Britta Riley

Win­dow­farms are ver­ti­cal hydro­pon­ic gar­dens, a way of grow­ing with­out using any dirt. 
Please tell us what you do.

I’m the founder of the Win­dow­farms project, which is a way of mak­ing it pos­si­ble for peo­ple to grow some of their own food in cities, year round. What we are doing is tak­ing advan­tage of exist­ing infra­struc­ture, and resources, and turn­ing them into a viable way of grow­ing food. We think it is real­ly impor­tant that every­one be able to grow some of their own food them­selves, not just vote with their con­sumer dol­lars, for exam­ple, by buy­ing pro­duce that has been grown respon­si­bly.

But we think it is pret­ty amaz­ing when peo­ple go through the process of actu­al­ly grow­ing some­thing that they are going to eat from seed through har­vest because they get to under­stand all of those very com­pli­cat­ed sets of prob­lems that farm­ers at the big indus­tri­al scale face. So it gives a lot more depth and mean­ing to those oth­er deci­sions that they make in their lives.

Win­dow­farms them­selves are ver­ti­cal hydro­pon­ic gar­dens. Hydro­pon­ics is a way of grow­ing with­out using any dirt. When NASA is try­ing to grow food on a space sta­tion, so they don’t have to haul food into space all the time, they’re using hydro­pon­ics. It is very space effi­cient and you can get a lot more nutri­tion­al val­ue out of good plants in a very small space.


A hydro­pon­ic gar­den in a win­dow.


So it’s essen­tial­ly a liq­uid soil, it’s called a hydro­pon­ic nutri­ent solu­tion, and a pump on a timer runs some of this liq­uid nutri­ent over a plant’s roots that are sus­pend­ed in a kind of mix of clay pel­lets. And the plants are actu­al­ly able to grow slight­ly dif­fer­ent­ly and real­ly take up a lot of the­se nutri­ents. What we have done at Win­dow­farms is to re-engi­neer hydro­pon­ics for the typ­i­cal con­di­tions that you find in a city, where we don’t have room for dirt.

You actu­al­ly need a lot of dirt to grow food plants, so we’ve tak­en hydro­pon­ics and made them ver­ti­cal, to use the exist­ing win­dow space that has light com­ing in, at least some nat­u­ral light pret­ty much year round, and then you can sup­ple­ment the plant’s light to grow. It also takes advan­tage of the fact that our apart­ments and our stores and schools are all heat­ed dur­ing the extreme win­ter months; it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to grow out­side dur­ing the school year, out­side gar­dens are get­ting snow dumped on them, so it’s one of the ways you can actu­al­ly take advan­tage of exist­ing con­di­tions but still inte­grate some agri­cul­ture into your every­day life.

What makes New York City livable for you?

I’m from Tex­as, I grew up on a ranch. When I go home peo­ple say how can you live in that crazy city – it’s so messy and loud. And you have this beau­ti­ful land­scape where you grew up. What I tell them is that in New York, the land­scape is the peo­ple. There’s this huge diver­si­ty of peo­ple from all dif­fer­ent walks of life and you actu­al­ly inter­act with one anoth­er and that can be pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ing.

I think peo­ple in New York have been inter­act­ing with one anoth­er at the­se very deep lev­els for a long time, so they’ve got­ten pret­ty good at it. It’s a lot eas­ier to make col­lab­o­ra­tions hap­pen in New York — because I can rec­og­nize that you need some­thing and that you’ve got cer­tain con­straints – and I can kind of come up with a good pro­pos­al for you for how to make that work out for you but at the same time make it a ben­e­fit for me. And I think that that’s a real­ly chal­leng­ing social skill that you just don’t find all over the world and peo­ple here in New York are real­ly good at it.

We are tak­ing advan­tage of exist­ing infra­struc­ture, and resources, and turn­ing them into a viable way of grow­ing food. 
Are you working on any projects right now that might be interesting to talk about?

Yeah…behind Win­dow­farms them­selves is actu­al­ly what is called an open mass col­lab­o­ra­tion. So it’s sim­i­lar to open source soft­ware where you have a lot of com­put­er pro­gram­mers all over the world, you know work­ing togeth­er to make some­thing that can run up again­st a Microsoft pro­duct.  We are doing the same thing but with phys­i­cal, mechan­i­cal sys­tems.

Win­dow­farms look sim­ple but there are some pret­ty com­pli­cat­ed sys­tems run­ning them. We make the designs avail­able online, and so we now have 19,000 peo­ple on our web­site, all around the world, who have been col­lab­o­rat­ing. They are col­lab­o­rat­ing both on the phys­i­cal design of the sys­tems and to make them more ener­gy effi­cient. That some­times that involves the mechan­ics of the pumps, or just refin­ing some of the con­di­tions of the sys­tem, because we’re essen­tial­ly medi­at­ing between the need of the human being who is liv­ing in the space and the needs of the plant for opti­mal growth. And also, the envi­ron­men­tal impact. So we want to make sure that we are using mate­ri­als that are not going to be con­tribut­ing to exist­ing envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems.

One front that’s going on – there’s a lot of research in our com­mu­ni­ty about being able to make some of our own hydro­pon­ic nutri­ents. One of the large com­po­nents of hydro­pon­ic nutri­ents is essen­tial­ly a liq­ue­fied com­post – but – ah – that com­post kind of depends upon what you ate. It’s not pre­dictable what is going to be inside it, and the degree to which that will be real­ly great for the plants. So we’re work­ing with some friends who have a bunch of dif­fer­ent kinds of sen­sors and sen­sor net­works to be able to have our com­mu­ni­ty start test­ing their com­post to see whether or not whether that batch is going to be good for their Win­dow­farms plants or not. So if we can start gen­er­at­ing anoth­er aspect of the process local­ly rather than hav­ing to buy organ­ic nutri­ents from sources in Cal­i­for­nia or oth­er places around the world.

What would you like to see happen in New York City in the next 10 years?

I would like to see the actu­al peo­ple, cit­i­zens, be able to become a lot more involved in the process of green­ing our city. I think at this point, there are a lot of edu­ca­tion­al things going on, but they often boil down to telling peo­ple to change out their light bulbs, and I think that that does not do enough to har­ness the enthu­si­asm that peo­ple have. There are so many kids at this point who are get­ting edu­cat­ed about envi­ron­men­tal stuff from an ear­ly age, but the fact is that we’re still all rely­ing upon trained spe­cial­ists who have gone through decades worth of edu­ca­tion to solve the prob­lem for all of us — and then they’re sup­posed to some­how know all of the vari­ables that we have in our lives, and take this big infra­struc­ture, top-down approach to solv­ing our prob­lems.

I think we need to be take advan­tage of the exist­ing resources, the exist­ing build­ings we have, the exist­ing mate­ri­als and we need to be har­ness­ing the ‘on the ground,’ in the streets ideas that peo­ple are com­ing up with. Right now there are a lot of bar­ri­ers to entry to that. There are a lot of restric­tions, like build­ing code issues and so forth, that real­ly ham­per a lot of that pro­gress — as well as fund­ing issues. Find­ing the small­er, neigh­bor­hood, local efforts to take advan­tage of what we have around us – that’s what I would like to see.

So describe a happy day for you in New York City and what you would do, and where you would go?

Ok, a hap­py day.

On a gorgeous summer day, where would you want to go in New York?

Mmm. Well prob­a­bly to the beach.
Um, yeah. I real­ly, real­ly love going out to the beach­es in Queens, and I love rid­ing bikes out there. And stop­ping along the way, cause, its you know, it’s a lit­tle bit of a trek to get out there, and if you stop at a restau­rant or pick things up along the way — I’ve found all kinds new restau­rants that I nev­er in a mil­lion years would have gone to. Or some eth­nic­i­ty whose food I have nev­er tast­ed before, way out on a road that I nev­er trav­eled down.

One of my favorite things to do in New York, is, hon­est­ly, rid­ing bikes. Espe­cial­ly dur­ing the win­ter or when it starts get­ting cold out, you can end up being inside a lot of the time. You’re inside at work, you’re inside at home, you get on the sub­way, which is kind of inside as well and you kind of have lim­it­ed options about what path you can take. But rid­ing a bike lets me see more of the neigh­bor­hood. Every bike ride that I take, I always have new ideas — “Oh we should, you know, talk to that per­son about col­lab­o­rat­ing on this or that,” And it keeps you in touch with what is going on around you.

Where in Queens are the beaches?

Oh, like, Fort Tildon, and, um, let’s see. Reese. Yes. Rock­aways. Yeah. That’s what that whole piece is called.
I’m not a part of the surf com­mu­ni­ty, I wish I were, but I am not that cool. (Laugh­ter)

Being a good part­ner means that you have to be will­ing to lis­ten to somebody’s needs that are very dif­fer­ent from your own. 
Why do you think it is important to educate New Yorkers about the environment?

I think at this point, there’s a lot of very gen­er­al enthu­si­asm about it — it might not nec­es­sar­i­ly be about some of the big­ger and deep­er envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems like cli­mate change, that are pret­ty far away from people’s every­day lives — but I think peo­ple real­ly have a very deep long­ing for nature a lot of times, that real­ly man­i­fests more along the lines of being so excit­ed about spend­ing time in green spaces for exam­ple. So we need to bridge that gap and have peo­ple able to see some of that big­ger pic­ture by dis­cov­er­ing it for them­selves.

And that’s a very tricky thing to do. The chal­lenge of com­mu­ni­cat­ing what ‘organ­ic’ means and why one should buy that, that is a very deep set of agri­cul­tur­al issues that are so far away from people’s every­day lives and we can — quote — edu­cate peo­ple by putting all this infor­ma­tion out there about it, but it’s still, it’s nev­er going to make sense unless they get their hands into it. Then they have a per­son­al rea­son for want­i­ng to ask a ques­tion about it.

Hav­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties where peo­ple can actu­al­ly do some­thing them­selves, and hav­ing it inte­grat­ed in their own lives with some sort of incen­tive like mak­ing a per­son­al­ized green space or — there are so many peo­ple that get excit­ed about aquapon­ics for exam­ple, which is grow­ing your own food where it is kind of attached to a fish tank. And that’s where they learn those very, very deep lessons that all of us used to know about when we all did our own gar­den­ing.

It was obvi­ous that nutri­tion was all about the soil that your plant was grow­ing in when we all gar­dened. But we’ve got­ten so removed from a lot of that, that again, I think it’s all going to be about giv­ing ordi­nary peo­ple access to do exper­i­ments them­selves, that’s when we will real­ly see the sea change. And we’ll have a new gen­er­a­tion of kids com­ing up who we’re not hav­ing to cram ideas of organ­ic food into their heads, they’re actu­al­ly pulling the­se ideas out because of their own inter­est.

What is best about New York City’s lifestyle, and what would you most like to see changed?

I think it’s real­ly all about mon­ey in New York. In New York there are — as in any city — big eco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences between pop­u­la­tions. It’s dif­fi­cult for some­body who is out­side of that com­mu­ni­ty to get in and take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ties because they’re not tied into those social net­works.

And, you know, in a city as big as New York City where there are so many dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple we rely very heav­i­ly on our trust net­works, so it’s like, once you’re in a par­tic­u­lar cir­cle, you end up meet­ing, hir­ing, and inter­act­ing every day, day in and day out with the same groups of peo­ple. So I think that what real­ly needs to change is that we need to have the abil­i­ty to estab­lish trust between dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, to real­ly evolve. And I think that is all about part­ner­ing — being a part­ner.

And being a good part­ner means that you have to be will­ing to lis­ten to somebody’s needs that are very dif­fer­ent from your own, and you have to be will­ing to come up with a pro­pos­al and to then nego­ti­ate it. And we need to get a lit­tle bit bet­ter at that. At the whole process of, of just going back and forth with one anoth­er. And say­ing I pro­pose this, and then you com­ing back to me and say­ing you need to tweak it a lit­tle bit and get­ting to where we can actu­al­ly make things work togeth­er, instead of every­body kind of hav­ing to do every­thing on their own. There is so much re-invent­ing of the wheel that hap­pens and I think that once we get to the point where we can be bet­ter part­ners and we can do bet­ter col­lab­o­ra­tions, hope­ful­ly a lot of that insu­lar­i­ty goes away. Hope­ful­ly our abil­i­ty to real­ly bridge com­mu­ni­ties and find peo­ple we can trust, in com­mu­ni­ties that are out­side of our own, will become a lot more of a smooth process.


pho­tos: Mau­reen Dren­nan

For more about Win­dow­farms: www​.win​dow​farms​.org