Emma Bowen, Michael Zagoridis, Karen Erdos and Luke Heard
Farming unused urban spaces in Sydney city
Green Up Top is a not-for-profit incorporated association taking neglected spaces in metro Sydney and turning them into arable farmland to produce organic, fresh food for the city's residents. The Green Up Top farming model will introduce ways to reduce the carbon footprint, virtually eliminating the need for transport and uses permaculture farming methods to save energy and water. I spoke to co-founders Emma, Michael, Karen and Luke to hear about their vision for Green Up Top - which is more than just creating farms, but also to generate spaces for city slickers to sink their feet into the soil and learn about where food comes from, and how it is grown.
Where did the idea for Green Up Top come from? What inspired you to found Australia's first urban rooftop farm?
EMMA: It was a few thoughts colliding. Zag (Michael) was keen to quit the publishing industry and learn to farm, I was editing a sustainable living magazine at the time and suggested we look at an urban agriculture project. I'd interviewed the guys at Brooklyn Grange Farm in New York, and thought what they do is a great way of addressing many of the problems we have with food security and production, particularly in urban areas. So we decided to work our bums off at starting one here in Sydney. A few months later at a permaculture course where he was starting his training, Zag met Karen who had also had the similar idea of starting a rooftop farm, so we joined forces! We’ve since broadened our scope to urban farming both on-ground and on rooftops, depending on the availability of spaces.
KAREN: We wanted to find some positive local answers to some very big looming questions. A growing population, diminishing arable land, food miles... yet there are numerous opportunities around every city to take advantage of otherwise unused spaces.
We aim to identify these spaces - whether on the ground or on a rooftop, and transform them into productive organic farmland. As the issue of food security becomes more pertinent, we believe that urban agriculture can significantly contribute to a sustainable solution.
What are your backgrounds? Have you always been interested in gardening and farming?
ZAG: I was a graphic designer and art director for magazines for around ten years, but gave that up two years ago to become actively involved in organic food production. I was previously working at The Cooks Co-op in the Hawkesbury region and at Warrah Farm in Dural. I am now working full-time at Common2Us in Dural.
EMMA: Zag's childhood dream job was apparently to one day be a farmer but somehow he got waylaid. My background is in publishing too, I've spent the last decade writing for and editing magazines. Over the years I became really interested in sustainability, food ethics and edible gardening, which led to my job editing the Green Lifestyle magazine, and eventually down the path of permaculture and urban agriculture.
KAREN: I'm an architect and artist - and a new mum! I've been interested in gardening for a while, and this has in recent years progressed to permaculture and growing food.
Are you from the city or the county?
EMMA: Semi-country. I grew up on an acre or two with our own chooks, ducks and a goat. My parents never grew much food at home besides the stray pumpkin plant that would take over the chook shed from scraps, but we were amongst a community of people producing their own food and sharing it - from goats milk, honey, vegies and eggs. Zag and Karen are both from the city and it's surrounds - so I guess we're a good mix of backgrounds for the job!
How long ago did you start thinking about Green Up Top, and what stage of the project are you in now?
EMMA: We had the idea two years ago, and we're still cracking away at it! We're in the negotiation stages for a ground-level space set up for Spring/Summer 2014. We’re also in discussions for a rooftop space for 2015, as well as working with our partners and sponsors on structural and financial details.
What is your vision for the project when it reaches its fruition? What do you see in the future for Green Up Top?
EMMA: Other than the very obvious aim of producing fresh, local food for city folk that requires minimal transport to reach their plate, our vision for the farm is to create a hub of education and green space in a city environment that is otherwise a jungle of hard surfaces.
It'll be somewhere that urban residents can come and spend their time whether volunteering, doing a workshop or attending a dinner, so that the conversation of where our food comes from, what goes into growing and producing it, and appreciating it, is always being had. The farm is our attempt to address a whole bunch of concerns we have in Australia when it comes to our food sources and production - urban sprawl, an ageing farmer population, lack of interest from a younger generation in farming, more and more people living in cities. We felt the answer to this was to not move out to the country, but to create that experience in the middle of the city, where we can engage as many people as possible and hopefully get some people thinking about whether they might like to do the same.
ZAG: Ultimately we want to create an abundance of fresh, healthy food for the local community and to really illustrate that living in urban environments doesn’t necessarily mean you have to rely on produce from the other side of the state, country or the world. We would love it if the future meant acquiring more spaces and even helping people in other states across the country to try rooftop farming.
KAREN: We want to be farming as much unused urban space as possible, or helping others to do the same, as well as working with local councils to make sure that future policy makes it as easy as possible.
What are some of the challenges you have experienced with this project and do you have any reflections generally on the challenges of getting new and innovative projects up and running?
KAREN: Patience.. that's the biggest challenge. Securing a space and juggling the dream with the realities of finances.
ZAG: It has proven to be quite a challenge to secure a rooftop. It is such a new concept in this country, it makes some a bit hesitant to be the first to try it out. However from our end there are also logistical challenges which have arisen and will continue to arise during the set up of the farm. For example, the shallow soil profile really limits the support structures we can use for say, growing tomatoes. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, it just means some careful consideration is needed.
EMMA: All that said, in the last two years alone we've definitely noticed a massive shift in attitude toward urban agriculture and projects such as ours. There's been a realisation that it is a necessary way forward for cities, so we're beginning to see better reception from owners who understand this paradigm. Ultimately, we think those building owners who are open-minded to innovation will be the ones that are at the forefront of their industry in years to come!
What motivates you?
ZAG: Spending more time growing food and learning about different growing techniques. Seeing peoples gardens and sharing knowledge. Also there is nothing quite like cooking a meal with produce you have grown yourself.
EMMA: All of the above! Alongside clean air and clean water, clean food is as important as it gets. Also, there's the appeal that soon enough, we'll be hands deep in soil, in the sun, in the middle of our beautiful city, growing fresh chemical-free food!
What are some of your highlights so far?
ZAG: Working with different farmers and spending time exploring their farms -whether it be organic vegetables, fruit orchards or even free range animal systems.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people looking at starting a project like Green Up Top?
ZAG: Learn to be flexible and really know the people who you are approaching for support.
EMMA: Also, to learn to speak corporate but don’t lose sight of your goals. Social enterprises like ours are a very fine balance of ensuring that the business can run soundly and make enough to thrive, while remembering it's not all about the bottom line but also about encouraging a community of like minded individuals to work together for a common aim.