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Thesis

Thesis

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Published by: Tj on Jul 21, 2009
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12/05/2012

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Introduction
Rooftops are places of fantasy and imagination - places that sit above the din and chaosof the city, engaged with and yet apart from the city's motion. Rooftops yearn for the skyand yet are grounded to the city through the buildings which they top. What better placecould there be for a garden? Or even better, a garden and a source of food? In this thesis,I will explore the topic of rooftop agriculture, one that has little comprehensive literaturewritten about it. I will examine case studies and the potential for the expansion of roof gardens, as well as barriers to their successful implementation.Cities have effectively driven out agriculture from their boundaries. Food systems todayseem more and more nonsensical - the number of farmers is in constant decline, as largeagribusinesses win the majority of government subsidies and increasingly learn ways tocombine petroleum (or mechanization) and grossly underpaid migrant labor into food.Food arrives in the city from hundreds of miles away. It is often neither fresh nor good.Pesticides and preservatives may also diminish the health value of produce.There is an urgent need for more sensible food systems. A countervailing movement inorganic and local produce branches from the dominant agricultural trend. This movementis closely linked to the idea of food security, a term established at the 1996 World FoodSummit, referring to the availability of "safe, nutritious, personally acceptable andculturally appropriate foods, produced in ways that are environmentally sound andsocially just."(1 Rabinowicz, 2002. See bibliography throughout for more detailedcitations.) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report in2000 stating that a total of 31 million Americans were food-insecurein 1999, including 12 million children. (2 Ibid.) According to Nobel Prize-winningeconomist A.K. Sen, famine is not typically a product of inadequate food supplies; rather,it is more a consequence of the avoidable economic and political factors that lead to poverty and inequality.(3 Sen, 1981.)One of the most vital components of this movement towards increased food security is asystem of grassroots urban agriculture, grounded in community and school gardens.While urban agriculture cannot be relied upon alone to reduce hunger, it should be animportant component of a comprehensive system of food security. Individual urban food production rarely confers self-sufficiency; more often it is a means to supplement one'sdiet with safe and adequate food. Through urban agriculture, city residents can learn tosustain themselves with food that they have produced with their own hands, but if urbanfood production is to reduce hunger and poverty, then it must also be part of a broader strategy.Ultimately, urban agriculture should be coupled with other reforms aimed at reversing theconcentration of agricultural production into fewer and fewer hands. This meanssupporting not only initiatives for urban agriculture, but also supporting small local farmsand working to transform an unjust agricultural system in which large agribusinesses aresubsidized at the expense of small farmers in and outside of the United States, and in
 
which fossil fuel use and mechanization are overused, at the expense of globalenvironmental and social health, in part because of perverse taxes and subsidies.Agricultural mechanization was widely implemented throughout the world during the"Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 70s, when the creation of improved wheat, rice, andcorn that were more responsive to controlled irrigation and petrochemical fertilizersallowed for more efficient conversion of industrial inputs into food.(4 Collins et al.,2000.) As a result of the new seed varieties of the Green Revolution, agriculture globally produces tens of millions of extra tons of grain a year.(5 Ibid.)Some celebrate the Green Revolution for having saved millions of lives from starvation by increasing agricultural productivity, and others lament it for having reducedagricultural sustainability and global environmental health. The issue is indeed complex:agricultural mechanization seems an inevitable product and continuation of the IndustrialRevolution, and the reasons for its development are both good and bad. But we need to beaware of its dominance and effects, both direct and indirect. According to World Bank and Business Week analyses cited by Food First, global hunger has actually increasedsince the Green Revolution, proving that the increased outputs made possible byagricultural industrialization do not seem to solve problems of world hunger, asinequality and poverty prevent an appropriate distribution of food.(6 Ibid.)Wealthier farmers gain control of agriculture when the viability to succeed competitively dependsupon purchasing expensive inputs. Not only does this harm small-scale, local agricultureand waste fossil fuels, it also seems to adversely affect health and food security. In NorthAmerica, the average food product in the supermarket has traveled 1400 miles beforeending up on the shelf.(7 Rabinowicz et al., 2002.)Urban gardens can provide a forum for community connections in addition to the producethat they can provide. Urban gardens often serve as purveyors of tradition for immigrantcommunities, for instance when immigrants are eager to continue agricultural traditionsthat they left behind in their native countries. Community gardens may offer immigrantsthe opportunity to grow food that they are otherwise unable to access in North America.Urban gardens can serve as urban oases -- as vital green spaces that offer city residents arespite from the concrete along with opportunities to connect with the dynamic lifecyclesof a garden.Rooftops are often places of privilege; top floors of buildings often turn into penthouseapartments for the rich. The heights of buildings are frequently rarified spaces. Thisdistinction follows a classical notion of hierarchy, illustrated by a pyramid - the peak can be an untouchable, extraordinary space that floats above the masses. This makes sense.Height means distance from the masses of the city. Height for skyscrapers confers prestige on a business that calls the building its own. Height is distinction. Height is freshair and escape. Rooftops can flatten the hierarchy when they are accessible to all and particularly when they hold community gardens.
 
Rooftop gardens, as a specific urban agriculture niche set within a broader system of citygardens, enjoy their own set of distinctive benefits. Rooftops are underutilized and rarely-considered urban spaces with great potential for creative development. There areessentially three options for rooftop gardens. The first is container gardening, a lessformal, cheaper form of roof gardening. In container gardening, few to no modificationsare made to the existing roof structure; containers - anything from plastic swimming pools to recycled-wood planters - are placed on a rooftop and filled with soil and plants.The second type of roof garden, in which the rooftop actually becomes the plantingmedium, involves more intensive investments, but comes with its own set of advantages,including greater storm-water retention, building insulation, and the formation of  patchwork urban "stepping stone" ecosystems, which work to reverse the fragmentationof ecosystems that follows urbanization by offering temporary habitats to fauna such as birds and butterflies during their long migrations. The third rooftop garden possibility isrooftop hydroponics, in which plants are grown in a soilless medium and fed a specialnutrient solution. Rooftop hydroponics can be the lightest of the three options and mayoffer the possibility for faster plant growth and increased productivity.
Conclusions and Implications
Despite having many benefits, roof gardens face clear challenges to their widespreadapplication, in all of their forms - container gardens, green roofs, and hydroponicgardens. The most significant are issues of access and roof load capacity. These barriersare especially problematic in liability-obsessed countries like the United States, althoughconcerns for safety and building protection are certainly valid. Lack of knowledge or incentives, funding, water supply, safety, and the harshness of rooftop environments arealso major barriers. Still, rooftop agriculture is slowly becoming more common, particularly in the developing world, where rooftop food production may have asignificant impact on food security and income, solutions are creative and site-specific,and roofs are often built of different materials than those in the developed world. Thegreen roof industry is quickly gaining visibility and respect in North America, and a fewcities, including Portland (Oregon), Toronto, Chicago, and New York, are beginning tocreate incentives for green roof construction. Still, we are a long way from the kind of  progress that has been made in Switzerland and Germany.It is unfortunate that so many green roofs are not built for accessibility, becauseinaccessibility prevents the realization of a great deal of rooftop potential. Withoutaccessibility, green roofs serve many impressive environmental functions, yet additionalcommunity or food security benefits are lost. The inaccessibility of green roofs, of course, makes sense in light of cost constraints and liability concerns. The most idealform of rooftop agriculture, in terms of its potential to maximize ecological, agricultural,and community benefits all at once, is in fact green roof agriculture. With the rapidexpansion of the North American green roof industry, expansions for green roof agriculture might also expand. Of course, green roofs are also the most expensive of thethree types of roof gardens, and, for that reason, are not a possibility for many sites. Nor do they make sense in all situations - where people have created a rooftop garden systemthat they can build out of local materials and repair and maintain themselves, as in

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