Rooftops: The Urban Backyard

As a city dweller, if there’s one concept that never escapes me, it’s space. There’s so much of it, yet it’s never plentiful. Distances are vast, and if you live in Brooklyn, your friends in the Bronx might as well live in a different state, but personal space is hardly in high supply. Our kitchens are installed in the corners of living rooms almost as an afterthought; finding free parking takes hours of toil and strife; and we measure our yards (if we have them) not by acres but by square feet.

For this reason, I never cease to be amazed by the amount of eminently viable space that goes unused throughout the urban landscape. As more and more Americans flock to urban centers, our need for a paradigm shift in how we treat city living is becoming increasingly pertinent. And while urbanites continue to moan about their cramped quarters, they continue to fail to look up!

If you live in a densely populated city, and you don’t have a garden, and you’re wondering how I could even wonder if you do have a garden, then ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does the building I occupy have a “conventional” rooftop?
2. If yes, do I have access to said rooftop?
3. If yes again, is it host to a whole lot of tar paper and ventilation pipes?

If this sounds like your rooftop situation, then there’s cause to celebrate: you’re in possession of a slice of the urban landscape’s greatest untapped resource.

When I first moved to Brooklyn from a city with considerably more space, I instantly came to rely on my apartment building’s roof as a place to get away from the din and stress of the busy city streets. From my roof, I could enjoy being outdoors while still able to have a phone conversation or read a book, all within a few steps (or, as was my case, ladder rungs) from my front door. My building’s roof became a much needed replacement for the back yard that I longed for but lacked. Yet what most astonished me about my roof was that no one from the rest of the block seemed to know it was there. What went unnoticed by everyone else became the largest back yard I’d ever had!

I now have my own roof in Brooklyn, and I’ve taken my roof dwelling to the next level. With a modest $50 inventment, I’ve developed a humble little rooftop garden. And for a guy who’s pretty green in the gardening department, the greenery on my vacant outdoor space has thrived. With a few minutes of research, I found plenty of vegetables that do well in direct sunlight, and besides their daily watering, nature has done the rest.

The few vegetables I planted this season won’t be slashing my grocery shopping budget by a whole lot come harvest. But rooftop improvements in the city are some of the easiest and most productive projects one can undertake to make city living more sustainable while beautifying the concrete jungle. They can keep your building cooler in the summer and help lower your energy bills. Plants improve air quality and mood, and can provide food. Plus, maintaining a garden dozens of feet above the bustling street provides at least a few moments of peace and tranquility every morning.

There’s a very real phenomenon in cities called the Urban Heat Island Effect, which describes the noticeable increase in temperature you experience in cities compared to surrounding rural areas. Dark surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, and rooftops absorb sunlight and radiate heat – the reason why the sidewalk often feels “hot enough to fry an egg”, but the grass in the back yard is always comfortable. If cities as a whole learn to promote the widespread transformation of rooftops into gardens and yards, rather than vast, desolate heat traps, our cities will become cooler, greener, and healthier. Energy consumption and pollution can both be reduced as our roof tops become the back yards of the city – and, with a bit of elbow grease, the envy of our friends in suburbia!

It’s frustrating to see so much space go to waste in the city – but it’s equally as liberating to discover that it’s easy to do for yourself. So aim to set an example for your neighbors! There’s no better way to contribute to a positive movement than by throwing your next great tiki party on your beautified roof yard and inviting the neighbors. The greatest boon to progress is proving to others that it’s fun.

In closing, I quote The Drifters:

When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
I get away from the hustling crowd
and all that rat race noise down on the street
On the roof, the only place I know
where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof

Happy gardening,


This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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