Lauren Mandel is one of rooftop agriculture’s more ardent cheerleaders, but also one of its most helpful handicappers. Her new book, Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture, is a complete guide to making rooftop agriculture work at various scales, and she’s not afraid to let people know about the challenges as well as benefits. We talked with Mandel about what’s going on in rooftop ag today and how farms are showing up in the most unlikely places.
You have a landscape architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania and you’re now working for Roofmeadow, a firm that’s known for roof gardens. How did you get from A to B?
I’ve always been interested in green roofs and rooftop agriculture, and when I went to Penn, my objective was to get really solid training in landscape architecture with the idea that I would eventually work in a slightly different industry but with a landscape architecture lens. Learning how to think like a landscape architect has been instrumental in my ability to design at multiple scales, and understand how all the parties and priorities relate to one and another. So there’s been a lot of things I’ve learned from landscape architecture that I’ve been able to apply to green design and rooftop agriculture.
I had worked for a few years in landscape architecture firms in Philadelphia and Seattle, and then again while I was in graduate school. During my last semester of graduate school, I wrote the first draft of my book; my advisors were landscape architect Karen M’Closkey, urban planner Domenic Vitiello, economist Anita Mukherjee, and Charlie Miller, the founder of Roofmeadow. I thought it was important to have these advisors because it was a very multidisciplinary subject.
There’s a real wealth of super-practical, clear-eyed advice in your book about what it takes to make rooftop agricultural viable, and you don’t sugarcoat it. What’s been the response from the community?
People have been really receptive and really appreciative of the book. One of the things I stressed is that, while I am a green designer, the book is not supposed to be my voice but the collective voice for the movement. That’s why I went to the lengths to include the voices and the leaders in the field. The book is written through a practitioner’s lens but also a journalist’s lens, and I wanted people [in the field] to speak for themselves, not just support my point.
Why did you decide a book—as opposed to a website or other platform—would be the right way to get to your audience?
There was no comprehensive written resource on the subject; as I started researching and interviewing farmers, gardeners, designers, chefs, and volunteers, they all really wanted a resource and they didn’t have one. There’s something about having a printed resource that you could flip through—I just felt like a book was the right decision. There is an e-book as well.
The emphasis you put on understanding and influencing local policies was really interesting. Can you talk a bit about why it’s so important for rooftop farmers to become educated about policy?
Policy influences large changes, whereas individuals influence smaller changes. One of the things I do stress in the book is that innovations in policy are a very effective and quick way to make significant changes in a neighborhood or an entire city. It’s not just food policy that matters, but stormwater and zoning policy. In New York City, policy changed to make it easier for rooftop farms after the first hydroponics had to get variances. So you really need progressive building codes and zoning codes, too.
It’s so interesting to me because, as a landscape architect involved in rooftop agriculture, I no longer just coordinate with architects, clients, and engineers. I now work with policy makers, with food advocacy groups and farmers, and all these other people that I wouldn’t ordinarily get involved with.
What are some new things going on in rooftop agriculture? Any interest in commercial applications?
We’re seeing a lot of interest in agriculture retrofit—clients who already have green roofs want to know if they can turn it into a production space. There’s been a huge increase in interest in the last two years ago, especially. A few years back, when I started, no one was talking about it. Now, it’s like something’s in the water.
Where is rooftop agriculture taking off? Where is it slow to take hold?
Brooklyn is hands-down the hottest hotbed of rooftop agriculture. Besides that, there are a lot in the Boston metro area. Chicago is also real hotbed—there’s an interesting farm there on top of the city’s convention center—a perfect example of a green roof that was converted into a farm. There’s about a quarter of an acre that is in production, and the food that’s grown is used in the convention center. They’re hoping to double the size of the farm and eventually be an acre. Right now, we’re working on a rooftop farm for a school in south Philadelphia.
There isn’t as much in the South, and population density might be part of it. The only southern farm I know about is in Sarasota, Florida, and it didn’t do as well as everyone hoped it would. I don’t really know why there’s not more there. Sometimes it’s concern over hurricanes and tornados and that it’s harder to secure agriculture to the building, though we designed green roofs in hurricane-tornado zones all the time. So much is about urban patterns—if there’s a lot of vacant land, people will farm there first.