From a self-sustaining Lebanese town to Montreal’s urban center, Lufa Farms‘ founder and president Mohamed Hage pushes the limits of rooftop agriculture. In his 2012 TEDx Talk, Mohamed discusses how rooftop agriculture will change the way we eat.
If the U.S. were a cupcake, and the rooftop farms and gardens dotted around the country were the sprinkles, then Brooklyn would be the cherry on top. Thank you for bearing with me on that analogy.
It’s true, though. Brooklyn currently houses several of the country’s most innovative and inspiring rooftop farms. Gotham Greens, a 15,000 square foot (0.3 acre) commercial greenhouse operation in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, leads New York City in rooftop yields. With high-end distribution channels and a solid business model, the success of this rooftop pioneer may be inspiring other entrepreneurs to follow suit. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is another critical piece of the cherry. As the country’s first rooftop row farm, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm plays an important role in building community and demonstrating farming techniques. With a picturesque backdrop, this farm is arguably Brooklyn’s “greenest” icon. Brooklyn Grange, while not actually located in Brooklyn, contributes to the local skyline network as well. Ben Flanner, founder of Brooklyn Grange, co-founded Eagle Street and then spread his seeds of knowledge to the Grange’s rooftop in Queens.
It is with this proliferation and contagious behavior that Brooklyn is booming – I mean, blooming! The New York Times reports that Gotham Greens is scheduled to open three new rooftop greenhouse operations in 2013, totalling 180,000 square feet (4.1 acres). Brooklyn Grange is also expanding, and construction of the farm’s new 45,000 square foot (1 acre) location could begin as early as spring of 2012.
Then there’s the Sunset Park Greenhouse. Brooklyn residents should expect to see this 100,000 square foot (2.3 acre) hydroponic operation atop a former Naval warehouse in the not-too-distant future. According to the New York Times, the project’s greenhouse development company, BrightFarms, anticipates that the farm will produce 1 million pounds of food per year.
With agro-icons and big projects in the pipeline, Brooklyn is hot hot hot.
In the green roofing world we recognize two types of green roofs: those built on new construction, and those built atop existing buildings. The latter is known as a “retrofit.” When considering a retrofit, a structural engineer must confirm that the building is strong enough to support a green roof, and a waterproofing representative must evaluate the roof’s existing waterproofing membrane. If all the stars align, then the retrofit is a go!
So can a retrofit green roof be retrofit with a rooftop farm? I had never considered this scenario until several weeks ago, when a repeat client of my firm, Roofmeadow, approached us with the question. We designed and built a 13,000 (0.3 acre) green roof for this client in 2007, on top of his factory in NJ. The 3″-thick green roof continues to manage stormwater and perform beautifully, but now the client is looking for more. He wants to grow food on his roof in order to sell to local restaurants and markets.
Luckily, this particular green roof will be easy to retrofit. Green roof systems contain various types of drainage layers, depending on the particular needs of each project. Some drainage layers are made of granular material, while others consist of synthetic sheeting (i.e. plastic peg sheets, egg crates, or tangled filaments). One drainage layer on the market is made out of foam scraps that are salvaged from car seat manufacturing, and bonded together to form a thick mat. In addition to managing the flow of stormwater and retaining water for plants, this multi-purpose layer can protect the waterproofing membrane from shovels and hoes when used in a rooftop farm buildup. Luckily, the green roof in question contains this type of drainage layer.
When retrofitting a green roof such as this with a row farm, the strategy would involve peeling back the top layers of the system to expose the foam drainage layer. Additional green roof media would be brought to the site and mixed with the existing media to create a deeper system. While the existing media contains a very low organic content (4%-6%), the new media would contain more organics to appease the veggies-to-be. Next would come grading, laying out irrigation lines, and planting, and then vwalah – rooftop farm.
Not every retrofit retrofit would be this simple. Nevertheless, there is always a way to figure out a solution, so go ahead and dig in.
Charlie Miller knows green roofs. As the founder of one of the oldest green roof firms in North America, Charlie is a leading force in pioneering the green roof industry in this part of the world. He is fondly regarded within the industry as the “father of green roofs” and the “green roof guru,” and is well respected by practitioners and policymakers alike.
I have the pleasure of working for Charlie at his Philadelphia-based firm, Roofmeadow (formerly Roofscapes), where scientific and philosophical discourse is commonplace. Charlie and I discussed the intricacies of rooftop agriculture last week, and here are some candid excerpts from the interview:
LM | Have you ever written a specification for rooftop agricultural soil?
CM | I have, but I don’t consider myself to be an expert. My opinion is that agriculture is a very diverse activity, and the types of media are going to be very varied depending on the project. The one size fits all perspective for rooftop agriculture is even less likely that the one size for green roofs… Religion and agriculture are both fields where subjective experience trumps science. There are too many variables.
LM | What material do you prefer to use to frame rooftop raised beds?
CM | I would go with Trex or an environmentally friendly, semi-durable material… This isn’t agriculture in the normal sense… You make material choices that are more based on aesthetics and environmental messaging.
LM | What are the most significant barriers to the success of a widespread rooftop agricultural movement in the U.S.?
CM | The same as there is to agriculture everywhere in the United States. The cost of food in the U.S. is the only commodity that has steadily decreased in absolute price for the last 100 years. The price we pay for food today is based on economies of scale and cheap labor. You don’t want an urban agricultural movement to propagate those evils into a city. You want to think that rooftop agriculture can provide a living wage and work on a human scale that provides an intimate relationship between people and their food.
Your average American has never considered growing food on a roof. Truthfully, the idea of “urban rooftop agriculture” sounds a bit far fetched, until you see it in action. These are powerful places. Their power can be seen in watching a child at a rooftop farm pick a cherry tomato for the first time, and instantly gain a new appreciation for her food. Their power can be seen when planting a rooftop farm in an urban food dessert and witnessing the ripple effect of community initiative and healthy eating.
The benefits of urban rooftop agriculture are overwhelming, and yet, building these farms requires overcoming several obstacles. With small pockets of rooftop farms and gardens scattered around the country, and some larger hotbeds, such as Greenpoint, Brooklyn in New York City, how large will this initiative grow?
Is urban rooftop agriculture a fantasy movement, or is it poised to become an integral part of the urban food system?
The rooftop agricultural movement in the U.S. is surely in its fledgling stage, but momentum is rising. Media coverage and the academic buzz highlight the growing interest in this initiative. Growers and young trend setters are taking the risk and building farms above city skylines across the country.
Rachel Carson wrote about the environmental movement in her book “Silent Spring,” before the movement had grown its own two legs on which to stand. This movement is no different. Urban rooftop agriculture will be big. It will be big because cities are expanding, rural farms are succumbing to housing developments, and people need to eat.
With a passion for productive infrastructure, Lauren Mandel works as a Project Manager and Rooftop Agriculture Specialist at the Philadelphia based green roof firm Roofmeadow (formerly Roofscapes). At Roofmeadow, Lauren designs green roofs, oversees green roof construction, and is integral to every rooftop agriculture inquiry and project that the firm encounters.
Lauren began exploring the viability of urban rooftop agriculture while in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a Master of Landscape Architecture. With six years of professional landscape architectural and green roof design experience, Lauren is in the process of refining her thoughts on rooftop agriculture in book form. If published, “Eat Up” will be the first book ever written to exclusively focus on rooftop agriculture.
In her spare time, Lauren lectures on green roofs and rooftop agriculture, and is currently assisting with the design of a potential 160,000sf rooftop farm in North Philadelphia. She also loves backpacking and extreme dog walking.