Britta Riley

"What I tell them is that in New York, the landscape is the people."

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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

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