Urban agriculture and green roofs

May 21, 2007

I am currently in the midst of creating an online documentary about a group called the Urban Orchard, a community-based urban agriculture project in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs.  

The Urban Orchard was initially formed to allow people with backyard fruit trees to get together with others in their local area and swap surplus produce that would otherwise go to waste.  So someone with a plum tree, for example, could swap their excess plums for some other fruit that they didn’t have – apricots, say, or lemons or figs.  Quickly, though, the project expanded to include vegetables, herbs, seeds and plants, and even home-made jams.  Members now meet once a week at the CERES market in Brunswick East, where they swap produce, as well as gardening advice, recipes and general neighbourly chit-chat.   

As well as the simple pleasures of being able to grow and share one’s own food, the program has a myriad of beneficial outcomes: it reduces food miles and environmental impacts associated with food production and transportation; it supports biodiversity through seed saving and sharing; it encourages the consumption of healthy, seasonal produce; and it strengthens local community networks.

It has been a fascinating process to visit and interview members of the group.  Their gardens range from the modest to the awe inspiring – it’s amazing to see how productive a small urban backyard can actually be. 

But it is inevitable that as cities grow, the space for gardening will shrink.  Like most Australian cities, Melbourne’s long-term urban planning vision involves increased subdivision and the development of higher density housing in existing suburbs, to counter the negative environmental and social impacts of urban sprawl.

Will this trend towards increased densification reduce the ability to produce food in the city?  Take a look at the satellite-view of Melbourne on Google Maps and you’ll soon see a vast under-utilised area that could be turned into productive green space – the city’s rooftops.

Check out the Green Roofs for Healthy Australian Cities blog to learn more about green roofs and urban rooftop ‘micro-farming’.  The benefits and possibilities seem endless, and extend far beyond urban agriculture:  

“Green roofs can provide a wide range of public and private benefits, including significantly reduced fossil energy use, reduced peak runoff of roofwater, aesthetically pleasing cityscapes, longer roof life, and reduce ‘heat island effects’ of cities.”
  – Green Roofs for Healthy Australian Cities

There is some innovative research and development in this area going on in Queensland at the moment, including a CQU study looking at the production of ‘roof-food’ using urban organic waste.  Read about it at the Urban Agriculture Network blog. 

Also, have a look at this post on Dwellblog for some awesome photos of green roofs in the US and Europe.  And more inspiring pics here, at Urban Agriculture online.


  1. Very interesting trend. A move back to the days of barter? Where the actual ‘coin of exchange’ was not a coin but the actual goods on offer (effectively cutting out many of the, perhaps, extraneous middle men).

    There is something extremely romantic and appealing about the movement; the juxtaposition of urban vs. agricultural, of mother nature reclaiming some of her former glory; concrete entertwining with the organic; becoming a new harmonious whole.

    Of course, as ever, with have alot to learn from modern Japan about space and usage. Take for instance their skyscraper graveyards. Due to population density some bright spark formulated the idea of building graveyards up (via levels) similar to to multi-story apartment buildings. Perhaps an extreme example, but illustrative none the less.

  2. The water restrictions in Melbourne would have to have an impact on people growing their own food. We are very close to moving to Stage 4 restrictions which will make any outdoor watering illegal.

  3. Indeed. That’s why many people who grow their own food in the city now have rainwater tanks (though a suburban water tank won’t get you through a long, dry summer like the one we’ve just had). You raise an interesting point though – should people who grow their own food be exempt from stage 4 water restrictions? After all, all food needs water to grow – so if you save water by not buying irrigated fruit and vegetables from the supermarket, should you be allowed to ‘cash in’ that saved water and use it on your own garden??

  4. hey, what does the building codes say about roof top gardens? Is there a design manual avaliable.
    It might be a good idea to do a segment on “food miles and peak oil”.

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