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Rooftop Gardens Become Must-Have Amenities in New Developments

Urban farms have traditionally occupied unused plots of land in some of the most crowded cities in the world. Intermixing the greenery with the concrete, these farms are supported by government subsidies and community contributions, and are intended to educate youth and support low-income families.

But, the booming real estate market has put a pressure on these programs. As the plots of land once used for farms transform into new developments, urban farms move to more rural areas or transition to smaller-scale gardens on rooftops.

Green rooftop 2.0 (aka rooftop farming)

The former green rooftop has been brought to a new level with the addition of the farming culture. Steven Peck, founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities recently told National Geographic that rooftop farming is still “very much in its infancy. But it has a lot of promise to provide jobs and healthy food in cities."

Gardens have long been a form of sustainable support: they absorb stormwater, reduce the heat island effect, and convert food waste into compost. Hydroponic farms can help spare forests and grasslands from destruction.

As an emphasis on sustainability and green design increases, rooftop gardens are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Architects now design specifically for attractive outdoor spaces with advanced irrigation systems, arboretums, and even sculpture gardens. The overall belief is that a well designed rooftop gardens creates a more productive building with better, healthier occupants and better citizens at large. Top names in the industry including Beacon Capital and Boston Properties are implementing gardens and in some case educational programs in new developments.

Brooklyn Grange: a success story

In VTS's backyard, the best example is Brooklyn Grange, founded in 2010. It now grows more than 50,000 pounds of produce each year and provides produce to markets, restaurants and individuals in the area. The company first gained traction in discussions with Standard Motor Products building, at the time aiming to attract younger tenants with new amenities.

Brooklyn Grange has successfully supplemented its produce income with everything from yoga classes to a training program for beekeepers. Offering a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline, the farm can be rented for photoshoots, weddings, private dinners, and more.

What does this mean for CRE?

The rooftop garden has effectively become a must-have amenity, thanks to the merging of two realms: urban farming and sustainable green roofs. In the last 5-7 years, urban farms have steadily gained popularity in such markets as St. Louis, Detroit, Denver, Boston, New York, Toronto, and Montreal. Chicago alone has over 5 million square feet of gardens on 500 rooftops.

Most new residential (and commercial for that matter) developments include green space on rooftops, balconies, and full-floor amenity spaces. Gardens have joined the ranks of gyms, pools, movie theaters, and conference rooms.

But will it fade away as creative amenities continue to appear? As the debate over affordable housing and 421-A continues, will this amenity maintain (or regain) its original community purpose? On the economics side, urban gardens ultimately face the same challenges as small farms in rural areas - there is a price cap for produce and labor is increasingly expensive. People looking to manage the farm as a small business typically supplement income with low-effort, high-yield microgreens and products such as hot sauce, jams, and cheeses. In the next economic downturn, what will happen to these gardens?

Katie Paxton Christ

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