Children walk through a rooftop garden with skyscrapers in the background.

Garden among the skyscrapers. Photo by Valery Rizzo.

The story of post-settlement United States, writ large, is the story of urbanization. Since the birth of the nation, we’ve slowly evolved from a farm-based, rural population to a densely packed urban one.

One casualty of this mass migration is our relationship to our food. One hundred years ago, nearly everyone grew at least some of their diet, and even butchered their own livestock. Today, most of us have lost not only these skills, but also an understanding of the time, care, work—and joy—that comes with cultivating the means of our own survival.

Prominent “food philosophers,” (with Michael Pollan as standard-bearer,) blame this lost connection, in part, for the industrialization of our food supply—and the negative impacts it has on our health and environment. As Pollan puts it, “The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum.”

Three women holding pitchforks stand on top of a large compost heap with skyscrapers in the background.

Turning a rooftop compost heap. Photo courtesy of City Growers.

Fortunately, restoring our lost sense of place as literal consumers in the food chain is as simple as picking up a shovel. And a growing number of farms and organizations recognize that their raison d’etre is to grow not only crops, but also our understanding of what it takes to do so.

One such organization, City Growers, takes its educational mission out of the Heartland and into the city—one of the world’s biggest. At eight-and-a-half million, New York City’s population is both the highest and densest in the nation. As a result, many of its residents seldom touch grass, to say nothing of a sun-warmed tomato plucked from the vine.

Schoolchildren plant seedlings in a rooftop garden.

Schoolchildren plant seedlings in a rooftop garden. Photo courtesy of City Growers.

City Growers partners with Brooklyn Grange, a for-profit farm that runs a number of rooftop farms (including what they claim is the world’s largest) throughout New York City’s boroughs. Using the farms as a living classroom, City Growers offers field trips and farm intensives—weekly 90-minute workshops over four weeks.

Learning is hands-on in the garden and covers topics like honeybee education and nutritional learning. To date, more than 32,000 schoolchildren have made the trip to the rooftop gardens through City Growers’ programming. The organization also provides after- and in-school programs and a Summer in the Soil Urban Agriculture Day Camp.

Children standing in a New York City rooftop garden munch on carrots just pulled from the garden.

Enjoying fresh-pulled carrots at summer camp. Photo by Valery Rizzo.

The life and plight of honeybees is of particular interest to City Growers. (Brooklyn Grange has an extensive network of hives on roofs throughout the city.) Starting this spring, City Growers is launching a new set of programs designed to raise awareness, including free programming for public schools connected to the recently established Naval Cemetery Landscape Site of Native Plant Restoration.

Taken together, the programming at City Growers is helping to reconnect schoolchildren to nature and their place in the food chain. And while the rate of U.S. urbanization continues to grow, programs like this break down the divide between rural and urban understandings of the natural world.

Girls walk through a field of sunflowers on a NYC rooftop garden.


Want more? Learn about other urban agriculture programs around the country. Who knows – you might be inspired to start one in your own community!