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Gardens in the Desert?

When people think of the Red Sox, a multitude of thoughts and emotions come to mind: Boston, their rivalry with the Yankees, love, eight World Series victories, and hatred, among others. What the vast majority of fans, adversaries, and everything in between don’t think about, however, is gardening. Yet, as of April 13, 2015, Fenway Park, the iconic home of the Red Sox, now sports a rooftop garden on the third base side of the stadium. This garden serves a large variety of purposes, including supplying the team’s kitchen with fresh organic produce, providing insulation for the building and lowering energy costs, improving air quality, and simply creating a more pleasing aesthetic. This concept of rooftop gardening, though apolitical when at a baseball stadium, could be utilized as a solution to a little discussed topic in the modern day political climate — food insecure areas. If governments, businesses, and communities utilize rooftop gardening more widely, it can serve as an environmentally friendly solution to the issue of food insecure areas.

Food insecure areas, sometimes referred to as food deserts or food apartheids, are zones (ranging in size from neighborhoods to entire towns) that lack reliable access to healthy and affordable food. Food insecure areas can take on many forms, ranging from a neighborhood isolated from grocery stores, to areas where the only sources of nutritious food are too expensive for many families living there to afford.

A Harvard School of Public Health study found that healthier foods are more expensive due to policy choices made by corporations, causing “a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.” Rooftop gardens could help to solve this problem. Growing food on or near the site of sale and/or consumption dramatically reduces the costs for storage and transportation, and the very nature of rooftop gardening — growing fresh produce — eliminates the need for processing and manufacturing. Having locally-grown, healthy foods would begin the process of making a nutritious and inexpensive diet available for all. Rooftop gardens, therefore, in order to be as effective as possible in combating food deserts, should be installed at strategic locations — particularly those with large rooftop space and community centrality, such as schools and apartment buildings.

There are numerous practical and environmental benefits that come from the installation of rooftop gardens. Installing a rooftop garden provides far more insulation than a traditional roof does; the additional layers can help to mitigate the loss of heat from the house. A study carried out on a rooftop garden built in Singapore found that it could reduce annual energy consumption by up to 14.5 percent. This addresses the environmental concern of saving energy while also being economically beneficial – who can argue with spending less money on energy? Additionally, rooftop gardens help to improve air quality; estimates have shown that installing 109 hectares of rooftop gardens, or 0.42 square miles, could remove 7.87 metric tons of air pollutants per year. While that may seem like a massive amount of garden space, it is minuscule when compared to the size of most cities, with New York City and Chicago coming in at 304.8 and 227.6 square miles, respectively. It’s no secret that plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, and so adding extra plants to relatively barren cities is always a good thing.

Rooftop gardens are also widely praised as a solution to the “urban heat island effect.” This is when the roofs of buildings, under full sun exposure, heat up to extreme temperatures. The collective heating of the rooftops in cities, where building density is extremely high, causes heat to radiate off the buildings. This causes the city to warm up to 5.4°F more than the surrounding suburbs, and in the evening can cause a difference of up to 22°F. This, according to the EPA, can cause a host of environmental concerns, including amplified energy consumption, raised emission of pollutants and greenhouse gasses, compromised human health, and impaired water quality. Rooftop gardens, however, have been shown to help negate this concern, cooling the roof and the air around them. Studies have shown that rooftop gardens can be up to 90°F cooler than conventional roofs.

Additionally, rooftop gardens, if done in the right way, can create new jobs for people in the surrounding areas. These gardens, in any context, also have the potential to generate profits. As long as the plants being grown can be harvested and sold, such as fruits, vegetables, or spices, the rooftop garden may produce income, even if not very much, for the owner. A part of this income can be used to pay for the workers who maintain the garden. The building that has the garden makes money, and more jobs are created for those living in the surrounding communities: it sounds like a win-win situation.

With so many potential benefits that come along with constructing rooftop gardens, the question may arise, why aren’t there more? The most likely answer is that rooftop gardens cost up to twice as much to install as conventional roofs do. This alone would hinder many from installing them, even with the potential benefits. Additionally, green roofs weigh more than conventional roofs, and so it can sometimes be difficult to install to a preexisting structure. This is where the government should take an active role.

Recognizing the many benefits that green roofs have for the general welfare, environment, and community, New York City offers partial property tax abatements to those who install green roofs, to help accommodate the additional cost of the roof. Additionally, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 formerly allowed for up to $500 in federal tax credits per square foot of garden roof installed, but expired on December 31, 2016. This bill did not go far enough, however, as $500 is practically nothing in relation to the total cost of building a rooftop garden. Environmental policy and human rights advocates need to lobby for more expansive legislation in this area. While corporations are often resistant to many environmental policy goals, such as cutting carbon emissions or reducing dependency on fossil fuels, giving tax breaks for rooftop gardens is a neutral policy goal. It does not require action from anyone, but gives incentives to those who wish to take steps to protect the environment.

Unfortunately, in many cases, particularly in low-income areas, the initial cost of constructing rooftop gardens may be too much for many families, businesses, or landlords to afford, even with government subsidies or tax breaks. That does not, however, mean that the future of rooftop gardening as a solution to food deserts is hopeless. The sustainability of rooftop gardens can make them even more effective than other common aid forms like soup kitchens or food pantries. Instead, much like other common poverty assistance programs, donations and activism from non-profits can help to pick up the slack. In Atlanta, for example, the city’s largest homeless shelter, Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, received a small grant from Emory University to build a rooftop garden. With it, they created a garden that feeds the over 400 men, women, and children who live within the shelter. With the right amount of startup funding, rooftop gardens can sustain themselves.

In today’s world, food insecure areas are often given little attention, and environmental policy goals are pushed aside in the face of goals that are more visible and measurable to the average American. Rooftop gardens are a way to begin to remedy both of these issues. If governments step up and give tax reductions or abatements for those who install rooftop gardens, we soon could see far more rooftop gardens than there are today — making a cleaner and prettier world for all.


About the Author

Taylor Auten '20 is both a US Section Staff Writer and Associate Editor for the Brown Political Review.