farm (the world’s largest) which starts construction in the fall.

The farm will be located atop an old warehouse in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park area and will span more than 100,000 square feet. The developers claim it will be able to produce up to 1 million pounds of produce per year – enough to help meet the vegetable consumption needs of 5000 New Yorkers.

So, here’s a little thought experiment…

One of the biggest criticisms of organic farming and the local food movement is that they can’t really scale to big population centers. In other words, healthy organic fruits and vegetables are great for Birkenstock-wearing, Subaru driving bobos — but are simply not a practical solution for the rest of us.

But is that really true?

If a 100,000 square foot farm can “help meet” the vegetable consumption needs of 5000 people in Sunset Park Brooklyn, what would it take to make ALL of Brooklyn more food self-sufficient?

I’m not suggesting completely self-sufficient here… That would be another order of magnitude, and in any case since Bright Farms doesn’t really define what it means to “help meet” the vegetable needs of 5000 New Yorkers, it’s hard to know how much food they are really talking about.

But a “back of the napkin” analysis on increasing Brooklyn’s food self-sufficiency is still very interesting…

First, in terms of population, Brooklyn NY would be the fourth largest city in the United States, were it an independent municipality. With 2.5 million residents, and an area of roughly 71 square miles, that breaks down to about 35,461 residents per square mile. That’s pretty dense.

Bright Farms estimates that it’s rooftop farm can help meet the vegetable needs of 5000 people. Keeping it simple, that’s roughly one seventh of the Brooklyn residents in any given square mile.

And they claim they can do this with a rooftop farm that is just a little more than 2 acres (100,000 square feet).

To get a rough visual idea of what this looks like, here’s a square mile (yellow), one seventh of a square mile (red) and a 2 acre lot (blue) mapped out in Sunset Park on Google Earth.

Brooklyn would basically need 7 of these two acre blue lots (14 acres) per square mile to help meet the vegetable needs of its 2.5 million residents.

Or… Looked at another way, you’d need to devote roughly one thousand acres to food production in Brooklyn (14 acres per square mile * 71 square miles).

Remember, Brooklyn is one of the most population dense cities in the U.S., so where would they find the land?

Well, here’s a start… The areas outlined in yellow below make up golf courses, city parks, and other open spaces. I’ve tried to leave out cemeteries, military bases, airports, etc.

Prospect Park (the yellow highlighted area just to the left of the Brooklyn marker) is 585 acres alone.

Marine Park, on the bottom right hand side near Barren Island, is another 800 acres including 530 acres of grassland.

The other highlighted areas, as well as the thousands of smaller green nooks and crannies in Brooklyn neighborhoods would surely add up to hundreds of acres of additional land that could be converted to food production.

Obviously, this is simplistic, and taking parks and golf courses and turning them into urban farms would be controversial… That is, until a real food crisis hits.

But as a thought experiment, it’s interesting…

The point is that even in super-dense cities like Brooklyn, there is still plenty of potential land-mass for local food production.

As our centralized infrastructure for growing, transporting and storing food becomes more prone to instability and disruption, I predict we’ll see more projects like Bright Farm and more local land reclaimed for food production.

If it can be done in Brooklyn, it can be done almost anywhere.



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