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For the majority of my life in New York City, the words “urban agriculture” meant nothing more than a collection of chipped ceramic pots clustered together on a fire escape. I spent years tending to (then ignoring) those pots, which housed a variety of struggling herbs. Wilting basil, dried-out Italian parsley and undernourished lavender — I had it all.
I heard rumors of New Yorkers with flourishing vegetable gardens in their backyards, but I personally knew of no such folks and even if I did, nothing said they would be willing to share. Each week I tried to hit my local green market, filled with food grown in upstate New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but when I missed it, I hung my head in shame and continued to buy my overpriced — and often imported — organic produce from Whole Foods and the like.
I looked for better options for fresh, superlocal organic fruits and veggies, but unless the city volunteered to give up part of Central or Prospect Park for farming, my city simply didn’t have the space. Until somebody smart looked up.
Thinking outside the boxNew York City may lack wide-open spaces, but it’s rich in rooftops. Every building has one. And most of those do nothing more than bake in the summer sun and freeze in the icy winters. Sure, rooftops serve a basic function — to keep the elements from raining down upon a building’s inhabitants and to help maintain the structural integrity of the edifice — but what if roofs were multifunctional?
Recognizing the unexpected potential of untouched rooftops is how Lisa Goode makes her living. She and her partners (including her husband Chris) are experts at turning unfinished black rooftops into green oases. And though her company, Goode Green, focused on green roof design and installation of the nonedible variety, she and Chris had been growing their own food for four years and were nurturing a growing interest in urban farming.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Ben Flanner, a former E-Trade marketing manager looking to get into the NYC farming scene. Flanner reached out to Goode Greene and they then connected him with Annie Novak, a seasoned farmer and gardener who had worked with the New York Botanical Garden and throughout the green market system. They secured the rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (the top of Broadway Stages, a stage and lighting company), and Rooftop Farms was just 200,000 pounds of soil away from being born.
The 6,000-square-foot farm — which grew more than 30 different crops in its first season — satisfies Novak’s desire to bring people closer to the source of the food they eat. “Food comes from not only a plant, but a place,” Novak explains. “The food system in America is about packaging, and I’m interested in food that comes from the source with no packaging, where its value is its face value. We’ve lost the sense that good, nutritious food doesn’t have to come in a box. And the more we connect to our food, the more likely we are to become true environmentalists. We’ll understand that food that’s healthy for our bodies is also protecting our watershed and our air.”
The foundation of Rooftop Farms (the plural is aspirational) — six inches of lightweight soil made from clay and expanded shale — was hoisted to the roof with cranes and has resulted in some serious produce. “The plants have done really well, and that was a huge surprise considering the shallow soil, windy conditions and full sun,” Novak says. The farm produced a serious bounty, including a variety of salad greens, radishes, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplants, with an emphasis on heirloom varieties that are usually too fragile to be shipped to other locations — a key benefit of eating local. The produce is sold to an internal farm (“it’s great when you see where things are grown,” Novak says) as well as to a handful of local Brooklyn restaurants. The winter lineup includes kale as well as mini pumpkins and small squash — the diminutive versions are chosen because Flanner makes all of the farm’s deliveries by bicycle.
Added benefitsRooftop farming brings urbanites closer to the food they eat and, when executed correctly, it can also address some of a city’s most pressing eco-challenges. “I had never done a project on a roof and the idea really excited me,” says Novak. “It’s a whole new angle on environmentalism.”
This new approach to tackling eco-issues has already proven effective in two key areas: decreasing storm water runoff and reducing cooling costs. Rooftop farms and other green roofs help to reduce combined sewer overflow, or CSO, which is water pollution that occurs after soggy weather like big rainfalls or snowmelts.
According to Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.), a coalition dedicated to ensuring sustainable storm water management throughout New York City, each year 27 billion gallons of wastewater is dumped into area creeks, rivers and bays during wet weather — including 2 billion gallons of raw, untreated sewage. “One of the main benefits of green roofs is that it captures storm water,” Goode explains. “The six inches of soil takes in two inches of rainfall — with this one building we’re almost stopping all the rainwater that would run off it.”
And though uninitiated building owners may be wary of allowing hundreds of thousands of pounds of soil to settle on their roofs, they will find that the personal benefits of a rooftop farm transcend fresh produce (which is already a pretty fabulous perk). In addition to decreasing CSO, the farms can also help lower cooling costs. “The captured water cools buildings by creating a blanket of moisture,” Goode explains. “Heat rises and then the water evaporates, which in turn feeds the plants.”
Rooftop Farms has real plans for the future. Novak and Flanner, along with Goode Green, hope to realize the “s” at the end of Farms, but meanwhile they’re focusing on what Goode calls “the educational aspect of teaching people to farm.” Currently, Novak and Flanner host numerous volunteers at the farm and offer free workshops. Thirty people showed up for the course on how to pot a plant, says Goode. And while it’s tempting to slot rooftop farming into the ever-expanding bag of urban trends, the minds — and hands — behind the farm are anything but fleeting. “I don’t see rooftop farms as a fad,” Novak says. “It’s something I’m very interested in establishing as a permanent movement in New York City.”
For more on Rooftop Farms visit, RooftopFarms.org.
Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.