Rooftops gardens — the sidewalks of apartment buildings. Episode I

I — Introduction

I come from Buenos Aires City, the capital city of Argentina. The history of my city is somewhat similar to that of New York City: both were the main port and harbor during the colony (Spaniards in South America and Englishmen in North America). Despite this similarities, both have grown to become very different cities over time. Nevertheless, what struck me the most about my experience here in New York City was how new yorkers used the rooftops on their buildings. I think that rooftop are one of the more underutilized resources in the urban space. Here I’ll try to describe how a rooftop garden could work in my building back home where the rooftop remains empty. The idea is to foster a spirit of collectiveness to change this space and take care of it. I’ll try to update the status of the project as it develops.

II — Sidewalks and rooftops as a mixture of public — private space

Before the industrial revolution, the countryside was the place of production and cities the place of administration and public affairs. After the industrial revolution cities became a place of production for craft-work and industry, more and more people were moving into cities and density increased. With it, some social issues arose as the quality of life in cities was critical (overcrowding, health problems, social distress, crime, soil and river contamination for the usage of unconscious practices regarding the environment, etc).

During the early twentieth century, some urban planners, nostalgic of the old days, regarded the highly dense urban space as the source of this problems. They designed the garden city as a response, where the low-density and green suburbs will be the space of living, and the high-density gray downtown would be the place of work and production, connected y highways and cars. Nevertheless, both of those spaces were private in nature, house, and work, without a place for the congregation and public affairs. Downtown was described as this place of anonymity, without meaningful social interaction and human connections. The suburbs were this place of tranquility and relax where one could spend time with the family, and one or two close neighbors at most.

Figure 2 — Comparison of a typical greek colony and a garden city

This debate was very much present in New York City. Jane Jacobs [2], one of the best chroniclers of New York, argued in favor of highly dense cities. She said that density in big urban settlements didn’t erase social interaction, it merely changed it to a new one. She contested the idea that density made us strangers, compared to low-density neighborhoods, where you knew your next door neighbors in a very personal and intimate way. In the city, we could connect to a vast social network of people. We may not know each of them at a personal level, but we are connected to a vast network of contacts, people, resources, activities that enrich our lives. We are not alone in the city.

III — Sidewalks and rooftops as a mixture of public — private space

For Jacobs, sidewalks were a space between the public and the private, linked to the private space of the household but also a public space where people took care of each other, watch the children play and look for their security, could make little favors or run errands for the neighbors, etc. And they do that without the need to know each other in an intimate and personal way. In the origins of the city in the United States, there were places of a mixture of public and private space where people could get together like the commons. The commons were areas neither public nor private, where some farming took place, also pasture of livestock, and was taken cared by a group of neighbors. Later in time, during WWII peace gardens were a way to contribute to the war efforts from the economic point of view, but also from a civic engagement point of view. Finally, the community gardens in several neighborhoods were places where people could congregate [3].

Figure 3 — Community gardens in the United States early 20th century

Nevertheless, besides this public spaces, parks, sidewalks, etc. density in our cities changed the configuration of the residential built environment. At the same time, this changed how we relate to our most immediate and close neighbors. In Buenos Aires, during the immigration waves of the early XXth century, in overcrowded neighborhoods, the old Spanish houses with central courtyards were turned in collective households for several families called conventillos. This courtyard was a place of gathering and congregation, were people took care of each other’s families and children, cooked huge stews where everyone could sink their plate into and also were places for games, culture, where tango was born and also political talks and turmoil as Argentina embraced the Sáenz Peña Law for universal, secret and compulsory male suffrage.

Figure 4 — Conventillo in Buenos Aires early XX century

Nowadays, in Buenos Aires, the most common form of housing is the apartment building or condominiums. While this improved living conditions, most designs didn’t leave much space to neighbors gathering and congregation. Even today, every time a condominium meeting is gathered, we immediately notice there is no proper space for this in our buildings.

That’s when I looked up, to our rooftops. Traditionally in Buenos Aires, rooftops were a wasteland, a desert of asphaltic membrane where no one went unless there were some troubles with the water reservoir or the internet provider wanted to connect our home to the network. Just recently this start changing in the new and more expensive buildings. In their rooftop we can find barbacues, pools, tables, umbrellas, etc. But this places are designed as an extension of the private space of the household. We can make a reservation and use the space just for ourselves or for a reduce group of friends.

That’s when I looked up, to our rooftops. Traditionally in Buenos Aires, rooftops were a wasteland, a desert of the asphaltic membrane where no one went unless there were some troubles with the water reservoir or the internet provider wanted to connect our home to the network. Just recently this starts changing in the new and more expensive buildings. In their rooftop, we can find barbecues, pools, tables, umbrellas, etc. But these places are designed as an extension of the private space of the household. People who live there normally make a reservation and use the space just them or for a reduced group of friends. Nevertheless, I’m thinking about my own building and buildings like mine, where the rooftop remains empty. The idea is to foster a spirit of collectiveness to change this space and take care of it.

IV — Rooftop garden project

It is important to state from the beginning, to avoid possible confusions, that the rooftop garden won’t be trying to satisfy the feed requirements of the building. For this, we would need an acre [4]. Even for a small building (20 apartments) this would require a much bigger space, intensive use of space and dedicated specialized labor. That’s not the main purpose. This rooftop garden is thought to fulfill a function of a small semi-public space for the building, as sidewalks do for the neighborhood. It would be a place of social gathering and congregation. But people won’t use a space if they don’t consider it a nice place to be. So, an important function of the garden will be decorative. The garden will also try to provide comfort in a very exposed area. It would have to provide shadow during the summer as well as reduce the surface of concrete and cement exposed to direct sunlight. Finally, some base mobility will be needed (chairs, table, etc.).

This basic mobiliary is not a luxury. I could be attained at a very reasonable price. For example, the barbacue or medio tanque costs 2400 argentine pesos (150 USD). In a building of 20 units it means 120 pesos or 7.5 USD per apartment.

Figure 5 —Medio tanque

Raised beds cost 1300 pesos or 82 USD each ( 65 pesos or 4 USD each apartment).

Figure 6 — Raised beds

Pallets can be picked up from the street any day to make a vertical herb garden.

Figure 7 — Vertical herb garden

Nevertheless, even when a rooftop garden can’t fill the food requirements of a small building, it could deliver some produce and be a little bit of a commons for the building as well. We could decide together what to grow or assign places to each of the neighbors that want to be a part of the garden. Also taking care of the garden could be an activity that brings us together. We will try to use my rooftop as a case study to show a possible plan for a rooftop garden.

My rooftop is located in an apartment building in Buenos Aires City, in a neighborhood called Almagro. It is an empty rooftop. It has an L-shaped space of approximately 4 x 4.5 meters. We have no tables or chairs. No one uses this space. There used to be a hot tub, but due to the lack of use and maintenance, it was removed. On the North side, it has a 2-meter tall wall. On the East side, the wall is about 1 meter tall. On the South, we have a fence rail of 75 cm tall. The remaining walls are much higher as they are part of the rest of the building structure. There is a faucet on the West wall that could provide water. As a rooftop with no taller building near, it has plenty of sunlight all day long. As there is a tall wall on the North side, some shadow may be cast into the southern area during part of the day.

First, we well have some much-needed mobiliary like a table and some chairs. Then we will add a small barbecue build from an old oil drum. In Argentina, barbecues or asados are one of the main excuses for acquaintances, friends, and family to get together and share. We thought this would also apply to neighbors. So, we are going to decide what crops will be grown based on what a good barbecue needs. We talked about how the rooftop garden can’t feed an entire building, but it can provide for some fresh and organic produce that can make a difference.

  • Rosemary: when grilling for a long time in a closed drum, using rosemary in the burning wood will give an extra flavor to the meat.
  • Chives: We can also use chives (or rosemary) in potatoes wrapped in tinfoil paper and cooked directly on the fire
  • Parsley, oregano and red pepper: this is the main ingredients of and Argentinean uncooked sauce used for grilled meat called chimichurri. It also has some garlic and onion, but it takes a lot of time to rise this two crops, so they won’t be a part of our garden. Red pepper can also be served grilled
  • Arugula, basil, cherry tomatoes, mustard green: salad can be a great companion for the meat. We could also use the flowers from the chives, arugula, and mustard for the salad. In this way, we get two crops from one plant. In the case of the mustard, we could also get a third if we use the seeds to make our own mustard. This could be used in a salad or to marinate some chicken before grilling it.
  • Dwarf lime tree: Lime could be used in a number of ways. Along with olive oil for the salad, for drinks and aperitif as people gather around the grill in conversation or even for some desserts.
  • Mint: Mint could also be used in aperitif like Cuba Libre with some rum and club soda during the summer, or mixed with mate, a traditional herbal drink from South America very traditional in Argentina, in cooler seasons.
  • Dwarf apple trees: when it comes to dessert apple crumble is difficult to beat.
Figure 6— Blueprint of the rooftop garden

As we are in an urban environment and on a rooftop, we don’t have soil available to us, so we will need to procure for it. We will grow all the crops in a different type of containers:

Vertical garden

We can use a recycled pallet for the vertical garden. There we can grow in pots some crops like chives, rosemary, oregano, mint, parsley.

Dwarf trees

Next, to the West wall, we can have two fruit trees like a dwarf lime tree and a dwarf apple tree in big containers. This could provide shadow and cooler temperatures in summer.

Raised beds

We will have 3 raised beds on the south side of the fence rail. This will add extra protection from the wind. In the raised beds we can grow the mustard greens, arugula, red peppers. In cooler seasons we could grow broccoli, spinach, and endive. We could also grow flowers for pollinators and for decorations purposes like pansies and viola.

Rectangular containers on the floor

Cherry tomatoes will be grown against the North wall in containers, using the wall to help to support the vines (wooden stakes). For companion planting [5], we could grow in the same containers some basil.


New York pumps out over 33 million tons of waste a year [6]. So, whatever can be done to diminish this, will have a huge impact on the future of the city in terms of sustainability. Cardboard, plastic, glass, etc. can are being recycled. Composting is another way to further diminish the amount of wasted produce in a city. A composting place will be close to the access door, so neighbors have easy access to it. It is also a source of nutrient for our crops. Especially in Argentina, mate herbs can be put in the compost as they are organic material.


[1] Morris, Ian (1999). “Archaeology and Gender Ideologies in Early Archaic Greece”. Transactions of the American Philological Association. 129

[2] Jacobs, Jane (1992) “The Death and Life of great american cities”, Random House, New York, United States

[3] Lawson, Laura J. City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Berkley: U of California, 2005

[4] Novak, Annie. The Rooftop Growing Guide: How to Transform Your Roof into a Vegetable Garden or Farm. N.p.: Penguin Random House, 2016.

[5] “Companion Planting.” Gardening Resources, Cornell University. Dept. of Horticulture, Cornel University, 1994.




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