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Inventive Possibilities for Urban Farming

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Philadelphia has thousands of flat roofs that lay empty soaking up the sun and collecting rain. But imagine if those roofs were transformed into vibrant farms that provided locally grown food to neighborhood residents.

That is the vision a group of neighbors, gardeners, architects, and builders had when they formed Philadelphia Rooftop Farm (PRooF) to explore the possibilities for building organic farms on residential roofs in Philadelphia.

“Rooftop farming is a natural idea once you stand on a roof looking out at all the available space.  The volume of produce you could grow is exciting,” said Jay Sand, one of the founders of PRooF.

PRooF was awarded a service grant from the Collaborative to work with a team of volunteer design professionals, engineers and roof experts to assess the feasibility of the project and to develop design prototypes.

“Having the Collaborative team focus on the project for several months was a huge benefit and advanced our thoughts on the project and its issues. It was great to work with visionary professionals who are eager to think big picture and are used to working with City government and building code,” remarked Sand.

The volunteer team of Mario Gentile, Jeffrey Levine, Gavin Riggall, Alexa Bosse, Clifford Schwinger, Michael Funk, and James Gartside addressed issues ranging from roof access to structural stability to planter design.  The team also convened a task force that included urban farming experts, city government officials and academics to discuss issues and concerns surrounding rooftop farming.

  • Proposed option for a rooftop planter system using bridge framing.

“The task force brought together many people from many areas.  Everyone with an interest in the project was involved from students to people from the city zoning department.  It was remarkable to have all those people and ideas together in a collaborative effort,” said Gentile, an architect from Shift Space Design LLC and the lead volunteer on the project. The volunteers realized there were many barriers to rooftop farming, particularly legal roof access and zoning and building code compliance.  The team was able to advise PRooF on how to address these constraints and provide them with guidelines to help move the project forward.  They created a design for modular planter boxes that are low cost, self-watering and can be easily assembled in advance or on site.  The volunteers provided several options for installing the planters using wood framing that would be structurally feasible, limit roof damage, and ensure user safety.

  • The team's design for a planter box  that uses a mulch cover, an aeration screen, a water reservoir and geotextile fabric.

According to Gentile, roof access and code issues can be solved on an individual basis but, for a long-term solution, the zoning and building code needs to be updated for rooftop farming, like differentiating between roof decks and roof farms.  Sand thinks having the diagrams from the Collaborative will help influence decision-makers and get them to envision the feasibility and benefits of the project.

“The PRooF project was interesting and part of the whole move towards sustainability and growing food locally and being aware that we live in a world of finite resources and that we need to use resources smarter,” said Schwinger, a structural engineer with The Harman Group. “After the project I decided to plant my first garden and maybe I will open up my roof and put a garden up there.”

This summer PRooF volunteers will be getting their hands dirty building the planter prototypes on the ground and testing growing variables.  The next step will be to install the system on an actual rooftop and turn the concept into a working reality.

“It might take a while, but some way we will make it work,” said Sand.


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