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This rooftop garden is in full bloom in downtown London. Are others viable? | CBC News

A downtown non-profit is one of the few locations in London that’s taking advantage of an often underused urban environment to grow food — the roof.

Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) on Richmond Street started their rooftop garden in 2017, and with only a brief pandemic pause, has been providing fresh herbs and produce to patrons visiting its café and to food-insecure youth. 

“Our programming really is on food security, food consciousness and then teaching youth how to use ingredients in their diet for healthy nutritious meals,” said Nick Martin, manager of food services at the YOU Made It Café.

He said they focus on sustainable harvesting, which allows them to reuse a plant several times over the season without needing to reseed.

rooftop garden
A variety of herbs and produce grow at the rooftop garden at the YOU Made it Café on Richmond Street. (Mike Lacasse/CBC London)

YOU is a social enterprise where young people can acquire skills, and find supportive housing and counselling. The café and catering service give youth customer service and food preparation training.

Urban agriculture is on the rise

Rooftop gardens are growing in popularity in Canada, including in Toronto where green roofs are now mandatory for all large new buildings. It was first city in North America to implement such a bylaw.

But in London, green roofs, and especially food gardens, are still a rarity. 

A lack of space and financial incentives for developers could be to blame, said Luis Reyes, the greenhouse co-ordinator with the London Food Bank.

“So first of all, your roof has to be able to withhold the weight of your garden. With the London Food Bank, we haven’t gone there because there are a lot of other spaces in the city that we could use to address” food insecurity.

luis reyes
Growing in a ‘green wall’ optimizes space to grow more than eight times the plants, says Luis Reyes, greenhouse manager at the London Food Bank. (Michelle Both/CBC)

He also said that with the limited amount of suitable rooftops in the city, the yield from a rooftop farm would be small.

“Even if you were only trying to feed 10 per cent of the population, you would only feed a fraction of them from what rooftop farms could produce in the city,” he said.

“It’s not a solution for food insecurity but it is one of the neatest ways to get most people to think about these kinds of production system.”

Helps with flooding and heat

While a large food-producing operation doesn’t seem to be viable for London, more small-scale gardens on rooftops across the city would be welcome, said Haley Turner, operations and project manager at YOU.

She said their rooftop garden is useful for mitigating both urban heating and flooding.

In an email sent to the CBC, the City of London said it’s looking at whether green roofs should be part of the ReThink Zoning project being drafted this fall, wrote spokesperson Jo Ann Johnston.

“With all of the rain we’ve been getting recently, the flooding that’s happened, these green roofs really do impact that,” said Turner.

The planters absorb rainwater, so it doesn’t all drain into the sewers that can sometimes flood, Turner said. 

“The city’s doing a really good job at trying to improve the sewer systems but it takes time. Other ways we can help are by adding some foliage to the roofs of our buildings and that provides less runoff that would go into our sewer system.”


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