Rooftop Farming

Urban agriculture heading up

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 9th November, 2013

‘We are today part of a new revolution, The Urban Revolution. Cities that housed 200 million people, or ten percent of the world’s population in 1900 now accommodate 3.5 billion people, or fifty percent of the world’s population, and will, by 2050, accommodate 64 billion people or seventy percent of the world’s population… More than 80% of Australians already live in cities that are projected to double their size in the next 40 years.’

These are the opening words of the City of Melbourne’s, Transforming Australian Cities For a More Financially Viable and Sustainable Future, first published in May 2009 and updated in March 2010. For anyone who has spent time in Sydney or Melbourne recently, the prospect of these megalopolises doubling their size by 2050 is rather alarming, to put it mildly. Which no doubt explains the steady flow of urban refugees, the tree changers and sea changers, only too happy to exchange peak hour on Hogbin Drive for the daily grind of the M4 or the South-eastern freeway.

As Australia’s big cities double in size, how will they be fed?

From my perspective, it was doubly surprising that the word ‘food’ did not appear once in the Transforming Australian Cities strategic document. At the heart of the strategy for ‘sustainable growth’ (an oxymoron, arguably) of our big cities was the concept of ‘productive suburbs’, with the iconic ¼ acre blocks forming corridors to become the new ‘green wedge’ zones of Sydney and Melbourne. There was discussion of ‘making backyards productive’ through installation of rainwater tanks and greywater recycling systems. This, combined with the rollout of solar PV panels and other forms of domestic-scale renewable energy generation would, it was claimed, help Australian households move closer to ‘self-sufficiency’ and therefore ‘sustainability’.

But what about food? Given that some of the projections of climate change anticipate a reduction in productivity of our major foodbowl regions – the Murray-Darling in particular – of as much as 60% by 2050 – surely any strategy for the sustainability of our cities must integrate as a matter of highest priority how the residents are going to be fed?

Or perhaps, more to the point, how they are going to start feeding themselves, if we are serious in talking about ‘self-sufficiency’.

This conundrum of feeding growing cities is not of course a uniquely Australian issue. Indeed it is driving the burgeoning urban agriculture movement in North America. New York City now has an estimated 700 urban farms. Some of these are familiar community gardens, where groups of residents work small plots to produce food for themselves and their families.

Urban agriculture goes commercial – and up to the roof

Increasingly, many others are commercial-scale operations that have negotiated supply contracts with restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets. And one of the recent trends is for commercial-scale farming to take place on the flat roofs of high-rise office and apartment blocks.


Rooftop Farming in New York City
Rooftop Farming in New York City

One of these is the 555 m2 Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, based on a warehouse on the East River in Brooklyn. Eagle Street is an open-air intensive market garden which supplies organic vegetables to nearby restaurants by bicycle, and operates a farmers’ market onsite during the growing season.

Other rooftop farms operate year-round, by erecting greenhouses and using aquaponic and hydroponic growing techniques.

Office and apartment blocks in a city like New York are inherently more suited for this type of production than similar buildings in Australia, because their roofs are already built to a higher load-bearing capacity because of snowfall. But that’s not to say that this type of ‘farming’ can’t happen in Australia. In fact recently I was lucky enough to visit what is one of the very first attempts to do it, at the Mesa Verde rooftop bar and cinema at 252 Swanston St, Melbourne. It’s the brainchild of Mr ‘WormLover’, Richard Thomas, and I’ll tell that story next time.