Five varieties of kale. Fresh arugula, lettuces and herbs arranged in neat rows. It’s a typical Californian vegetable garden — except it’s nine stories off the ground. The patch of greens and morning sunlight are juxtaposed against the industrial metals, bright billboard display and giant corporate logo in the backdrop. Levi’s Stadium, the sign proclaims.
This well-manicured garden, planted last year, is the first to top an NFL stadium. The Atlanta Falcons are following suit with a raised-bed garden of their own, and baseball stadiums are already in on the game: Boston’s Fenwick Park set up a rooftop garden in 2015, and San Francisco’s AT&T Park boasts a vegetable garden behind center field.
Taken together, the unexpected confluence of professional sports and organic gardening signals just how far the sustainability conversation reaches — but also accentuates the role corporate patronage plays in enabling green urban design. Authentic local food production and energy savings aside, these gourmet, microgreen-rich enterprises are a far cry from the gritty, empty lot urban farms that defined the urban agriculture movement for the last two generations.
Christened “Faithful Farm,” Levi’s Stadium’s rooftop garden opened in July 2016 as a subsection of the stadium’s 27,000-square-foot green roof. As spring planting season nears, Faithful Farm produces 500 pounds of produce per month, on average.
“Originally, this roof was designed just as an ornamental perennial space,” said Emily Saeger, Faithful Farm’s full-time gardener. “It was all grasses and succulents.”
This much lower-maintenance green roof was incorporated into the stadium’s design early on, said Jim Mercurio, vice president of operations and general manager at Levi’s Stadium. Green roofs save energy by keeping the stadium cooler, reducing air conditioning costs. It earned the stadium points for LEED certification (a third-party accreditation for green building design), allowed them to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and also just looked good.
But then Danielle York, wife of San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, had an idea. She had hired urban farming venture Farmscape Gardens to landscape her backyard in Los Altos Hills, and asked Farmscape’s co-owner if she could develop a farm on the roof of Levi’s Stadium. The stadium’s operations team green-lighted the project on May 15, 2016. Just six weeks later, the garden was planted.