Can Vegetables Get Vertigo? Brooklyn’s Newest Farm Makes the Most of Rooftop Real Estate

An unusual urban agricultural company is using available rooftop space to grow crops New Yorkers want on their dinner plates.

(Photo Courtesy Gotham Greens/Mark Weinberg)

Dec 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Zinzi is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle writer and editor. She's contributed to Bon Appétit, Refinery29, Studio@Gawker​, and Dwell among others.

New Yorkers have an uncanny knack for fitting resources into inconceivably small spaces, especially when it comes to its sea of rooftops—used for everything from bars to movie theaters. For one company, the penchant for going vertical includes a full-scale GMO-free, organic, hydroponic farm.

Gotham Greens uses about 35,000 square feet of rooftop greenhouse space to grow vegetables—lettuces, leafy greens, tomatoes—and its mission is to give the surrounding community access to affordable produce. Its first greenhouse was built in 2011, followed by a second opening on top of Whole Foods in Brooklyn. We talked with cofounder Viraj Puri about scarcity, urbanization, and how to grow premium-quality, pesticide-free produce in a bustling city.

TakePart: What was the impetus for starting the company?

Viraj Puri: We wanted to address the growing ecological and public health concerns surrounding conventional agriculture. Consumers increasingly care about how and where their food is produced and are demanding more integrity and transparency.

TakePart: Do you have a guiding ethos or mission that drives what you do?

Puri: The goal is to advance urban agriculture. We had a vision for a local, ecologically driven, urban farm operation that could offer city dwellers the freshest and highest-quality culinary ingredients year-round and at competitive prices. We’re heavily inspired by technology and a sense of duty to address ecological issues facing our agricultural system.

TakePart: The greenhouse is visually and structurally so impressive—how did you even begin to build this?

Puri: Thank you! A lot of hard work. Being a pioneer in this type of facility [rooftop greenhouse] meant that there was little precedent and no examples to follow. Many of the design and logistical challenges stem from being several stories up in the air. Architecture, engineering, permitting, regulatory factors, and construction are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to. But we’ve taken our experience in environmental design and adapted it to our location and needs.

TakePart: What role do you think efficiency plays in the next phase of agriculture?

Puri: The increasing scarcity of natural resources underscores the importance of efficiency in agriculture and food production. Population growth, urbanization, and climate change are all factors that will strain the global food system over the next half century. Global population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050, with more than two-thirds living in cities. Ordinarily, once grown and harvested, food must travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers, but controlled-environment agriculture, like ours, can optimize quality crop production for the urban environment.

TakePart: What are you growing, and where are you sourcing from?

Puri: We’re growing a variety of leafy greens, lettuce, culinary herbs, and tomatoes using organic, non-GMO seeds in our greenhouses. We focus on these as they are highly perishable and are difficult to find locally year-round.

TakePart: Growing year-round in the Northeast is difficult even in a greenhouse. What systems do you have in place to ensure that your energy and water consumption are in line with your mission?

Puri: In order to efficiently operate year-round, we’ve designed the greenhouses to reduce energy demand. We use computer control systems, advanced thermal design features, on-site renewable energy systems, and rooftop integration to reduce our energy footprint. Additionally, as agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater on the planet, we use a recirculating hydroponic system. Our irrigation system actually uses 20 times less water than conventional agriculture.

TakePart: What’s on the horizon for Gotham Greens?

Puri: We’ll be opening farms in Queens [New York] and Chicago in 2015—60,000 square feet and 75,000 square feet, respectively. We’ve proven our model in New York and are now ready to take it on the road to other urban locations. Our goal is to become a local brand on a national scale.

(Quotes have been edited for space and clarity.)