Farm the Rooftops


In many cities, rooftops that can handle the soil, water, and plant loads are being put to productive use, attacking food insecurity and building communities in the process, said Leigh Whittinghill, Michigan State University, at the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities conference in Philadelphia. Still, there are some major barriers preventing more widespread rooftop farming, namely just finding enough low-cost, structually-sound roofs to plant; obstructive municipal zoning; and issues with “managing fertility.” There are also challenges with fertilizer runoff and economic profitability.

Rooftop Agriculture Isn’t Easy

Ben Flanner, the founder of the Brooklyn Grange, a 40,000 square foot rooftop farm in NYC that grew 15,000 pounds of produce last year, said it took a while to find a “landlord with guts.” He struggled, cold-calling lots of building owners. “The big issue was finding a space we could afford,” given urban agriculture quickly becomes un-economic if rents are more than $1 per square foot. Flanner understands that building are worth millions so some landlords would be worrying about possible damage. “But it’s about risk and return.” With more successful projects, the risks will go down, and so will the costs.

“Educating the local building department is really important,” said Brendan Shea, Recover Green Roofs, who just worked on adding a 1,500 square foot rooftop herb and vegetable garden to a restaurant. “It’s about building permitting agencies and making them feel comfortable, that we aren’t damaging the building.”

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