Farming on urban rooftops is a flourishing trend, as noted in a fall 2015 Development magazine article, “Up on the Roof, Cities Grow Green.” The article describes how rooftop farms in St. Louis, New York and Quebec are bringing new life to commercial buildings. Since then, even more rooftop farms have been sprouting up all over.
In addition to operating two rooftop farms in New York City, Brooklyn Grange, one of the urban agriculture pioneers featured in the article, also offers installation services to building owners and businesses. It has created rooftop vegetable gardens for Vice Media in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the United Nations in Manhattan, as well as a student-run natural dye garden for the Fashion Institute of Technology, also in Manhattan.
Another New York-based company, Gotham Greens Farms LLC, sells more than 20 million heads of lettuce and leafy greens annually to restaurants, food service companies and retailers like Whole Foods Market Inc. Since it was founded in Brooklyn in 2009, the firm has expanded from one rooftop greenhouse to four. It now operates over 170,000 square feet of technologically advanced rooftop gardens, including the world’s largest hydroponic rooftop farm atop the Method soap factory in Chicago. There, Gotham Greens uses a state-of-the-art computer system to achieve the yield of a 50- to 60-acre farm in a 75,000-square-foot space. It delivers lettuce and herbs to local restaurants and grocers less than 24 hours after harvesting them. (Look for more on this farm — and the building on which it sits — in a future issue of Development.)
In a different part of Chicago, atop McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America, the Chicago Botanic Garden has transformed an already productive green roof into the largest soil-based rooftop farm in the Midwest through its Windy City Harvest program. The 20,000-square-foot farm — which eventually could expand to a total of 3 acres atop other parts of the convention center roof — aims to supply the center’s food service company with 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of food a year. Windy City Harvest also operates several other rooftop and ground-level farms in and around Chicago.
Yet another rooftop farm has replaced a more traditional green roof atop Federal Realty’s Equinox Fitness building in Bethesda, Maryland, where Up Top Acres and nonprofit Bethesda Green are growing organic vegetables and fruits for local restaurants in 7,000 square feet of plantable-depth soil. According to a Washington Business Journal article, “Chris Brown, sustainability manager at Federal Realty…, says the company plans to replicate large-scale rooftop farms at more of its buildings in the future.” Up Top Acres also operates a smaller rooftop farm atop a restaurant in the District of Columbia’s Penn Quarter neighborhood and a larger one in another part of Bethesda.
Why are these farms becoming more popular? In addition to the “eat local” movement, new federal regulations for food transportation that require shippers to ensure that vehicles are properly cleaned and refrigerated may be making it even less cost effective to ship fresh produce long distances, despite lower fuel costs. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The broad-reaching rule ‘will have a significant effect on how companies in the food industry do business,’ said Jeff Barach, a food safety consultant to the Association of Packaging and Processing Technologies.”
But the rooftop farming movement is not without its critics. Another recent Wall Street Journal article quotes Paul Lightfoot, chief executive of BrightFarms: “Building farms on city rooftops is ‘a foolish endeavor’ because of the higher costs and the additional time for permitting.” BrightFarms, which once planned to develop a rooftop farm in Brooklyn and a large-scale greenhouse operation in Washington, D.C., is now focusing on greenhouse farms in locations outside urban centers. It currently operates a 56,000-square-foot, ground-level greenhouse farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and has an exclusive partnership with Giant Food Stores to grow produce for its Washington, D.C., metro area stores at a greenhouse farm in Culpepper County, Virginia.
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