Last time (part 1), we were introduced to Urban Habitat Chicago, took off our shoes, and stretched our feet on an edible lawn. This time, we visit a Chicago rooftop during the summer of 2007, where buckwheat sways in the breeze, collard greens with leaves as broad as a chair seat flourish, and tomatoes and peppers ripen, all in view of a passing elevated train.
Scale Two: Building
The Rooftop Victory Garden at True Nature Foods and its legacy
“Hard to argue against a tomato.”
Michael Repkin has a way with pithy sayings.
At times, they oversimplify to the point of confusion. The more memorable are amusing, and the best of them are true in sometimes surprising ways.
Repkin’s latest was related to the adage “don’t complain with your mouth full.”
We were on top of a roof in the Uptown neighborhood in 2007, watering by hand with a hose, having happened to overspray someone from the neighboring bar standing outside, sixteen feet below. Repkin imagined any fist-shaking and harsh words would be quickly neutralized by dropping a fresh tomato directly into the man’s upturned mouth. How could anyone, he reasoned, object to the gift of free, hyperlocal rooftop-grown produce?
The Rooftop Victory Garden (Fig. 2-1) was conceived and designed by Urban Habitat Chicago for client True Nature Foods – an organics co-op, previously the site of a muffler shop, and prior to this, a World War II-era ‘victory garden.’ We competed for – and won – $5,000 from the City of Chicago Green Roof Grants Program: Residential and Small Commercial Buildings from the Department on the Environment toward the construction of a vegetated roof. Funds helped cover evaluation of the existing building by a structural engineer, as well as materials, with architectural services for designing the building retrofit and permitting provided pro bono (by myself, again in full disclosure). Labor for installation was also pro bono, courtesy of Urban Habitat Chicago.
By 2007, Urban Habitat Chicago’s procedures were becoming more-or-less regularized.
Hand-watering would be replaced by drip irrigation regulated by an automated timer. Irregular volunteering was dropped in favor of a more committed core of rooftop agricultural specialists from True Nature Foods and other interested persons trained by the organization. Repkin’s goals of selecting plants to produce ‘food, fuel, and fiber’ shifted more towards food. Selection of crops to be planted for the future seasons would no longer be based solely upon cost (i.e. free) and availability (at initial installation in late fall 2006 , UHC members literally scoured the area for native plants that could be relocated), but upon market value, and, increasingly, upon analysis of performance over previous seasons and observation of conditions unique to a spot sixteen feet above the heads of shoppers.
Chicago is moderately known for green roofs, having touted the 2001 retrofit of the City Hall roof for nearly a generation now. Yet, relatively few people experience a green roof in their daily lives, much less a rooftop garden which did more than the typical green roof with a few species of struggling sedum designed only to meet a LEED requirement or take advantage of permitting incentives such as a fee waiver or additional floor area ratio (FAR) allowance.
The Rooftop Victory Garden at True Nature Foods was intended to be a very different affair.
The underutilized ‘fifth façade’ of a building, usually a waste-space of roofing membranes tearing themselves apart through weather cycles, punctuated (and punctured) by mechanical units huffing away in the heat to balance temperatures for occupants inside and below, would, like the edible lawn, be instead put to work to produce food.
In the process, the project also became a living laboratory.
We marveled as plant species adapted quickly, with Repkin pointing out that yellow pear tomatoes responded to buffeting by Midwestern winds and shallow growing media by producing shorter, heartier, and very productive plants with robust horizontal root systems. After all, what species are inherently native to a roof?
Over time, the roof also exhibited traits similar to natural succession on bare rock, whereby certain species – aided by beneficial microbes – began to cluster in the nutrient-absent lightweight growing media (Fig. 2-2), paving the way to support more robust species through biocolonization. By its third season (Fig. 2-3), upon removing a test section, it was found that root systems were continuing to develop horizontally, intertwining symbiotically to produce a living mat within the growing media.
What began as a drive to produce food in a place we often forget about – rooftops – while striving to recast the connections of urban residents to their environment in a meaningful way became a springboard to other initiatives, leading to processes and products for a developing market.
The 2009 Red Line Green Roofs Initiative, spearheaded by Repkin and myself, sought —
“to re-imagine a considerable portion of the urban environment as a diverse, robust, productive, and beautiful constructed rooftop ecosystem which uses a major public transit artery as an organizing element to increase visibility by the public.”
The test ground would be 50,000 square feet of rooftop retrofits in the 48th Ward along the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line branch.
While the initiative did not move forward, Repkin continued to refine the prototype lightweight system developed for the Rooftop Victory Garden in residential and commercial applications over the next 6 years, resulting in the comprehensive Omni Roof ™ system offered by Omni Ecosystems (Figs. 2-4, 2-5).
Recent projects which bear the stamp of the innovations applied from the True Nature Foods Rooftop Victory Garden include the Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Headquarters, the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, and Chicago’s Homestead Restaurant and Lillstreet Art Center.
Next time (part 3), we visit a state-of-the-art Chicago high school where the windows of a special needs classroom once looked out onto a barren, uninspiring landscape.
Figures 2-4 and 2-5 used under Fair Use Doctrine – the article is commenting on the Omni Ecosystem roof.