A Nonprofit Farms Rooftops of Nation’s Capital with Triple Bottom Line in Mind
May 3, 2018 | Trish Popovitch
Located in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Rooftop Roots is a social enterprise taking the restrictive needs of a city littered with zoning laws and height restrictions as a challenge worth going vertical for. Designing, installing and maintaining custom gardens on rooftops, and creating community gardens across the city, Rooftop Roots is helping to build the conversation on how the nation’s capital utilizes its green spaces.
“We’re a nonprofit landscaping company but instead of mowing lawns we build gardens and maintain gardens for residential, commercial and community partners,” says Thomas Schneider, Executive Director of nonprofit Rooftop Roots.
After discovering their dream of office buildings with built up gardens on top was practically impossible to achieve with D.C.’s height restrictions, Rooftop Roots had to rethink its business plan. “We won’t only put gardens on roofs but we’ll put gardens in every nook and cranny and urban landscape we possibly can,” says Schneider.
Schneider wants to keep the company firmly positioned on the three legs of the sustainable business model and navigate the organization through the triple bottom line approach popular among urban agriculture startups. “We’ve always held true to the three pillars of sustainability. The idea is to a. provide jobs; b. increasing produce for communities in need and then c. increasing ecologically productive roof cities,” says Schneider.
By providing custom gardening services and using the monies earned to fund community garden projects in underserved communities, Schneider hopes to spread the cause for urban soil and educate people on the importance of and the logistics involved in growing their own food.
Rooftop Roots, which was founded in 2011, enjoys a growing client base. “We haven’t even kicked it into full gear yet and we have more work than we can handle,” says Schneider. Word of mouth has served the small company well so far, but the off season will be devoted to creating a comprehensive advertising system.
Recognizing that not every green space in the cityscape is a potential vegetable garden, Rooftop Roots also offers clients native plant installations. The hope is to encourage pollinators to populate the area and compensate for any loss of plant diversity brought upon by decades of homogenous landscaping practices, i.e. picking the same three or four plants for every professional landscape job in a given area. The native garden beds will bolster the efforts of the company’s soil remediation practices and allow the vegetable gardens to flourish.
Similar to findings on the west coast, Schneider is aware that some choose a vegetable garden installation for its trending aesthetic rather than to grow and harvest food. When this happens, food is often wasted and rots on the vine. “It happens all over. It happens here too. It’s one of our biggest challenges,” says Schneider. “It’s a huge educational effort to educate individuals. Like you’ve got to use it, it’s not going to get better; certainly a commonality for sure.” Aware of the issue, Rooftop Roots is taking steps to build out their harvesting contracts and get the food to those who will use it.
Rooftop Roots uses some of the money that it earns from creating rooftop gardens to initiate environmental literacy programs at local schools. By partnering with local social organizations, the company is able to provide educational programming on food growth and affordable cooking.
Future plans for Rooftop Roots include expanding the native plant and pollinator habitat promotion side of the business, hiring additional staff, building partnerships with local nurseries and continuing to keep the issue of local food firmly in D.C.’s sight.