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Grain on the Roof: Rooftop Gardens in Florida

Kevin Songer's company, MetroVerde, designed the rooftop garden at Breaking Ground Contracting in Jacksonville. The garden reduces heat in the building. [Photo: Breaking Ground Contracting]

On a searing summer day in Jacksonville, the roof at the headquarters building of Breaking Ground Contracting Co. is bursting with fresh vegetables. Cherry tomatoes, silky green beans and plump eggplants hang in bunches despite the heat, drought and choking smoke from nearby wildfires.

The veggies, herbs, flowering plants and natives are irrigated with condensate captured from two adjacent commercial air conditioners. The rooftop greenery absorbs CO2 above. It reduces heat in the building below. It captures runoff that would otherwise be piped to the city's stormwater drains. Perhaps best of all for Breaking Ground employees: When they want pesto for dinner, they can simply pick a bunch of basil before they leave work.

Taking garden breaks rather than coffee breaks, popping cherry tomatoes instead of M&Ms and watching butterflies flutter on coreopsis flowers "will drop your blood pressure 10 diastolic and systolic points," says Kevin Songer, owner of MetroVerde, the Jacksonville-based green roof consulting firm that designed Breaking Ground's gardens.

The rooftop Eden is more than a workplace perk. It also represents a new frontier in farming known as urban agriculture. The concept has long been popular on rooftops in New York. But now, it's spreading across the nation to revitalizing inner-city areas in places such as Milwaukee, where farmer and

MacArthur genius award winner Will Allen grows food for thousands of urbanites on two acres at his non-profit farm, Growing Power.

Across Florida, urban pioneers are bringing food to rooftops, vacant lots and neighborhood green spaces. The idea is to cultivate fresh, local food for communities, beautify urban blight and reduce transportation, pollution and other costs associated with large-scale farms. Michael Madfis, an architect for 30 years, now runs Fort Lauderdale Vegetables, which helps communities get started with urban ag. One project, a 7,000-sq.-ft. garden with funding from the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, the Pantry of Broward, the Urban League and the Carlyle Group, produces $1,000 worth of fruits and vegetables a week. Another company, The Urban Farmer, co-founded by Jessica Padron and Jon Albee, turned a gritty lot off Powerline Road in Pompano Beach into an oasis of hydroponic vegetables. In Miami, the non-profit Roots in the City operates farms and farmers markets throughout Overtown.

The trend has led an increasing number of Florida cities and counties to amend local land-use plans to allow more small-scale agricultural production and sale in urban areas. The ultimate goal, says Alachua County planner Holly Banner, who helped develop a new set of urban-ag policies adopted earlier this year: "Increased access to healthy, fresh, local food choices in the urban area and additional market opportunities for our local agricultural producers."

Similar to other aspects of green building, from solar panels to rainwater harvesting, citizen interest is drawing large developers to take a look. Master-planned communities Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida and Hobe Grove in Martin County are among several large projects around the state whose plans include the integration of community vegetable gardens ["Florida's 'Green Utopias'"].

Kevin Songer
[Photo: Ryan Ketterman]