Rooftop Potential

Hydroponic greenhouse

Pounds of vegetables harvested per year: 1,000,000. Square footage of growing space: 100,000. Pounds of soil used: 0. Amazing numbers for sure. But apparently they are realistic numbers for BrightFarms, a company that builds rooftop greenhouses and looks to sell the produce to local supermarkets. Yesterday BrightFarms announced plans to build a new hydroponic greenhouse (in which vegetables are grown in water, without any soil) on a rooftop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with plans to start harvesting in Spring 2013. Read their press release here.

There is a lot to like about this project. It will be a source of locally-grown produce, and since the produce won’t have to travel very far to get to its destination, it will be fresher when it is eaten. The greenhouse will provide jobs in urban agriculture that were not there before. It will utilize space that has been left unused for years and turn it into something productive. It will capture storm water that otherwise could contribute to overflows of the sewer system during a rainstorm. It will increase consciousness amongst consumers as to where their food comes from. The New York Times details the project here. Also, check out The Brooklyn Ink’s story about the suitability of Brooklyn in particular for rooftop farming.

It is certainly worth debating the merits of hydroponic versus soil-based operations. Hydroponics does not bring us closer to the land, closer to the true source of our food. A healthy soil is our birthright, and we cannot stray from that as our primary source of sustenance. Can food be as nutritious when grown in water with a mineral solution as it is when grown in the ground, in soil? Can it taste as good? Intuitively the answer would seem to be no. Yet hydroponics can be an incredibly productive source of food. And it makes good sense for hydroponics to be a part of the urban agriculture solution in New York City: soil is heavy, rooftop space is plentiful, and greenhouses could allow for year-round growing.

It is encouraging that city policy-makers appear to be rallying support for more urban agriculture projects like this one. The city planning department has proposed allowing buildings to add rooftop greenhouses even if the added height takes them above their regular height restrictions. Ultimately, this project — and other new rooftop projects such as Brooklyn Grange’s expansion to the Brooklyn Navy Yard this season — will demonstrate the enormous untapped potential of our rooftop space in this city and hopefully herald an imminent shift in the structure of our food system.

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