Kales Of The City: Meet NYC’s First Residential Urban Farm

Meet NYC’s First Residential Urban Farm

By Annette Barlow September 23, 2016
Photos courtesy of Urby Staten Island

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”T” font=”Bowlby One SC” color_class=”otw-black-text” background_color_class=”otw-no-background” size=”large” border_color_class=”otw-no-border-color”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]he 2017 Census of Agriculture may still be a year away, but you can bet your bottom dollar on one statistic being a sure thing: urban farms are dramatically on the increase. And while official statistics might yet be on the horizon, it’s becoming more and more clear that New York City houses a large number of them. In 2011, it was estimated that there were at least 700 farms and gardens that grow food in NYC, and 100 properties were identified as potential sites for urban agriculture. Community gardens are cropping up in new and old developments alike, and places like the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farms are changing the face of agriculture.

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Perhaps none are more innovative, however, than Empress Green, NYC’s first commercial farm located in a residential development. Nestled in the large river-facing courtyard of the 900-apartment Urby Staten Island complex, the 4,500-square-foot farm boasts not only 50 types of home-grown produce available to residents, but also a live-in farmer-in-residence in the form of 26-year old Zaro Bates. Alongside business partner and husband, 29-year-old Lasher Andes—these two oversee the logistics and management of the farm’s mighty output.

The farm opened earlier this year, and their first growing season proving seriously fruitful. The farm currently supplies a weekly farm stand—located in the front lobby of the building—three restaurants, a CSA-style “veggie pick-up” service and local food banks.

Urby launched in 2013, pioneered by New Jersey’s Ironstate Development, and as you might suspect, isn’t your average apartment complex. Alongside their farmer-in-residence (who, in spite of a paltry salary of around $18,000 per year, receives a free apartment), the complex also boasts a communal kitchen with a chef-in-residence, and an outdoor pool for all its residents.


OK, so this project doesn’t necessarily position affordability at the forefront, but it is making strides to change how developers think about efficiently—and attractively—using previously “dead” spaces. Situated on the concrete roof of the parking garage—which runs the length of the building—the farm employs raised beds, the structural integrity of the garage providing the strength the project needs to flourish. Indeed, Bates believes developers are missing a trick when it comes to transforming unused spaces.

“Commercial urban farms make complete sense and works in everybody’s favor. But it would be great if there could be a focus not just on new buildings but also on older buildings, particularly warehouses that are being converted into condos. They already have the cement roofs that have the structural capacity required for rooftop farming. With new buildings, I think it’s a no-brainer because it’s such a point of attraction. It’s one of the greatest things that Urby has to offer to the community around us. We’ve had 20 or 30 people tell us they moved here because of the farm.”

However, in spite of its obvious merits, urban agriculture has been a hotly debated subject in NYC among advocates of the power of community gardens and urban farms, and those who support the development of affordable housing. Just in the last year, 14 community gardens have been lost to developers, their sites deemed essential for affordable housing stock. Which is a crying shame, when you consider that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has reported that 800 million people worldwide grow vegetables or fruits in cities, producing what the Worldwatch Institute reports to be 15-20% of the world’s food.

So while projects like Urby and Empress Green are changing the face of urban agriculture, perhaps next on the hit list should be an affordable housing complex with an urban farm built right in.

Annette Barlow



Annette is freelance editor, sub-editor, journalist and proofreader with a fierce love of all things feminist, food and music. She is a regular fixture on the arts, culture and feature desks at The Guardian, and her words have appeared on NME, Great British Chefs, The Fly, The Line of Best Fit and Australian Times.

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