For the time being, all that’s blooming atop the Boston Design Center are panoramic views of the city skyline, harbor, and Seaport District. In a few weeks, though, plants should be sprouting amid the air conditioning units and heat vents.
In this rooftop project, think tomatoes, basil, parsley, chervil, lovage, and thyme, and lots of it, spread over 13,000 square feet in what will be the most ambitious experiment to date in local urban ag.
By next year, the project is expected to total 40,000 square feet of planted produce and another 15,000 square feet of harvest stations and support equipment. As it grows, Boston will become more prominently aligned with a burgeoning urban agriculture movement, one marrying underutilized city space with “green” consciousness and a hunger for locally produced food.
High stakes, indeed.
“For now, our focus is on high-value crops that restaurants are excited to serve,” says Courtney Hennessey, cofounder of Higher Ground Farm, a South End-based firm that will manage the rooftop farming operation once it’s up and running.
Permit issues and as-yet-unmet funding — the project carries a start-up price tag of $250,000 — have pushed installation back to mid-May, according to Hennessey, later than the once-planned February launch, yet still in time for a mid- to late-summer harvest. Despite the delay, Higher Ground Farm hopes to reap around $100,000 in produce this year.
Eventually the farm, which has signed a 10-year lease with the design center, will support four distribution channels: area restaurants, six of which have already come aboard (Toro, Coppa, Sweet Cheeks Q, and Tavern Road among them); community-supported food-growing programs, shares in which will be sold to the public; a small, onsite ground-level farm stand; and nonprofit food collaboratives in Dorchester and Mattapan, two communities where fresh, local produce is traditionally hard to come by.
“Do we see this as part of a bigger movement? Absolutely,” says Hennessey, whose previous jobs include work in community-based agriculture projects and restaurant management. She and her partner, John Stoddard, met as students at the University of Vermont 15 years ago.
Not only is unshipped produce fresher, tastier, and more nutritious, Hennessey says, but food security is also less of a concern and the local economy benefits, too.
In Lynnfield, meanwhile, construction is underway on a new Whole Foods store with a half-acre (17,000 square feet) rooftop farm that is designed into its architectural plans. By late-May, project managers hope they’ll be able to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, leafy greens, and several varieties of herbs, to be sold in the store’s produce bins.
While rooftop farming is not an entirely new concept, notes Jessie Banhazl, founder of Green City Growers in Somerville, what’s currently happening around Greater Boston and the region is taking the idea to a scale, and height, unknown just a few years ago.
“People have been doing it under the radar for years, and some countries are more advanced than ours,” says Banhazl, whose company will manage the Whole Foods rooftop farm. “[But] people are becoming more receptive to it now that it’s becoming more visible, and there’s more understanding of the importance of growing hyperlocally.”
Founded in 2008, Green City Growers also manages a 5,000-square-foot garden atop Dorchester’s Ledge Kitchen & Drinks restaurant and another serving b.good in Downtown Crossing. The Whole Foods installation is being designed and installed by Recover Green Roofs, another Somerville-based firm, which specializes in vegetative “green roofs” and rooftop-ag projects.
Other large-scale rooftop farms already established in Northeastern cities include Brooklyn Grange, which maintains two facilities in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., that total 2.5 acres and yield more than 20 tons of produce annually; Eagle Street Farm’s 6,000 square-foot-rooftop farm, situated above a Brooklyn warehouse; and Lufa Farm’s $2 million, 31,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse in Montreal, which grows 25 varieties of vegetables year round and hydroponically.
Soil-based, seasonal farms like those attached to the Boston Design Center and Whole Foods store are cheaper than the hydroponic kind, note Banhazl and others. Their costs typically run between $30 and $55 per square foot for soil, plants, and irrigation, versus around $200 per square foot for a large hydroponic farm like the one in Montreal. The latter’s energy costs are higher, too.
Across the board, though, rooftop farms yield important energy savings, advocates say, helping to cool buildings in the warmer growing months. Heat from below also lengthens the growing season — perhaps into early November along Boston’s waterfront — by warming soil beds.
“We anticipate as much as 7 percent in annual energy savings,” says Hennessey, standing on the Design Center’s vacant rooftop last week. She estimates 5 to 15 percent of already-built city structures could support rooftop farms of some size.
Landscape architect Lauren Mandel has been studying the urban ag movement for the past four years. In her new book, “Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture” (New Society Publishers), she identifies eight North American cities — Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, among them — that have been leading the way in high-rise urban farming.
Boston is not in their league yet, concedes Mandel, but it may get there soon. For one thing, she notes, the city has scores of older buildings with the structural integrity to support large-scale projects. Other assets that make rooftop farming feasible? Water sources, freight elevators that reach the roof, and high parapets that allow for safe public access (these are rooftops, after all).
“In a few short years, a constellation of new farms and gardens across our city skylines reveals the industry’s extreme growth, and unparalleled potential for expansion,” writes Mandel in the introduction to “Eat Up,” which comes out this month.
By phone from Philadelphia, Mandel says the distinction between rooftop farming and gardening is, in her view, not only a function of scale but of the growers’ intent as well. “I try to define the terms by where the food is going rather than size [of operation],” she says, with more commercial enterprises qualifying as farming, in her mind.
Mandel predicts that Boston is ripe for assuming a bigger role in the urban ag movement.
“Rooftop agriculture takes a lot of disciplines — engineers, architects, designers — that Boston already has,” she says. “You don’t need professionals to grow a few tomatoes on your roof. On a bigger scale, you do, though.”
Beyond the expertise required, “A big part of this is exposure and social media coverage,” Mandel continues. “When you couple rooftop agriculture with a restaurant or grocery store, you have a lot of marketing potential. There’s an element of sex appeal there, to be honest.”