Little Green Thumbs

Little Green Thumbs

The Fifth Street Farm Project, located atop the Robert Simon school complex on the Lower East Side, is the latest student farm to arrive in the city.
Rachel Kangas

The Fifth Street Farm Project has it all: It addresses childhood obesity, stormwater runoff, and climate change. Conceived by a grassroots organization of teachers, parents, and green-roof advocates, the project’s plan calls for a roof farm atop the Robert Simon Complex, a massive public school building on the Lower East Side that houses elementary schools P.S. 64 and the Earth School, as well as the Tompkins Square Middle School.

A plan for the new rooftop farm.
COURTESY Fifth Street Farm Project

Construction is due to commence this fall, and by next spring, school children should be planting vegetables on a 3,000-square-foot roof deck with spectacular views of the surrounding neighborhood. This experiment in urban agriculture, led by the World Trade Center Memorial designer Michael Arad, will be integrated into existing school courses on science and nutrition. The children will also have the opportunity to eat the food grown on the roof in their school cafeteria.

There is a lot of discussion about roof farms taking place at public schools throughout Manhattan. At several schools, parent groups are developing proposals and hiring architects. In addition to the schools at the Robert Simon Complex, plans are moving forward for roof farms atop P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side and at P.S. 41 on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village.

People involved in roof farm advocacy say they are motivated by concerns about what children are eating at lunchtime. “We are hoping to get rid of all the crappy food in the cafeteria,” says Alison Hazut, principal of The Earth School. “There’s still a lot of fried stuff happening.”

In spite of all the good intentions, there are formidable technical hurdles and political challenges to building a farm on top of a school. “There’s a lot of bureaucratic craziness,” said Susannah Vickers, director of Budget and Grants in the office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, which is contributing $500,000 toward the cost of the $750,000 project. “The School Construction Authority (SCA) is bound by a lot of regulations having to do with construction and school kids,” she added. “Things as arcane as the warranty of the roof—they have to do boring samples and engineering reports—and oftentimes the roof substructure is not able to support the new use.”

Indeed, parents and teachers at The Earth School, which already has a small agricultural program at ground level, have been talking about building a farmable green roof for years. However, the idea appeared to be going nowhere until Arad, whose child attends the school, got involved in the fall of 2008. “We needed a leader who really understood construction and architecture,” said Hazut, “and Michael had the language to speak to the SCA.”

A 3,000-square-foot roofdeck will support the farm, making it one of the largest green roofs in the city.
Rachel Kangas

Arad’s first idea, a low-budget concept for filling hundreds of plastic wading pools with dirt and placing them on the roof, didn’t get off the ground. After another plan involving prefab planters failed to get funding, Arad went back to the drawing board and designed a workable solution for a smaller deck based on the way that heavy equipment such as HVAC is typically supported on roofs. Stantec Architecture was hired by the SCA to develop that concept with input from Arad’s group.

The final plan involves cutting through the roof slab and stubbing up columns from a hallway in the center of the school. On top of the stubbed columns, two long steel beams will be placed as a foundation for a 20-foot-wide deck that will rest about four feet above the actual 60-foot-wide roof slab.

The Fifth Street Roof Farm will grow only a very small portion of the food served in the cafeteria, but it should play an important role in educating young taste buds. “The challenge was doing a green roof at a school and marrying it to this idea of a farmable roof,” said Arad. “You could do an extensive green roof here quite easily and walk away. But it wouldn’t engage school children like a roof farm can.”