Posts filed under ‘Rooftop Gardening’
After nearly two years of setbacks and regulatory hurdles, the startup Gotham Greens finally began building its first commercial-scale hydroponic greenhouse, a 15,000-square-foot rooftop facility in Brooklyn that is expected to produce more than 80 tons of vegetables and herbs annually. The greenhouse is scheduled to open in May, according to the company’s web site.
Gotham Greens had originally planned to open a facility on the roof of a building in Jamaica, Queens, but plans for the 12,000-square-foot greenhouse fell through. The planned facility would have produced an estimated 30 tons of vegetables and herbs annually.
The company’s greenhouse greens will be available at select retailers, markets and restaurants across New York City in June 2011.
No one knows exactly why. It might be the start of a new farming season, or a yearning perhaps to go back to basics and a do-it-yourself, grow-it-yourself culture.
Whatever it is, many urbanites are flocking to gardens and farms to tend to the crops now springing from the earth. At the Queens County Farm Museum, a 47-acre working historical farm in Floral Park, Queens, volunteers show up regularly to help out on Tuesdays and Sundays, the farm’s two volunteer work days.
“It varies from week to week,” said the farm’s Director of Agriculture Kennon Kay, with anywhere from two to 10 people helping out on volunteer days. Some drop in for a few hours, while others work the entire day. Most volunteers, says Kennon, are from Queens, as public transportation to the farm from other boroughs is difficult.
Fortunately, for New Yorkers bitten by the farm bug, there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities to work on farms, all within city limits. New York’s two rooftop farms, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and the recently opened Brooklyn Grange, host hundreds of volunteers. Eagle Street has a schedule of open farm days, and Brooklyn Grange e-mails volunteers when it needs help.
In addition, botanical gardens in each of the boroughs recruit volunteers to help with planting, propagating, pruning and other gardening chores. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden offers a BUG (Brooklyn Urban Gardener) certificate program, an eight-week course of interconnected workshops that covers the basics of urban gardening. Certified BUG volunteers are dispatched to schools, senior centers, community gardens and other places throughout the city to work on greening projects.
Volunteers with basic gardening knowledge can also participate in the New York Botanical Garden’s all-star gardening group, the Bronx Green-Up. The garden pros need help with the care and maintenance of community gardens throughout the Bronx.
There’s even a Facebook group for New Yorkers looking to relieve their itch to farm. Get Dirty NYC provides updates on volunteer opportunities at New York City’s urban farms.
New Yorkers who want to venture outside the city and work on rural farms can find opportunities without traveling too far. At Sylvester Manor, a 243-acre farm on Shelter Island — cradled between the North and South Fork of Long Island — volunteers can work one or two days or for longer periods of time. There’s only one catch: volunteers are expected to sing as they work, as the New York Times describes here. The owner of the farm was awarded a fellowship a few years ago to study the work songs of farmers from around the world, and he now builds on that learning experience by instilling “songing” in the fields.
Songing isn’t your thing? Don’t give up. The article lists a few places in New Jersey, New York and Vermont that welcome volunteers.
For a few tense months, Ben Flanner’s plan to build a new rooftop farm in Brooklyn hung in the balance. His main investor backed out of the venture, and the building owner from whom he planned to lease roof space for the farm — called the Brooklyn Grange — got cold feet.
“Brooklyn Grange hit some rough seas and for a minute there it looked like it might not be our year to build a farm,” writes Ben and his business partners in the farm’s blog.
Miraculously, the intrepid entrepreneurs survived the unrelenting storm of setbacks and defeats. They fished for alternate sources of funding, and at the eleventh hour found a developer willing to lease the roof of a building not in Brooklyn, but in Long Island City, Queens.
On Thursday, May 13, as soil mix was hoisted by crane onto the 40,000-square-foot roof, the Brooklyn Grange finally came to be. It will be the city’s first commercial rooftop farm, growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and leafy greens.
Farming is on the cusp of radical change. Just ask any of the urban farmers who participated in a panel discussion moderated by NPR’s Leonard Lopate last month. “The new generation of farmers is going to come from folks who live in cities,” said Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization that runs farms primarily in urban neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Chicago.
It sounds strange, but here’s how the theory goes. The loss of farmland and farmers, coupled with people moving to cities worldwide, will accelerate the need to grow food near or in cities. “We can’t afford to be shipping food at cost to the environment,” said Allen. “We have to grow food closer to where people live.”
The panelists almost convinced me. Annie Novak, co-founder of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, spoke about how to boost the harvest of herbs and vegetables on the 6,000-square-foot rooftop farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Fritz Haeg, a Los Angeles-based artist, showed a video about his project to transform lawns into vegetable gardens throughout the country. So far, he’s created “Edible Estates” in eight locations, including one in front of a community center in Manhattan. And Growing Power’s Allen talked about the 11 urban farms his organization runs in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison.
As optimistic and impassioned as they were, they danced around the challenge facing urban farmers: scaling up production. Allen talked about the need to “grow soil” by turning the millions of pounds of city food waste into compost — the stuff that makes for bountiful harvests. Compost is also needed to fill garden beds built over once-contaminated soil.
“We need to grow hundreds of thousands of pounds of new soil,” said Allen. “We can’t scale up until we grow soil.”
Still, the speakers insisted on a future world with much more urban farming. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, one of the panelists and a crusader in the push to reform the city’s food system, talked about the limitless opportunities in Manhattan for rooftop farms. “You can look up,” he said, “and see magic on rooftops.”
It’s a little pie in the sky, but a fun and thought-provoking discussion nonetheless. You can listen to it here. The “Edible Estates” panel discussion was held at WNYC Greene Space in Manhattan on April 8.
City rooftops will be a hot spot for an unusual new spring arrival: hydroponic greenhouses that grow food year-round. At least five are expected to go up on New York rooftops in the next few months.
Gotham Greens, a startup that builds and manages rooftop greenhouses, recently received permission to build two hydroponic greenhouses, one in Jamaica, Queens, and the other in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The two greenhouses will occupy 32,000 square feet of roof space. The Jamaica greenhouse alone is expected to yield more than 30 tons of herbs and vegetables annually.
Affordable-housing developer Blue Sea Development Corp. is also planning to build a 10,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse on the roof of a seven-story housing complex in the South Bronx. The greenhouse will supply enough produce to meet the annual fresh vegetable needs of up to 450 people, according to BrightFarm Systems, the consultancy that designed the greenhouse.
Other organizations expected to build greenhouses on their roofs include P.S. 333, a pubic school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Services for the UnderServed, a social services group in Chelsea.
Not surprisingly, rooftop entrepreneurs are facing significant challenges in a city notoriously known for its complex building and zoning laws. Builders of rooftop greenhouses run into a gamut of density, air rights and other issues.
Adding a greenhouse to the roof of a building is like adding another floor, explained Benjamin Linsley, senior partner and managing director at BrightFarm Systems. And that, he said, raises issues with regard to regulations controlling the size of buildings.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer proposes streamlining the regulatory red tape to help facilitate the development of rooftop agricultural greenhouses. In a report released last month, Stringer proposes an authorization process for case-by-case waivers of certain building regulations.
“Priority should be given to projects that create green collar jobs by training and employing New York City residents, especially those who are unemployed or underemployed,” states the report.
Linsley notes that the outer boroughs offer greater opportunities for greenhouses than built-up areas of the city.
“If you would like to build on a building, it’s harder to do in Manhattan,” he said.
Just as people are getting used to the idea of city roof-grown vegetables and herbs, along comes a radical new concept in urban food growing: edible walls. Though it’s hard to picture picking tomatoes and peppers from a wall, it might well be a reality should companies like Green Living Technologies take off. In this article in the New York Times, Ken Belson writes about emerging companies that are leading the way in this new area of food production.
Edible walls have already made it to New York. The article mentions a Manhattan first-floor apartment dweller who installed an edible wall in his backyard deck. What grows from the wall? Strawberries, lettuce, chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme and more.
The rooftop farm on Eagle Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was such a hit another one will be opening this spring. The new one-acre farm — called Brooklyn Grange — will be five times the size of the Eagle Street rooftop site and will aim to operate as a sustainable small business.
The entrepreneurs behind the new venture will hold a meatball competition this Friday, Jan. 15, to raise money for the farm. The “Meatball Slapdown!” will take place at The Meat Hook, a butcher shop in Williamburg, at 8 p.m. Five Brooklyn restaurants — Frankie’s Spuntino, Bamonte’s, Roebling Tea Room, The Meat Hook and Roberta’s —will participate in the contest. The event costs $75 at the door. It’s $50 if tickets are purchased in advance from brooklyngrangefarm.com.
Wrap-up of a Year’s Worth of Blogging: Power of the People and a Politician Propel New York Local Food Movement in 2009
Sheer public support for local food and small farms made 2009 a banner year for New York City locavores. Farmers markets and community gardens flourished, and new urban farms emerged, including the city’s first rooftop farm — a 6,000-square-foot site that drew scores of eager volunteers each Sunday throughout the 2009 growing season.
The local food movement had the power of the people behind it, and gained extra momentum, thanks to the power of a colorful and forceful politician: Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
“New York City must be front and center in the international debate over food,” Stringer told some 1,000 foodies at a conference earlier this month at New York University. He proposed forming a New York City Department of Food and Markets that would report directly to the mayor and pushed for a more regional food supply system.
“Food policy will be a top priority for my office,” he rallied the crowd of urban gardeners, nutritionists, chefs, teachers, civic leaders, community activists and others with a stake in food and farm policy.
The conference, which sold out within hours of its announcement, came only days after New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn launched “FoodWorks New York,” an initiative to analyze the city’s food system and tap its potential to create jobs by working with local farmers.
New York locavores found more than champions in positions to shake things up. They also discovered what could turn out to be a symbol for their movement: the city’s heirloom apple, the Newtown-Pippin. The green-yellow apples originated on a farm in Maspeth, Queens, in the 1700s and became popular throughout the country. Now a campaign is underway to reintroduce the apple tree in parks and gardens citywide and even name the Newtown-Pippin the city’s official apple.
Without a doubt, 2009 gave the local food movement a big boost. Here’s a look back at some blog posts that chronicle turning points for advocates of a more localized food system:
- Report Champions Local Farmers: Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer releases a report calling for a “radical overhaul” of New York City’s food system. The report makes several recommendations that would make it easier for local farmers to sell their produce in New York City, including requiring government food buyers to purchase a certain percentage of their food from farmers in the city’s foodshed.
- New York Urban Farmers Draw Large Crowd: A panel discussion on urban farming draws a huge crowd of local food enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. Participants hear from a Brooklyn-based indoor grower of wheatgrass and sprouts who “moved his farm to the city” from upstate New York “to be closer to his customers.” A few weeks later, the keynote speaker at a conference on community supported agriculture — upstate farmer Cheryl Rogowski — noted that “farmers are rock stars” and that “it’s never been a more challenging or exciting time to be farmers than now.” Not so fast, I say, in this post. An unrepentant doubting Thomas, I question what many are calling a U.S. “food revolution.”
- Farmers in Training: This post profiles Michael Grady Robertson, the farm supervisor of the Queens County Farm Museum, and the opportunities the farm provides for breaking in would-be farmers.
- Battalion of Volunteer Bee Keepers Invade City Parks and Gardens: Local papers and blogs (including this one) covered efforts to legalize beekeeping in New York City. Less well-covered was the Great Pollinator Project, a citywide effort to better understand and raise awareness of the importance of city bees. The blog post describes my participation in the project.
- The Greening of City Rooftops: Farming on rooftops may become a hot new trend in New York City. The post reflects on the development of green roofs in the last two years and where they’re likely to go. In this post, urban farming leaps ahead with visionary Dr. Dickson Despommier’s notion of a “vertical farm,” one in which crops grow indoors in multi-story buildings.
- Phoenix Community Gardens Brings Neighbors Together: This account of a refurbished community garden in Brooklyn peers into the lives of the people who garden there. There are other posts on urban gardeners, including this one about Karen Washington, founder of the Garden of Happiness, and this one about Abu Talib, director of Taqwa Community Garden. There’s also an account here of “wild man” Joe Gonzalez, a backyard gardener and community leader.
- What Price Milk?: The troubles facing today’s dairy farms recall the 1930s when dairymen were getting a raw deal on the price of milk. They, too, we going bankrupt, even as consumer milk prices were going through the roof. The turbulent time in New York milk history is documented in the online exhibit New York Bounty describes in the post.
- Visions of Urban Farmland for the Grand Concourse: A proposal to transform the Grand Concourse, a nine-lane motorway in the Bronx, into four miles of contiguous urban farmland won second place in a global competition to remake the 100-year-old thoroughfare. Farming inspired other artists in 2009. In September, artist Leah Gauthier celebrated the close of a five-borough micro-farm installation consisting of modest growing spaces donated by New Yorkers. In return for the spaces, Gauthier became a “sharecropper,” paying donors with a portion of the produce she grew on individual locations for the season. It’s the ultimate high-concept art project.
- The Nature Nut: I introduced former organic farmer and certified holistic health counselor Susana Correia as New York Bounty’s resident expert on organic farming and nutrition counseling. The “Nature Nut” received and answered several questions throughout the year, and is waiting for more. Have questions about what to grow in your community garden or your roof or terrace or even in your kitchen? Questions about nutrition? Try asking the Nature Nut. She’ll know.
It’s been challenging keeping up with all that’s happening in urban agriculture in New York City, but I’ve had quite a bit of fun. One day, though, was the highlight of the year – the day my blog got noticed. In April, New York Bounty was listed in the information section of the Manhattan User’s Guide, a daily e-mail that keeps readers on top of the city. Here’s how MUG described New York Bounty: “With refreshingly few bells and whistles, thoughtful commentary on food, health, and the environment, particularly the ways in which urbanites are trying to reconnect with the good earth.”
The praise sent me over the moon — at least for a day or two. It’s going to be hard to live up to the description, but I’m sure going to try, every single day of 2010 and beyond…
Happy New Year, everyone!
Forget about farming in wide open spaces. The farms of the future will be in cities, where crops will flourish in multi-story buildings, writes Dr. Dickson Despommier in this op-ed piece in the New York Times. The prophet and father of the “vertical farm” notes that the rising number of floods and droughts — and a rising global population — will make traditional farming on land untenable.
Dr. Despommier makes a compelling case for indoor urban farming. Vertical farms take advantage of hydroponic and aeroponic technologies, which are soil-free and use as much as 90 percent less water than traditional cultivation techniques. They would free up farmland, allowing thousands of acres to return to their original ecological state.
Dr. Despommier sees high-rise farms as more than an agricultural take on Macy’s — potatoes, rutabaga and turnips on 7; collard, kale and chard on 6. Vertical farms, he writes, can also be incorporated into restaurants, schools, hospitals and even “the upper floors of apartment complexes.”
Dr. Despommier has no shortage of vision or imagination. He envisions vertical farms as “things of grace and beauty” with transparent walls and ceilings to let the sunlight in. From a distance, high-rise farms would look like “gardens suspended in space.”
He contends that vertical farming is no longer pie-in-the-sky dreaming. The futuristic form of farming is now feasible, thanks to the commercial success of greenhouse technology.
In Jamaica, Queens, for example, a rooftop greenhouse business, Gotham Greens, is on track to launch next year. The greenhouse on the 12,000-square-foot rooftop is expected to produce 30 tons of vegetables and herbs annually using hydroponic technology. The greenhouse will produce crops year-round.
Dr. Despommier proposes building a five-story prototype of a vertical farm in New York City. He argues that it would help further Mayor Bloomberg’s goal of a greener city by 2030 and could easily become a tourist attraction, generating significant revenue for the city. The sale of produce from the farm would also generate tax revenue.
The cost of the prototype? It’s estimated at $20 million to $30 million, a tough sell in today’s economy. It’s especially hard to make a case for farming in a city where finance reigns.
Still, with surging interest in farms and local food and growing concerns about the environment, who knows what the future holds. The city of financiers may just trade finance for farming.
Click here for related post.
Two years ago, while researching a story on green roofs, I discovered what at the time must have been the cutest rooftop garden in the city — the one atop St. Simon Stock Elementary School in the Bronx. The green oasis had 20 species of native wildflowers and grasses, plus tomatoes and green beans planted by school’s first graders. Sparrows and turtle doves fluttered about the rooftop grasses that April morning as naturally as they would in places closer to the ground.
To my amazement, the plants and flowers grew from soil covering the surface of the roof. I searched the city for similar roofs but most of the ones I found were more functional than esthetic, designed primarily to capture rainwater and possibly lower energy bills. The green roofs were predominantly light or “extensive” roofs growing low-maintenance succulents, the rooftop equivalent of grass.
Times have changed in two years. I recently looked at the some of the projects handled by Goode Green, a green-roof design and installation company. The company had a fair number of “intensive” roofs — the kind with enough soil to support edible gardens. One of the most dramatic was a 6,000-square-foot roof atop Broadway Stages, a stage and lighting company, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In an article in the New York Times, Lisa Goode, co-owner of Goode Green, notes that the roof has at least 1,000 plants in 16 beds, each about 60 feet long. The produce is being grown for local restaurants and shops.
Without question, the number of green roofs in New York City has increased steadily over the last three years, more than tripling in 2008 from 2007. In 2008, 359,000 square feet of green roofing was installed in New York City, up from 103,000 square feet of green roofing installed in 2007, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, an industry association that promotes green roof technology.
Much of the jump is no doubt attributed to a city tax incentive introduced in 2007 for the development of green roofs. Under the program, building owners are eligible for a property tax abatement of up to $100,000, helping to defer green roof installation costs.
Still, green roofs are the exception rather than the norm. A view from the roofs of most city high-rises is still dominated by black asphalt, not fields or even small patches of green.
And many of the roofs that are dubbed “green roofs” are in fact no more than rooftop gardens with potted plants. In the New York Times article about rooftop farming, some of the people cited were actually growing from containers rather than directly from the surface of the roof.
Richard Heller, CEO of Greener by Design, a landscape design company that designs, builds and cares for green roofs and sustainable gardens in New York City, says that he hasn’t gotten any requests for edible green roofs but nevertheless expects DIY food growing to spread.
“With the economy being what it is, there is an all-around push towards home agronomy across the country,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “I think rooftop farming is brilliant, and I would expect we will see a lot more of it down the line.”
Who knows what we might see in a few years. Rooftop vineyards? With the progress I’ve seen in just two years, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
To read an article I wrote about green roofs for New York Resident magazine, go to www.resident.com and search under the “home” tab. The article was published on June 19, 2007.