A bumper crop of city farms, rooftop gardens, and futuristic urban greenhouses here and abroad is changing what it means to eat local.
“That’s our mockingbird,” says willowy Annie Novak, immaculate and breezy in ankle-length linen and high-heeled strappy sandals. She points at a bird in a beleaguered tree outside the industrial building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, whose stairs we’re about to climb and apologizes that the bird is about to run through its entire repertoire. “I hope it’s not too annoying.”
Like most New Yorkers, I find birdsong anywhere inside the concrete jungle a surprise and charm. But it pales beside the rooftop Eden into which we emerge. Here, one story above the soundstage where Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are filmed, are a fussing chicken coop and sixteen beds of dark soil bearing blackberries, calendula, lavender, basil, sage, chives, parsley, kale, mizuna, mustards, broccoli, zinnias, and row upon row of chiles. There are three types of English rose, a hazelnut tree, and a single slim peach tree in a very deep pot. Annie calls the peach “my only concession to romanticism.” It’s the one plant in her seven-year-old Eagle Street Rooftop Farm—which has the distinction of being the first commercial green roof farm in the United States—not selected for its ability to withstand a hot, windy, city roof. Annie admits she loves the peach tree, but she won’t name it. “That would be too sentimental,” she says. Thus a theme develops. Annie—whose classic Roman face (she also models) expresses utter impatience with my slightly impudent questions about terroir (“Does a certain eau d’oil spill find its way into the herb bed?”)—calls my misgivings about hydroponic vegetables “nostalgic” and lets me understand, in gentler words than these, that my idea that real farming happens only in the countryside is a regressive fantasy.
I’d always thought it was the other way around. I’d heard about the last decade’s groundswell (cementswell?) of gardens inside cities, and read about urban-farming rock stars, like Will Allen, the former professional basketball player who won a MacArthur fellowship in 2008 for his cutting-edge Milwaukee-based Growing Power farm, and Ron Finley, Los Angeles’s so-called Gangsta Gardener, who teases banana trees and sunflowers from South Central’s littered traffic medians. Still, I’ve suspected most urban farmers of nostalgia—of being the slightly naive, faddish Fourierists of today. I support beautifying urban spaces with greenery. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and never not planted my fire escape or roof with herbs, cherry tomatoes, chiles, and even fruit trees (with very spotty success). But I’ve always considered it a sentimental hobby, not of the hard-nosed real world in which we grow food in the country and grow money in the city, and exchange the two.
One afternoon with Annie refutes my skepticism. She’s at the forefront of what has become a global movement. Today, there are more than 900 gardens and farms in New York City. Annie started this one in 2009—before, by my record, urban farming was a thing—from pure pragmatism. She tells me that the highest rate of childhood asthma in the United States is found in children living near the Hunts Point wholesale market, in the Bronx—the largest food-distribution terminal in the world. “It’s because of the trucking,” she says. “That alone speaks volumes. I deliver produce down the stairs.”
Here are the rest of the reasons she built a farm here: to lower the devastating environmental costs of carbon-intensive farming; to answer economic questions about getting fresh produce into poor communities; to provide food education in cities. “All of those,” she says, “can be addressed by a rooftop farm.”
Max Lerner, the NYC Parks Department sustainability project development coordinator, tells me that even small farms like Annie’s work against “the urban heat island effect” and something dreadful-sounding called “combined sewer overflow” by creating permeable spaces within cities to absorb rainwater. He sends me NYC’s official strategy for a sustainable future with the note “Urban farming contributes to almost every category we’re working toward.”
A staggering number of cities—Austin, Seattle, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago—have all adopted zoning codes, tax breaks, and other financial easements for urban gardens. At the movement’s front edge is the plagued but ever-innovating Detroit, which has so successfully encouraged food production on its 30 square miles of vacant lots that it now claims 1,500 urban gardens. Chicago is home to more than 800; Philadelphia, 450. Not since the victory gardens of the 1940s—which I admit I have always longed to see, blooming victorious—has there been, to my mind, such widespread embrace by government and populace of growing food inside cities.
There’s also the fact that in 1950, a third of the world’s population lived in cities; the UN predicts that by 2050, that number will be 66 percent. Americans demand on average 20 global acres (we have latitudinarian tastes—e.g., we want Szechuan peppercorns and kale). But, I learn, suddenly becoming alarmed, there are only 4.2 global acres available per human on the planet. Our farming doesn’t produce enough peppercorns and kale to support the planet now, never mind in 34 years.
Much as I’m enjoying scampering around a Brooklyn rooftop—particularly now that I know we are not simply enacting Hameau de la Reine–esque fantasies but addressing the more serious issues facing the world—I’m forced to admit I can’t get the whole picture from New York, or even by taking a low-carbon train ride to see urban farms in other American cities. We live, after all, in a country still in partial denial that human behavior affects the environment.
But a mere eight-hour flight will ferry me into the future. In Denmark, more than 20 percent of all energy already comes from renewable sources. A fifth of the population commutes by lovely, colorful mid-century bicycle. And recently urban farms have seen explosive development. “Today, urban farming is written into most Danish city planning,” says Lasse Carlsen, a founder of the urban agriculture company BioArk, which is collaborating with Noma chef René Redzepi on the Noma farm planned for central Copenhagen. “I don’t think you can find a major city in Denmark that doesn’t urban-farm in one way or the other.”
Noma’s farm isn’t open yet, but I keep hearing about another pioneering Danish restaurant, Amass, whose chef, Matt Orlando, a transplanted Californian, has been shoveling and growing in the shallow soil of an abandoned Copenhagen shipyard for three years. He also raises fish in a complicated on-site greenhouse system, makes compost, runs educational programs . . . and his food looks very good.
So I book a flight to Denmark, land of wind turbines and—according to the World Happiness Report—universal contentment. I arrive at Kastrup Airport on a bright summer morning and take a 20-minute taxi ride to Amass, in Red Hook–like Refshalevej, Copenhagen’s perfectly preserved shipyard.
Matt, a tall, dark-haired, handsome 39-year-old in a chef’s coat and apron, greets me with a glass of sparkling water and takes me on a tour of the Amass farm: a sprawling lot within a stone’s throw of the cold Danish sea, peppered with 170 lush, blooming planter boxes, filled with things petaled and leafy, shaggy and green, the air buzzing with bees.
The farm’s comprehensiveness is breathtaking. Plant beds are a combination of “keyhole gardens,” Matt explains, a southern African urban-planting technique, and “wicking beds” ingeniously bedded with black pond liner. Minimal irrigation is needed: All water from the kitchen or dining room is saved, sterilized, and used on the farm. Matt introduces me to his head farmer, Jacquie Pereira, a lovely 28-year-old Canadian (everyone here is astonishingly good-looking and well dressed: Sous-chef Kim Wejendorp looks like a fairy-tale Viking; communication manager Evelyn Kim is in the furry Céline slippers I’ve gazed at longingly for years). Matt and Jacquie have, over the last 20 months, planted more than 80 varietals to see what can withstand the harsh waterfront. I taste sweet and vibrant kales (which Matt charmingly calls “cabbages”), shockingly spicy oregano, and flowering arugula. Just outside Amass’s year-and-a-half-old greenhouse Matt introduces me to this year’s crop of earthworms, its bees—who last year produced 170 pounds of honey—and tries to show me the blackflies Jacquie raises for composting and fish food. Having grown up assaulted every summer night by that horrible species in Maine, I demur and become keenly interested in a nearby wild fennel patch.
The small greenhouse, brainchild of BioArk, is a future-of-farming in miniature: Two tanks full of carp swish and burble at foot height. Above hang white, rectangular plastic tubes, bursting with cabbages fed, Matt tells me, by earthworms plus filtered wastewater from the fish tanks. Unused water drips back into the tanks, and the cycle continues. Out the greenhouse’s back door, he lifts the lid of a wooden bin where Amass makes its own compost for fertilizer. “It takes us eight times as long to fill a single bin as when we opened,” he says. This is because Matt began to turn trim from beets and carrots into vibrantly colored vegetarian chicharrones. Coffee grinds now become rich, bitter biscuits. Herb stems are preserved and used as seasoning that, he says, “tastes like seaweed.” Ends of candles are melted into fire-starters. An air of effortless eco-chic pervades it all. Even Matt’s tattoos—of the Bay Area hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics, initials o.s.l.f. (“Old Souls Live Forever”), and a detailed illustration of a hibiscus flower growing out of a pool of chocolate—speak of an advanced, urbane understanding of plant cycles and ecological interdependency and, well . . . life. Amass strikes me as a tomorrowland foodie commune on Nordic steroids: progressive, technologically advanced, and truly sustainable.
But I still haven’t seen anything that grapples with one of farming’s biggest problems: water. Globally, agriculture accounts for 69 percent of water use—the numbers are higher for American farms. California is in its fifth year of a drought that is among the worst in recorded history. Dust-bowl predictions for west of the Rockies and all over the Middle East and North Africa abound. Where to see a vision of a farming future that doesn’t rely on either trucks or rainfall?
For this, I must go to the Netherlands, to visit a vast glass-and-steel construction perched atop a disused Philips factory in The Hague. Which is how I find myself at noon the following day rumbling up to the sixth-floor offices of the world’s highest greenhouse, UF002 De Schilde, where I’m told I’ll see city-scale aquaponics—meaning plants and edible fish raised codependently, and water eternally recycled through both.
If Amass was modern harmonic urban agricultural living, UF002 is spaceship Earth. Any lingering, deep-seeded suspicions that urban farming was a quixotic pursuit are presently dashed against the computer terminal at which director of operations Ramon Melon spends half his day, tweaking . . . levels: water supply, nutrient concentration, ideal temperature in the 26,909-square-foot operation’s three divisions—one for deep-hued hydroponic tomatoes and pretty, streaked eggplants, another for lettuces, another for 28 tanks of pink tilapia. Walking amid the vegetable bounty that seems near to erupting out of UF002’s Renzo Piano–like glass rooms, I find myself swept up in the mission of the organization, UrbanFarmers: to install enough rooftop aquaponic greenhouses that every city can produce 20 percent of its own food. “We hope there will be UF100, UF200, and so on,” executive director Mark Durno explains. I’m encouraged to pick and taste whatever I like. The lettuces are firm and crisp. Of three breeds of ripe tomatoes, I prefer neither the Montenegro nor the poetic Haiku but a complex, faintly rose-scented breed called RZ 72-192. No matter how convincingly I ask, I’m not permitted to harvest a fish for sampling, but am contented with reports from a recent taste test of Dutch visitors that pitted UF’s tilapia against wild dorade—in ceviche, no less—with UF tilapia winning the day. I find myself relieved that the future is environmentally intelligent, architecturally pleasing, and, as long as one likes lettuce and tomatoes, quite delicious.
Back in New York, I telephone Annie to report the sights I have seen. Then I ask which will lead the way. “Will the future be Dutch or Danish?” I ask. Or Brooklynite? Will we have small farms on every rooftop? Will all chefs run integrated garden-restaurants? Will we grow vegetables a floor above glinting pink tilapia and salmon trout, cycling water between the two? “It’s going to be everything,” she says. “It will depend on where one lives and what is right for that particular place. That’s why each of the technologies is so important.” I talk to architects Amale Andraos and Dan Woods, designers of Diane von Furstenberg’s flagship store and penthouse, as well as the wild and beautiful 2008 Public Farm 1 at MoMA PS1 and both NYC Edible Schoolyards. Andraos and Woods just finished work on Obsidian House, a development in Tribeca, where they included indoor herb gardens perched above kitchen cabinets and composting centers in every kitchen, proving how small and custom such technologies can be.
I don’t actually have a garden right now, and recently moved upstate, where I’ve counted at least three farms within five miles. Still, utterly converted by what I’ve seen, I will follow the example of Deborah Mitford, the late Duchess of Devonshire, who wrote in her wonderful 2001 collection of essays: “I will grow a lettuce by the front door, just to prove I can.”
Hair: Cameron Rains; Makeup: Deanna Melluso
Sittings Editor: Miranda Brooks
Original article and pictures take http://www.vogue.com/13470502/eating-local-rooftop-gardens-city-farms-new-york-worldwide/ site