New York’s historic Essex Street Market recently moved from its original location into a modern space, urban farms on the city’s rooftops are closer aligned with society’s increased food consciousness than many fresh produce markets.
It seemed for a while like the big supermarket chains would run the global food production process indefinitely, making choices for us based on profit, and not on health. To some degree, depending on the country, these entities can dictate agriculture and even threaten farmers who do not fall in line. As we have become more conscious of where our food is sourced, the desire for fresh produce in our cities has increased.
Since 1940, the Essex Street Market was one of New York’s most notable public markets. In the 19th century, on a site that began as a space for pushcart peddlers, by the middle of the 20th century became a building to house small food businesses, mostly run by immigrants.
In 2018, this iconic market left its well worn home for over seven decades to move across the street into the glossy new Essex Crossing, a 1.9 square-foot, mixed-use megaproject designed by SHoP Architects. The new location will span 37,000 square-feet, almost triple the size of the old location. It will include spaces for catered events and cooking classes, and two restaurants. Surely, the Essex Street Market will continue to be a place for people who enjoy food to connect with each other, and with the shop owners, but are the traditional fresh produce markets, like Essex Street or London’s Borough Market, the truest way to connect people with their food?
Across the East River from Manhattan, on rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens, New Yorkers have another way to get close to their food. Urban agriculture, cultivated on rooftops by Brooklyn Grange, provides 50,000 lbs of fresh produce annually. Open nine months of the year, the one-acre commercial rooftop farm in Queens, and the 1.5-acre rooftop farm atop an 11-story building in Brooklyn, are both soil-based.
In other parts of the city, Sky Vegetables and Gotham Greens both operate hydroponic rooftop farms year-round, together serving hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh produce every year. Hydroponic greenhouses can use up to 50 per cent less water than greenhouses located on the ground using soil. A high level of technical choreography is required for these greenhouse facilities to fulfil New Yorkers desire for locally grown food.
Rainwater and melted snow are harvested for plants that also receive recirculated irrigation water mixed with added nutrients. Plants are all grown hydroponically from a coconut fibre substrate, with each plant being feed through a tube inserted into the substrate carrying a solution of harvested rainwater and nutrients. Each plant receives water through a closed loop system, and any excess is returned to a main system for reuse. The solution then gets adjusted depending on how much the plants ate, and remixed with nutrients again. Pepper and cucumber plants are pollinated by bumblebees, while thyme and parsley grow under LED lights at slightly cooler temperatures. Ladybugs and parasitoid wasps provide pest control and kill off the aphids that gorge on plant sap.
The greenhouse acts as a buffer between the outside climate and heat generated from the building below. As a result, the annual energy costs for buildings with greenhouses can be reduced by 30 per cent. Gas is used on extremely cold days to effectively keep the plants warm during the winter, while HPS lamps stand-in for the sun on cloudy days, creating heat for the greenhouse. Thermal curtains, deployed depending on the external temperature, reduce heat loss during the winter. Each technical phase and minute of operation is monitored by on-site agricultural software.
Every year, thousands of New Yorkers tour these urban farms and greenhouses, especially youth from local schools, to learn about healthy eating and urban agriculture. The masses come to see how the vegetables are grown and to meet the people doing the picking. That is an almost impossible experience with traditional farms, which can grow vegetables that need to be shipped thousands of miles to a distribution centre or a market before it even gets to the consumer in a particular city. It also goes beyond meeting the shop owner or seller of fresh produce in a market. Food from a rooftop farm or greenhouse can be grown and delivered to a consumer in a few days, instead of a few weeks.
For generations, we have become use to fresh produce markets, but exactly where the food is coming from, and under what conditions it was cultivated is too often a mystery. People have a right to know what they are consuming. There is no mystery where our food is coming from when it is being grown from a rooftop down the street. This immediate proximity is why urban farming is becoming the truest way to connect people with their food.
Words Phil Roberts