From cubicle to crops: the rise of the urban farm 

Maybe office buildings won’t be as useless as feared


In a bid to repurpose deserted office spaces and address the growing demand for locally grown food, innovative farmers are transforming such moribund properties into urban farms across various cities in the U.S. and Canada, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Jackie Potter and Tyler Baras in Arlington, Virginia, co-founders of Area 2 Farms, determined there was a need to find new uses for unoccupied spaces as the municipality’s office vacancy rates reached nearly 24 percent in the first quarter of 2023.

The Covid-19 pandemic had driven workers out of offices three years ago, and although some have returned, many buildings remain largely deserted. 

Data from 10 major cities indicates that office usage rates reached just over 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels in late January, and this growth has stalled in recent months. It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of office space across the U.S. is currently empty, and projections suggest that over 300 million square feet of office space could become obsolete by 2030, as the pandemic has proven that remote work is viable and favored by many.

To tackle the issue of underutilized office buildings, several cities, including New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia, are considering converting those spaces into apartments or farms. 

While transforming offices into residential spaces can be costly due to layout differences, repurposing them into farms presents a more feasible option.

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Area 2 Farms introduced Silo, a multilevel conveyor belt system that mimics a plant’s natural circadian rhythm. Silo requires no major modifications to the existing building and significantly reduces labor, making it an appealing option for urban farming in office spaces.

Similarly, AgriPlay Ventures in Calgary, Alberta, has transformed part of the underutilized Calgary Tower Center into one of Canada’s largest indoor urban farms. 

AgriPlay’s president, Dan Houston, views office buildings as ideal locations for farming due to their existing infrastructure, such as air conditioning, heating, and ventilation. Their scalable installation model utilizes artificial intelligence to operate custom, plug-and-play modular growth systems, making it accessible to potential landlords without prior farming knowledge.

Vertical farming, as demonstrated by these projects, can yield as much produce as traditional methods in urban areas while using significantly less energy and water. It also offers consistent, year-round production without being vulnerable to climate or pest-related uncertainties.

By repurposing empty office spaces into farms, these projects aim to address food insecurity in some areas while also providing a sustainable solution to the struggling commercial real estate sector. In addition to the economic benefits, these initiatives create new green jobs, beautify spaces, and offer fresh produce to local communities, reshaping urban centers in the process.

— Ted Glanzer