Growing Food in Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure has many purposes. Among them is food production, but do we use green infrastructure for this as much as we could?

Given proper management, there is plenty of scope to make better use of rooftops, walls and water sensitive urban design assets as sites for growing edible plants. These opportunities range in scale from modern twists on traditional home vegetable gardening to behemoth commercial operations.

Rooftops

A typical city rooftop is under-used. It is wasted space, wasted light and wasted rainwater, and an obvious site for urban gardening or farming. Rooftops can be used for food production in at least three ways:

1.   Commercial rooftop farms

Many commercial rooftop farms use soilless hydroponics systems. There are impressive examples internationally, in cities such as New York, Chicago, Montreal, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Amsterdam and The Hague, and it seems to be only a matter of time before they flourish in cities such as Guangzhou. Commercial rooftop farms are yet to take off in Australia where, despite frequent discussion over the last decade, we still lack a practical understanding of what it takes to establish rooftop farms in Australian cities.

2.   Rooftop community gardens

Community-style rooftop vegetable gardening has sprung up in many places, many of which feature a traditional type of container-based gardening, albeit at greater heights than most gardens. In a residential setting, a rooftop community garden is an opportunity for residents to connect with nature and to each other. In a commercial setting, it provides health and well-being benefits to staff, great marketing for the company, and direct benefits for the community if the produce is donated to charity. One of the key challenges in managing a rooftop community garden is keeping enthusiasm among the gardeners high, because their active participation is critical to success.

3.   Green roofs

Plants for green roofs are usually chosen based on their ability to survive the harsh conditions on a green roof (including the typically shallow substrate), their ability to manage stormwater, their ecological value, or how they look. Edible plants don’t generally fit the bill; vegetables in particular generally require deeper media and greater inputs of water and nutrients.

Nonetheless, research in the US has shown that it is possible to grow vegetables and herbs even in a typical green roof substrate of 10 centimetres or less. However, this does need careful management, especially fertility amendments, extra irrigation, and other regular maintenance such as harvesting. As green roofs are often used for stormwater management, it is important to find the right balance between meeting the needs of the plants and ensuring that runoff leaving the roof is high in quality and low in quantity. Nutrient leaching in particular could result from the application of irrigation and fertilizers, or from having organic-rich growing media.

Walls

There are two main types of vertical garden; green facades and green walls. Green facades are the simpler type (where a wall is designed to allow for climbing plants to grow onto it, or in front of it on a trellis), and might be suitable for a select few edible plants such as beans and peas.

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