Rooftop gardens have been around at least since 6,000 B.C. and thrive all over the world. The benefits of growing in the sky for city dwellers are many: better air, cooler buildings, and the intangible but potent psychological boost of having green space as close as the last stop on the elevator.
And as the urban agriculture movement ramps up, urban farmers are increasingly looking upward for new spaces to grow. City land, after all, is notoriously expensive.
But there’s a steep learning curve involved in creating a viable rooftop farm any bigger than a few potted tomato plants or herbs.
“You’re looking at the liability and insurance risk of having people on a rooftop, and then you’ve got to make sure it’s structurally sound enough to withstand the extra soil weight for production,” Angie Mason, director of urban ag for the Chicago Botanic Garden, told NPR. “And you’ve got to make sure that you’re training people so that they aren’t compromising the rooftop membrane.”
For urban farmers, clever space utilization is key, especially in a major city like Washington D.C., where planners estimate there will be a need for 200 million square feet of new housing by 2040. Using rooftops can change the game and offer major ecological benefits along with fresh local food. Rooftop Roots is a team of D.C. locals who have been working for five years to scale up rooftop growing in their city and supply local food banks with the harvest. Seedstock spoke to executive director Thomas Schneider about how it’s done.
Seedstock: I understand that Rooftop Roots was born in a conversation between you and Christian Patrizia, your marketing director whilst hanging out on a roof. How long between that conversation and the first seed getting planted? What were some of the first steps?
Thomas Schneider: Gosh, the idea came up on July 3, 2010. I started thinking about it more and more, trying to figure out how to make it work, and asking random people I met what they thought about the idea. That fall, we came up with the name and the concept, and that winter we started reaching out to folks in the non-profit arena to figure out where to get started.
Europe, and Scandinavia in particular, are often front-runners of sustainable innovation and environmental consciousness. However, Livia Urban Swart Haaland, one of the founders of the Copenhagen urban farm ØsterGRO, took inspiration from the world’s largest urban farm, Brooklyn Grange, in New York City.
After visiting Brooklyn Grange, Haaland returned to Denmark. In the spring of 2014, she launched an urban farm and community supported agriculture program (CSA) atop a former auction house for cars in Copenhagen’s Østerbro neighborhood. Kristian Skaarup and Sofie Brincker joined Haaland in the endeavor.
Excerpt: Westchester is among of the wealthiest counties in the country, but with 200,000 residents at risk of hunger, a food bank is seeking local produce.
by Rose Egelhoff
Urban Pastoral, a new rooftop farming company spearheaded by entrepreneur J.J. Reidy, is starting operations in Baltimore. The “first commercial scale hydroponic farm” in Baltimore will use media-based vertical growing systems to provide greens and culinary herbs to food service contractor Bon Appétit, as well as to participate in the Baltimore Food Hub.
After college, Reidy found his way into the world of Internet startups at LivingSocial. There, he says, “I began to think about building my dream.”
Reading about the emerging urban agriculture movement and thinking about his life-long passion for food and gardening, Reidy realized “that this was exactly what I wanted to do… instead of building Twitter and Facebook apps, solving problems that actually matter for our society.”
by Rose Egelhoff
Something’s growing atop D.C. restaurant Oyamel. Seedlings poke young leaves out of four inches of soil. The new green roof, which opened in May, is part of Up Top Acres, a network of rooftop farms.
Up Top Acres, founded by Kathleen O’Keefe, Kristof Grina and Jeffrey Prost-Greene, installs and farms green roofs around the city. They hope to partner with D.C. restaurants to offer fresh, local produce. At the same time, their green roofs provide energy savings and stormwater retention for the buildings where they are located, and the farms can be community centers for education and events.
by Hariette Halepis
When construction is completed later this summer on top of a two-story building in downtown St. Louis, Food Roof Farm will be the first of its kind in the city.
The project is being spearheaded by Mary Ostafi, a former architect with big dreams for this mid-sized city.
Ostafi is behind the city’s already bustling Urban Harvest, a sprawling downtown community garden space, and has spent the past year planning and creating the new rooftop farm space. Her work to connect city residents with their food has been inspired by other rooftop gardens throughout the world, and from a more personal source: her grandfather’s backyard Chicago garden that she often frequented as a child.
Since space in most cities is scarce, rooftop farming has become an increasingly important piece of the urban agriculture puzzle. While most cities do not have much open land, empty rooftops abound, making green roofs (used for farming or otherwise) an obvious choice for filling this underutilized space.
According to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities’ 2013 Green Roof Industry Survey, the green roof and wall industry experienced a 10 percent growth rate in 2013. While 10 percent may sound nominal, 2,164,926 square feet of green roofs were installed in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area alone within that one year period.
Though this growth is encouraging, it has also been slow coming. The benefits of green roofs have been undisputed for several decades, but the industry itself is perceived by many as still being in its infancy.