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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Roof Agriculture – An Old Concept Comes to Boston in a New Form

January 31, 2012 |

This is a guest post from John Stoddard, a Founding Farmer of Higher Ground Farm in Boston. Higher Ground is currently seeking a 25,000+ square foot roof space for a farm.

Can you hear mooing coming from the Common? Listen closely: it’s distant. Like 200 years in the past distant, but it’s there – part of the spirit of Boston. It’s easy to forget in our modern local foods movement that urban agriculture is not a new idea.  Yes, dairy cows and sheep once grazed the Boston Common, and the victory gardens of the first and second World Wars were successful in producing millions of pounds of food.

John Stoddard, Founding Farmer of Higher Ground Farm in Boston

What is new are the reasons behind this movement. We’ve had sixty years of industrial agriculture, and we are facing an obesity epidemic, soil infertility, agricultural pollution, food deserts, and some bad tasting food.  With a push towards sustainable, climate-friendly development, communities are looking to urban agriculture to reduce carbon emissions, while increasing access to healthy foods.

In Boston, the Mayor has tasked a new Director of Food Initiatives, Edith Murnane, with increasing urban agriculture opportunities in the city. Murnane and the Boston Redevelopment Association recently launched a rezoning initiative that makes commercial agriculture operations legal in the city. Because of this we should begin to see more Boston farms sprouting up and more associated businesses, such as processors, which is exciting news for the economy, the earth, and our stomachs alike.

The rezoning initiative is great news for Boston farmers, but we are still talking about urban land, and the price of urban land is high – today’s vacant lot could become high-priced real estate a few years down the road. An urban farm that has taken up residence in a vacant lot might be threatened if a housing or retail development is proposed. So in order to build a sustainable urban agriculture infrastructure we need diversity. Much like diversity in the field ensures the overall success of a farm, a diversity of urban farming types, approaches, and locations will ensure the success of urban agriculture.

One obvious untapped resource can be found on higher ground – on Boston’s rooftops.

The Greater Boston area has thousands of acres of unused roof space. Roof space is distinct from ground-level space as urban farmland because there is a lot of it, and because there are very few competing uses. Roof farms are also ideal because they provide many other ecosystem benefits.

A roof farm is a type of green roof. A green roof is a system of layers that is laid over an existing roof. A green roof is beneficial to a building owner and the community because it protects the existing roof, doubling to tripling its life, thereby saving money and keeping materials out of the landfill. Green roofs also reduce a building’s energy costs by insulating in the winter and cooling the rooftop in the summer. Combine these benefits with green roofs’ ability to temper the effects of two common urban environmental problems – combined sewer overflow and the urban heat island effect – and you have a waste-eliminating, resource-protecting, CO2-reducing, food-producing powerhouse of a concept.

A network of roof farms throughout the city will capitalize on the environmental benefits of green roofs while also increasing access to fresh, healthy food. Roof farms utilize unused space, while providing additional revenue to a building owner. As a founding farmer of Boston’s first roof farm business, Higher Ground Farm, I envision roof farms as a job-producing boost to the economy, and as a completely green business sector that can set Boston apart from other cities. We can utilize the resources of our top-notch universities to study roof agriculture, and make Boston a leader in the field. Not only that, but roof farms can be a place where our community reconnects to productive green space and learns about sustainable city planning.

As the vision of a modern sustainable city becomes clear, let’s actively plan for and incentivize roof agriculture. Let’s start building new buildings in anticipation of roof farming – ensuring that structural integrity, access, and safety are addressed from the beginning. Should we follow in the footsteps of Berlin, Chicago, or Toronto by requiring new commercial buildings of a certain size to include green roofs in their plans? Maybe we build off Boston’s new LEED requirements for large-scale construction projects. The city could provide tax incentives that recognize the services green roofs provide to our communities (Boston is one of the few major cities in the nation that does not do this). We could also include green roofs as an approved energy-saving technology eligible for cost-sharing under the utilities’ incentive programs. If you build it we will farm.

Providing these incentives for Boston building owners/developers will help roof farms proliferate, and will significantly improve the city’s ability to provide food for itself. A 2010 Ohio State University study showed that by utilizing a diversity of urban farming techniques, the city of Cleveland could provide between 42-100 percent of the fresh produce it needs, 94 percent of the poultry and eggs, and all of the honey.  This means that up to $115 million that could stay in the local economy that currently is sent every year to agricultural regions from California to Chile.

Similarly, a Columbia University study found that there is significant potential for urban agriculture to contribute to food security in New York City (which, by the way, already has over two acres of rooftop farm space – Go Sox!). These are exciting findings, and why wouldn’t we tap this potential? In a world facing an uncertain future regarding oil supplies, let’s move away from an oil-based food system and towards a healthy, sustainable, food-secure system.

In re-imagining our food system as a key component of an environmentally sustainable human society, let’s draw from our agricultural past while placing it in a modern context. Localized organic food production on rooftops, in empty warehouses, in freight containers, and in vacant lots has great potential to increase the availability of fresh healthy food, while benefitting the ecosystem and reconnecting urban populations to where food comes from. So while we probably will not see a ruminant resurgence in the Boston Common, we might begin to hear chickens clucking and bees buzzing from our rooftops.  Let’s plant the seeds now for our food future by investing in roof agriculture.

For more information visit or contact John at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

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