In the old days, you knew where you were: the countryside was for farms, the city was for stores and office blocks. If a city had a green space, it was designed purely for rest and relaxation—an oasis in the smoke—whether London’s royal parks (“the lungs of the city”), Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg, or Manhattan’s Central Park. The last thing you’d expect to come across in an urban center was a vegetable garden. Broccoli, lettuce, and tomatoes came wrapped in cellophane, not growing among the high-rises.
But these days, fruit and vegetable growing has never been more popular, even in the heart of cities. Now it’s chic to eulogize over the superior sweetness of just-dug carrots and trendy to know your heirloom tomatoes. Every day, more balconies are commandeered by newly enthused gardeners, inspired by the benefits of growing their own fruit and vegetables—even if it’s just a few herbs or some delectable sunwarmed tomatoes. Sitting in a deck chair, picking a perfectly ripe strawberry while looking out over a city skyline is not a bad idea of bliss.
Some people aren’t content merely to cultivate their own little piece of paradise in the sky, though; they are realizing the potential all around them on a much larger scale. Think of all those many acres of untapped flat-roof space on the top of office blocks, apartment blocks, and warehouses. In London alone there are 250 acres of flat-roof space that could grow food. A new breed of growers is intent on turning these roofs into sky farms to produce fresh fruit and vegetables for local residents, restaurants, or office workers.
Concerned about the sustainability of global farming, their aim is to grow food but also to look at cities in a new way: improving our cityscape planning so we incorporate greener, more productive spaces in the future.
Not only are these people growing fresh fruit and vegetables, but they’re also conserving rainwater, making potting mix, farming worms, and keeping bees. In Manhattan, warehouse roofs have become sky farms; in Vancouver and Chicago, restaurant roofs have been turned into verdant market gardens for the freshest food for the table. In east London, there are even plans to transform the roof of a vacant multistory parking garage into a vegetable garden using half-ton builder’s bags of soil —there are no worries about load-bearing with a structure built for cars. In St. Petersburg, Russia, residents fed up with having to travel miles to find green space are filling the roofs of their vast concrete tower blocks with crops and sharing the proceeds.
Young, environmentally aware, and decidedly urban, these city farmers are leading a food-growing revolution that more of us are joining every day. However small your own little bit of sky, these people offer inspiration for creating an edible, more sustainable oasis high above the traffic. And why just stop at food when you can be farming worms or keeping bees too? The urban buzz is truly just beginning.
Growing food in cities—why it matters
Setting up fruit and vegetable farms on city rooftops is not just a fun idea—a vanity project for privileged eco worriers—it also makes sound sense. To understand why, one has to look at global food production and the trends for the future. Many experts now believe that we cannot rely on traditional farming to provide all our food in years to come; global agricultural land is shrinking year by year, while the population continues to grow. On top of that, dwindling oil supplies threaten traditional farming methods that are reliant on fuel to cultivate their acres, fertilize their crops, and transport produce thousands of miles across the world. Intensive farming methods have also led to widespread mismanagement of the soil structure, so the topsoil is washed away, its fertility needing to be replenished artificially with oil-industryderived fertilizers. And so the cycle continues.
Throw global warming into the mix—with increasingly unpredictable global weather patterns of drought and flood—and it’s no wonder we’re less confident of our future food supply than ever before. Until the scientists can find alternative energy sources that meet our requirements, oil is going to become more expensive and food prices are likely to rise, too. Of course, a few pots of carrots are not going to make us self-sufficient, but little steps count. Planting on roofs and balconies has another environmental benefit: keeping the buildings cool in summer, reducing the damaging “urban heat island effect” and cutting down on the use of energy-guzzling air conditioning.
Conversely, in parts of the world that experience low temperatures, planting up roofs keeps the heat within buildings. Planted roofs and balconies also hold rainwater, even if temporarily, thus reducing pressure on city storm drains which can otherwise flood, forcing sewage and other pollutants into rivers and the sea. Not a bad roll call of benefits for simply planting a few fruits and vegetables.
We are at the beginning of a revolution in the way we see our cities; we are no longer content to watch empty spaces go unused while we fly in expensive, unsustainably grown crops from distant countries. People want to know where their food has come from and how it was grown. And what better way to know that than to grow it yourself?
Be a city farmer
Of course, we don’t all have a handy empty warehouse or communal apartment-house roof above our heads that is capable of carrying a 6 in. layer of soil, nor do we share the inclination to do something so ambitious, but there are elements of big projects like this that are worth applying even to a small balcony or roof terrace. You can still set up a surprisingly impressive urban garden in the sky, not only bringing plenty of delicious fresh food to the table, but also creating a more sustainable environment, saving rainwater, making potting mix, or even keeping your own bees.
When it comes to choosing crops, novice rooftop city farmers might want to concentrate on those that are particularly productive, such as kale, new potatoes, and tomatoes, and on those you can grow in succession for a rolling supply. You’ll also want to make the best use of every possible inch of growing space you have—by interplanting, underplanting, and finding other cunning ways in which you can fit in as many crops as possible. When it comes to containers, bigger is better—if you have the space, and weight restrictions allow, why not even try raised beds?
A ROOFTOP FARM OVERLOOKING MANHATTAN
Not many farms have a perfect view of the Empire State Building, but then Eagle Street is no ordinary farm. A 600-square-yard organic vegetable farm in Brooklyn, New York, it’s located on the roof of an old bagel factory. Rows of spinach, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers bask in the sun, growing in a 4-6 in. layer of soil, overlooking the skyscrapers. Strutting chickens and beehives complete the idyllic scene. On Sundays a market is held downstairs where people can buy all the fresh crops grown above their heads—other harvests end up in the kitchens of nearby restaurants.
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm was set up not only to grow vegetables for local people but also to raise awareness of how food is produced. Co-founder Annie Novak is passionate about urban green spaces, city flora and fauna, and selfsufficiency. “If putting food on a rooftop revolutionizes the way we think about our health, the effect agriculture has on our ecosystem, and where our food comes from, then I’m happy to grow it up against the skyline,” she says.
It’s not just awareness-raising and fresh radishes that make Eagle Street Rooftop Farm an exciting addition to the city. Storm-water runoff is a big problem for New York’s drain network, and the more roofs that are filled with crops like this one, the more pressure can be reduced on the city’s overtaxed sewage system.
Sustainability is key for this sort of enterprise, and at Eagle Street as much water is reused as possible. Rainwater is collected for irrigating the crops and no overhead sprayers are used because the wind would blow much of the water away. Instead, watering is done by drip lines or by hand, and any crops are washed over a bin so the water can be reused on the seedlings.