Rooftop Vegetable Gardens, green jobs for our cities Touching The Earth Lightly

Rooftop Vegetable Gardens, green jobs for our cities Touching The Earth Lightly

Rooftop Vegetable Gardens, green jobs for our cities

When we walk through the City streets each day, dodging cars and mid-morning meetings, we seldom look up. We seldom considered how much space is actually “up there” and what we could do with that space

Lets for a moment refer to the many rooftops of the buildings that dot our city’s skyline as our Cities ‘green real estate’,  just waiting for the right ‘investors’ to realise the enormous profits – in socio-economic and environmental terms – that wait. Let us call those investors are you and me – the people of Cape Town.

A small rooftop garden was recently built at 44 Wale Street, commissioned by the City of Cape Town Environmental Resource Management (ERM) department. A small and humble pilot project for now, it’s aimed at engendering support for the large-scale rollout of this concept. Standing on the top of this roof, one gets an entirely different perspective of our city. There are, of course, all the landmarks one is used to seeing, but there are also literally rugby fields worth of rooftop space, that could to be turned into sustainable sources of income for those in need.

The concept of urban agriculture and rooftop gardening in cities is not new. Several major developed cities in the world are doing exactly this, but few of them can boast to having exploited their true job creation potential, most probably because they do not exist within the enormous social and economical inequalities of Cape Town.

The concept is simple: build wooden decking structures using alien invasive timber sourced off Table Mountain via the Working for Water (WfW) Program. The Program has successfully demonstrated how the clearing of alien invasive timbers can make meaningful and lasting socio-economic impacts in the lives of rural marginalised communities. Plans are currently afoot with WfW to establish nine timber mills aimed at processing large volumes of invasive timber for sale to established markets. The timber used in the proto-type vegetable rooftop garden in Wale Street was sourced this way, and consists of River-Red Gum and White Gum (both Eucalyptus species) that are ideal for outdoor use as decking, structural and sub-structural beams.

Capetonians who have walked the Hoerikwaggo Trail and overnighted in any of the five tented camps built along the spine of the Table Mountain Chain would have experienced the many creative uses of alien invasive timber. Rooftop vegetable gardens are no different, just must simpler to build.

Empty rooftop spaces in cities come with a ‘double bonus, in that they are all already waterproofed and self-draining. Traditionally seen as the “aesthetic afterthought” of city buildings, one simply has to nestle the timber structures gently and securely upon them.  The “afterthought” part come to the fore, and the practicalities of developing a  sub-culture of rooftop spaces become simpler. The structures are low impact, compliant in terms of building regulations and can be entirely removed without leaving a trace.

Rooftop gardens offer opportunities for design, for creative and passionate people to explore and encourage green-design principles, to suggest alternative ways of interacting with and living in a City. They are not just as growing spaces, but inner-city experimental spaces that harness the creative energy and simple, practical innovations. Rooftop spaces offer opportunities to test, showcase and develop new and simple renewable energy systems accessible to middle-income earners. Like homemade wind-turbines, home-made solar-cookers, passive solar water heating systems.

We must also include opportunities for aqua-farming, the growing of edible mushrooms and bee-keeping as well. Once built, we must expose these spaces to our children, as organised school outings where an ethos of fun, creativity and custodianship to our planet prevail. Rooftop gardens thus become gifts to our children too.

But the backbone of the vegetable rooftop garden concept in Cape Town, revolves around exploiting any and all job-creation opportunities.  By recruiting homeless and unemployed people to build and maintain these structures, and to grow and sell vegetables to “downstairs” delis and restaurants, we can facilitate a mutually beneficial relationship between them and the eco-conscious consumer who wants fresh, organic, local produce.

We are talking job-creation, plain and simple.

Local prior examples of “green” job-creation efforts exist and should be reflected on. The Expanded Public Works Footpath Program implemented by Table Mountain National Park between 2004 and 2008 recruited over 400 previously unemployed people from informal settlement surround Table Mountain. During this period men and woman, most of whom had never walked up Table Mountain, re-built over 250 km’s of footpaths using stone collected and stockpiled from the Chapmans Peak landslides. If such undertakings can be achieved with success, we can surely emulate   efforts of this nature in the City, using lifts and stairs to access these spaces.

Filling rooftop spaces with vegetable gardens does not leave a trail of cement and brick. Instead, it shows that public funds can grow green jobs, support a lifestyle of healthy living, and stimulate micro-economies: between rooftops and restaurants, buildings and side-alleys, and people and their stomachs.

The benefits of growing vegetables on empty roof space in the city would have several positive knock-on effects. They regulate the temperature of city buildings, thereby reducing their energy consumption. They reducing carbon emissions by limiting the number of delivery trucks driving into the city. They reduce the biomass of alien invasive timber on Table Mountain and mountain areas of conservation value, thus increasing the water run-off within their catchment areas. They bring vegetables back into Cities.

We have so much positive energy and creative momentum within Cape Town due to the World Design Capital 2014, the work of the Cape Town Partnership, the Central City Improvement District and the Premier’s 2012 “green budget”. I believe that large-scale rooftop vegetable gardening could offer a sustainable conduit to amalgamate and achieve all of the objectives set out by these organisations.

‘Going green’ is currently at a juncture of values. We need to ensure that our collective design efforts make impacts in the lives of the poor first and foremost. Its disheartening to see green-designers arrive with personalised number plates fixed proudly to luxury four-wheel drive cars to preach a gospel of sustainable living. How can middle and low income earners follow an example outside of their daily nine to five realities?

Rooftop Vegetable Gardens, green jobs for our cities Touching The Earth Lightly

We seem quite willing to fly to conventions and meetings around the world, to talk about how we can save the planet but maybe we should stay at home more and talk about how the planet can save us.

We are talking simple truths here. Plants come from the ground. They do not come from containers in Checkers and Woolworths. Water comes from the clouds. Not from plastic bottles, taps, or the Department of Water Affairs.

With this as a backdrop I believe that we should ask local government to roll out, on a large scale, rooftop vegetable gardens in Cape Town, run by the poor, with the management, mentoring and training support required.

We do not need to spend exorbitant professional service fees to crack the nut of photosynthesis or the unexplainable wonder of how a plant draws water vertically against gravity. It’s already happening, all around us. We need passionate people to make these things happen.

As a boy, when I asked my father for something frivolous he would decline my request with the sentence, “and I’ll buy you a farm in Adderley Street”.  I would resign myself to the fact that I would not be getting what I wanted because everyone knows that there are no farms in Adderley Street.

But now, as a late thirty-something, I smile at these words of my father. Because we do actually have a farm in Adderley Street, and in other lesser-known streets in Cape Town’s City Bowl. Many micro-farms in fact. They are just waiting to be created, right above our heads.

Premiere Helen Zille recently announced her administrations’ drive to create real and meaningful “green jobs” aimed at stimulating a green economy. Well, its time we did something about all the empty rooftop spaces in our city. If we get it right in Cape Town, we can offer the lessons learnt to other cities, all of which face similar challenges of food security and job creation.

I therefore urge our Mayor and her team to capitalise on this opportunity and create a micro-economy of localised small-scale urban agriculture on our City rooftop’s, knowing full well that she will have the support of her city and it’s people

For more information on this project, contact Stephen Lamb @

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