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Rooftop Greenhouses and Urban Farming Are Transforming New York’s Local Food Game

Finding the Space

New York City has 235 skyscrapers and roughly one billion square feet of roof area. That is over 11 percent of the total area of the city, which is more than any city in the world aside from Hong Kong.

Forward-thinking companies are realizing that this is prime agricultural real estate that is being mostly underutilized. These rooftop gardens, many once used for research facilities as part of teaching institutes, are becoming a viable means of commercial production to supply local markets. With large amounts of direct sunlight and the exponential growth of greenhouse and hydroponic technology over the past decade, these rooftops have become the perfect place to put down a garden.

The goal of many groups – like that of the Five Borough Farm Project – is to strengthen and expand urban agriculture in New York City. The project is an undertaking of the Design Trust for Public Space, in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. As a result, the five boroughs of NYC now have over 700 farms and gardens. That’s almost three times as many as the number of Starbucks in the city.

Local Food an Economic Boost for Local Community

A preference for locally grown food is another contributor to the explosion of rooftop gardens in NYC. Companies such as BrightFarms, Gotham Greens, and Brooklyn Grange have transformed the supply chain of produce in one of the largest consumer markets in the world. These producers bring commercial scale urban agriculture to the market, and the produce is coming from just down the road instead of the other side of the world.

Instead of transporting herbs thousands of miles from Israel, for example, growers in Brooklyn are now growing them on the rooftop of the grocery stores where they will be sold. Fresh fruits and vegetables can now be found just an elevator ride or a few flights of stairs away.

As a result, local grocery stores are becoming an economic anchor for these areas by creating new jobs and generating cash flows that will be channeled through the community instead of being sent away. More jobs beget more spending, and more spending means businesses can expand and increase hiring.

The Local Multiplier Effect best describes the economic potential of these urban farms. The American Independent Business Alliance explains the term as follows:

"The multiplier results from the fact that independent locally-owned businesses recirculate a far greater percentage of revenue locally compared to absentee-owned businesses (or locally-owned franchises). In other words, going local creates more local wealth and jobs."

Some critics point to increased production costs as one reaon to be weary of installing rooftop operations, but the increase for these costs is easily offset by the economic impacts and reduction in transportation costs.

Sustainability Heats Up, City Cools Down

Like with solar energy, urban farming was not a viable option until the price of technology to do this inched closer to less sustainable alternatives (i.e. importing produce from around the country or world vs. growing in the city). Personalized greenhouse setups -- like those offered by Rimol -- are now an affordable option that requires very little, if any, energy to operate. Plus, the rising cost of crude oil paired with demand for rising wages abroad is helping to even out the cost of production for local growers.

Fresher produce and a boost in job creation help garner support for these projects, but perhaps the largest social benefit is the positive environmental impacts. Cutting down on shipping distances reduces our reliance on natural resources and that can’t happen soon enough.

Mitigating the Urban Heat Island Effect, a term that explains how built up areas become measurably hotter than surrounding rural areas, is another goal of the Five Borough Farm Project. One by one, dark, hot roofs that once heated the city to dangerous levels are using that same energy to grow gardens that help feed the city.

What’s Standing in the Way? 

These ideas are innovative solutions to current environmental and economic troubles. They also cost a good deal of money to implement. The success of these initiatives will rely on funds allotted to subsidize the projects or at least promoting them as viable agricultural alternatives to current practices.

Other obstacles to wider adoption is that growers in the city face the challenge of obtaining critical resources such as soil and compost, as well as construction materials, financing, and skilled labor. The increase of hydroponic growing technology (that does not require soil or compost) has been one way to curtail the problems created by lack of access to these resources.

Urban agriculture creates health, social, economic, and ecological benefits. While barriers still exist to implementing these practices, rooftop greenhouses and gardens create access to fresher and healthier food, increased job creation, self-reliant agricultural practices, and a reduced dependency on natural resources.

And New York City is not the only urban center making these changes. Boston, Chicago (in coalition with Gotham Greens), and Seattle are just a few of the other cities implementing rooftop gardens.

ReVision House and Boston Living Center produce over 7,000 pounds of food each year for Bostonians with just one Rimol North Point greenhouse setup. Check out the setup and story at https://www.rimolgreenhouses.com/revision-urban-farms.