You have to try all the angles if you want to grow food in a concrete jungle: rooftops, medians, spaces between sidewalks. In 2008, urban farming advocate and former teen pop star Taja Sevelle saw a green building festooned with vertical landscaping and asked a simple question: Could we grow food like that?
She asked an architect, Robin Osler, and soon four vertical gardens were raised in Los Angeles, part of Sevelle’s lifelong quest to get more fresh produce into the hands of people who needed it.
“As soon as you saw a garden on the wall, my mind and other people’s minds started thinking outside the box. Like, ‘we can grow anywhere,’” Sevelle said.
She says a rooftop or wall garden can cut up to 60 percent of heating and cooling costs for the host building because of the insulation. On a larger scale, it reduces the “heat island” effect in big cities.
But Sevelle’s mission is much bigger than energy and cost savings. She hopes the wall designs, along with other urban farming solutions, will be one of the keys to global food security.
“We want our children to ask us: ‘What was that like, you guys, when there was hunger? Because we can’t imagine it. Because we see gardens on walls, gardens on rooftops, gardens in people’s yards, edible landscaping. We don’t understand why, for generations, you guys didn’t figure this out.’”
To help fertilize a global anti-hunger movement, Urban Farming launched a Global Food Chain network that boasts more than 60,000 registered gardens in 20 countries. Appearances on CNN in 2007 and Ellen in 2010 helped to boost the organization’s profile.
George Irwin, the president and founder of Green Living Technologies International who worked on the project, downplayed design challenges.
“Looking at the intricacies of – let’s just say a rock face. It was actually a simple design by Mother Nature,” he said. “All we did is add modern materials and the science behind it.”
He said nearly any crop will grow on a vertical face as long as nutrients in the soil are properly balanced. That means it’s easier to grow a single crop on each wall. Root systems will anchor most plants, he said, and stems will just reach out and make a 90-degree turn toward the sun. Corn and rice have been tough to make work, he said – though he’s working on a solution for corn.
Irwin grows produce from walls year-round at a research facility in Rochester, New York. On his Facebook page, he recently bragged about a tri-color pasta dish that used shallots, onion, basil, oregano, chives, thyme, peppers and tomato that were all harvested from walls.
Robin Osler, an architect with Elmslie Osler Architects who developed designs for Urban Farming, said she tried to tie together the concepts of cultivation, harvest and community in her plans. She has found public response to the walls has been encouraging, and often unexpected.
She recalls the story of a pre-teen child at a school in downtown Los Angeles, where one of the edible walls had been installed.
“This one kid had never seen a fresh tomato. Never. And he picked one off the wall and bit into it like an apple, and it was this revelation. And he took the tomato home to show his parents,” Osler said.
For the future, Osler wants to see urban farming expand beyond isolated pilot projects. She hopes to eventually see many more community gardens crop up in public spaces.
“I’m interested in how we can integrate it more into the everyday,” she said.