The Rooftop Garden: What Does Urban Growth Really Mean?

Art by Lillian Xiao

Through the balcony doors in the woodshop class on the 10th floor lies the rooftop garden. A small, bright space with quaint wooden crates and a mishmash of colorful planting supplies, Stuyvesant’s rooftop garden delivers fresh veggies and a dose of relaxation that is inevitable when sunshine, plants, and a gorgeous view are involved.

When I went up to the rooftop garden, I was struck by what a welcome change the airy, carefree space was from the stress of Stuyvesant. Guided by biology teacher Marissa Maggio, my friends and I helped water the recently sprouted herbs and vegetables, soaking them with the long hose that we tugged around the garden and learning firsthand the importance of the rooftop garden in our urban landscape.

The rooftop garden was created by the Environmental Club, inspired by Battery Urban Farm, an education farm in Battery Park that aims to teach students about sustainable farming and get them involved in growing their own food. The rooftop garden was created to expand those values to Stuyvesant by using the space available in our school to compensate for the limited room on the Battery Urban Farm plot.

Though the rooftop garden has been around for awhile, explored by different clubs and different grades, this year, the Environmental Club focused on revamping the garden. Maggio reached out to senior Livia Kunins-Berkowitz, who had spent her spring semester of junior year living and working at the Mountain School, a farm-school in Vermont.

Kunins-Berkowitz, guided by her passion for gardening and agriculture, threw herself into the project. “I’m really into environmentalism, and as a city person, we’re so removed from food production,” she said. “If we’re going to be sustainable, we need to learn how to grow in urban spaces because our country is so urban now. I want there to be opportunities for kids get involved and find a passion and learn about something they would never have the opportunity to learn otherwise.”

Careful planning gave way to two planting sessions, with students eager to get involved. “I’m excited by how many people are interested in [the rooftop garden] and like different friend groups and all that kind of stuff.  It always makes me really happy when different people come together,” Kunins-Berkowitz said.

Now, as the plants are growing, Maggio contacts Kunins-Berkowitz with her free periods, and members sign up to water during those periods on the rooftop garden’s Facebook page and show up when they can. “It’s this nice, casual thing,” Kunins-Berkowitz said.   

Club members were drawn to the rooftop garden because of the unique chance they get to practice gardening. “You can live in the city, and yet, you can do all these things that are garden-y and leisurely,” sophomore Sophia Atlas said.

Being on the roof is also a big selling point. “I mostly wanted to see what the roof looked like,” sophomore Louise Wagenseil admitted with a laugh. Her interest, though, stems from prior school efforts to help the environment. “[In elementary school], we actually grew our own vegetables for the cafeteria, and they were actually good vegetables, so I was kind of interested to see how Stuy[vesant] would do the same thing.”

It’s a lot of fun for members, plainly visible in the stories members recall with a laugh. “At one point, someone was holding the hose, and the hose has to go all the way from the wall of the woodworking room all the way outside, and the hose wasn’t really that long, and so a bunch of people were pulling the hose, and it exploded,” Wagenseil reminisced.  

Whether students realize it or not, the rooftop garden has a heavy impact on all Stuyvesant students—it’s their lunch. Food harvested from the rooftop garden goes back into the salad bar in the cafeteria.

On a wider level, rooftop gardens not only provide fresh food, but they also improve air quality and lower increased temperatures in urban areas, known as urban heat island effect control. “The sustainable future of America is in learning how to grow in urban spaces,” Kunins-Benowitz said.

A huge chunk of America’s failing relationship with the environment is waste-related, and the hard work put into the garden helps members gain a deeper perception of this issue. The Guardian estimated roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away; this happens because it’s so easy for us to get everything that we take the availability of produce for granted.

By making the rooftop garden environment so personal, it offers a solution to this problem. “When you spend months taking care of this garden, you don’t wanna be throwing that out,” sophomore Secretary of the Environmental Club Kenny Wong said.

Along with the tomatoes and kale, the rooftop garden delivers an empowering sense of independence and awareness. “We have so little power over what we eat, especially as kids, and it’s so cool to take control of your life in this way,” Kunins-Berkowitz said.

As New Yorkers and students, we are isolated from the origins and processes that go into the food we mindlessly consume, most of our knowledge coming from the inspiring stories on the back of cereal boxes. The rooftop garden is a rare opportunity to learn, and it is one that should be seized.