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Gabriel Silverman/MEDILL

Kevin Pierce, far left, raises concerns over the scope of the new rooftop garden regulations. Molly Meyer, second from the right in black, who designs rooftop gardens, sees the changes as a potential economic boon.

City Council OKs commercial rooftop farms

by Gabriel Silverman
May 26, 2011


Gabriel Silverman/MEDILL

The Resource Center maintains a one-acre farm in the middle of Chicago.

Chicagoans may soon witness the transformation of the Windy City’s skyline from bare, unused rooftops into green fields of lettuce, herbs and vegetables.

The Chicago City Council’s zoning committee passed regulations Thursday that sanction the use of rooftops in commercial districts for growing and selling produce. Previously, the committee only gave special permission on a case-by-case basis.

“This means that green roofs, which have enormous benefits to the community, can now create financial benefits,” said Molly Meyer, owner of Rooftop Green Works LLC.

Meyer, who has been designing and installing green roofs for over four years, said a 12,000 square-foot rooftop – equivalent to two and a half basketball courts – can produce 20,000 pounds of vegetables a year. She predicts this would translate into $25 of revenue per square foot. Given the estimated $15 a square foot cost involved in rooftop farming, Meyer calculates that investors could be fully paid back in five years.

Creating these commercial pockets of agriculture throughout the city also would stimulate job creation, Meyer said. She predicted a 12,000 square-foot, fully functioning green roof could support two full-time workers from April to October each year and provide eight internship opportunities.

While most of the committee expressed excitement over the possibility for this form of urban agriculture, Ald. Timothy Cullerton had reservations.

Having worked in Chicago’s Department of Buildings for more than three decades, Cullerton articulated several potential safety hazards associated with extra weight on rooftops and emphasized the need for third-party inspections.

Meyer uses third-party structural engineers to vet her rooftop designs. She also pointed to the city’s rigorous permitting process as an additional safeguard for both farmers and building owners.

The committee also heard opposition from one urban agricultural advocate, Kevin Pierce who chairs the Resource Center, a non-profit organization behind a one-acre organic farm in Chicago.

“I don’t really see it as helping the overall movement,” Pierce said. “I see it as helping a narrow set of interests. It doesn’t support the overall potential of urban agriculture in the city.”

Pierce argues that Chicago lacks a comprehensive urban agriculture policy that takes into account the city’s potential for local food production.

“In the city there are 20,000 vacant lots, many in residential districts,” Pierce said, arguing that the zoning laws, which prohibit farms in residential areas, restrict organizations like the Resource Center from creating farms in areas that could use additional food sources.

Nonetheless, proponents of rooftop farms are excited about the change in regulation.

“We are looking forward to turning this model into reality and seeing how the numbers work out,” Meyer said.