Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District in Shanghai is an experiment in increasing food production for a growing population living in a city faced with sky high property prices.

Images by Sasaki

With 24 mil people in Shanghai, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. The need for more agricultural land to produce food is compounded by increasing urbanization and soil pollution (200,000 sq kms of land is estimated to be polluted). As a result, it has become an urgent priority for Shanghai to find an alternative solution.

Ever the progressive city, Shanghai has made a persistent effort to safeguard both food and farmers by taking control of local production and distribution while preserving farmland within city limits. This system creates efficiencies, reduces costs, and protects the traditional lifeblood of local farmers.

Vertical farms are not something new. It’s being practised in the West and even in Singapore. What’s different in Shanghai’s case is the integration of vertical farming systems with research and public outreach. This results in a dynamic living laboratory that is both interactive and socially-engaging. Kids learn where their food comes from.

Located between Shanghai’s main international airport and the city center, the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District is slated to begin construction in late 2017. The design firm, Sasaki, is of the opinion the 100-ha site is an ideal location, firstly to retain food production within the city limits and secondly, vertical farms are an antidote to the sky-high prices of property in Shanghai. Building upwards uses up less land and allows traditional small scale localized farms to continue operating.

“Even more significant is the Shanghainese diet, which typically consists of up to 56% leafy greens. Think spinach, lettuce, kale, arugula, mustard greens, bok choi, watercress, etc. Leafy greens are also an excellent choice for hydroponic and aquaponics growing systems. They thrive in the simplest of setups, and don’t need a lot of extra attention. They grow quickly and weigh little, both of which make them an economical and efficient option.”

This approach actively supports a more sustainable local food network while increasing the quality of life in the city through a community program of restaurants, markets, a culinary academy, and pick-your-own experiences.

Sunqiao seeks to prove that ‘you can have your kale and eat it too’.


China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. Its agricultural sector represents approximately 13% of China’s total Gross Domestic Product compared to the US’ 5.7%.

Agriculture in China is also responsible for feeding 20% of the world’s population and employing 22% of Chinese citizens.

In recent decades, China’s focus on agricultural protection policies have contributed to significant reductions in poverty and increasing food security. New industries that benefit from access to agriculture— biotech, textiles, etc. —are thriving and contributing to China’s economic growth.

National-level investments in agriculture through modernization and mechanization are also compensating for the overall reduction in arable land. Traditional agriculture especially small farms, however, faces increasing challenges in the form of increasing pressure on natural resources such as water shortages, deforestation, soil pollution, and various inefficiencies.

Vertical farms are an experiment that the government hopes will work.

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