Tel Aviv's rooftop farm grows fresh food for thousands
Located above the Dizengoff shopping center, this urban farm uses hydroponics to grow vegetables rapidly and organically.
The Dizengoff Center is a vast shopping mall in central Tel Aviv, Israel. Built in the 1970s, the towering concrete structure doesn’t look like much, but when you step inside, a wonderful sight will meet your eyes.
There is a vegetable stand just inside the door, built of wood and packed with bags of fresh, wet leafy greens and herbs. It is an anomaly in the midst of fast-fashion outlets and food courts, better suited for a traditional farmers’ market, but this humble little vegetable stand has become a great success. It relies on the honor system, trusting shoppers to leave the correct change and take what they want. (Eighty percent of shoppers do so.) The vegetables sell out so quickly that the stand has to be restocked four times daily.
© K Martinko -- The vegetable stand inside the shopping centre's entrance
What makes these vegetables really special, though, is that they’re grown on the roof of the Dizengoff shopping center. As part of a project called ‘Green in the City,’ or Yarok Bair in Hebrew, an urban rooftop farm has been established over the past year. It comprises two commercial greenhouses, totaling 750 square meters (over 8,000 square feet) of growing space, as well as an educational area where citizens can learn urban farming techniques and cooking skills relevant to the vegetables they grow. The organization sells hydroponics units for home use and teaches people how to use them.
© K Martinko -- A small hydroponics box sold for personal use
© Shani Sadicario -- A view of the rooftop garden's education center
The rooftop farm produces 10,000 heads of lettuce per month year-round, and grows 17 different varieties of greens and herbs; there is even a banana tree. The farm uses a variety of hydroponics systems – some vertical, some horizontal – that grow food two times faster than in soil. The system does not require regular cleaning, since the sun does not access the water beneath the plastic covers that hold the plants, and the constant flow of oxygen prevents rot.
© Shani Sadicario -- The roots hang into the oxygenated water.
The vegetables are grown without pesticides, although they do not qualify for official organic certification because of a line in Israeli agricultural laws that states that organic food must be grown in soil.
Lavi Kushelevich, who works for Green in the City, is a passionate advocate for reclaiming one’s food system. He believes that this rooftop farm – only one of 15 urban farming initiatives that he’s currently overseeing in Israel – can help urban Millennials to get excited about growing their own food, without having to move to the rural farms, or kibbutzim, that attracted previous generations.
I visited on a rainy December morning, along with a group of fellow environmental writers. Lavi took us on a tour of the rooftop, pointing out other interesting sustainability initiatives started by the Dizengoff Center. These include a tree-planting program, where children from Tel Aviv come on the national holiday of Tu BishVat to plant seedlings. Later, the young trees are planted around the city and the Dizengoff Center receives carbon credits for its efforts.
© Shani Sadicario -- The Dizengoff Center's private apartments soar beyond the rooftop garden.
There are beehives, too, though the honey is left undisturbed, and a bat cave in the lower levels of the basement. Birds’ nests are placed on the rooftop to encourage avian visitors.
It’s really amazing to see how a shopping center – such a symbol of modern consumerism – has been converted into a farm, creating access to fresh food for thousands of urban residents. The leafy greenhouses, a refreshing counterpoint to the shops below, are proof that nutritious ingredients can be accessible to all, even in the most unexpected places. All it takes is some innovative thinking, and Israel certainly has plenty of that.
TreeHugger is a guest of Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization leading a tour called Vibe Eco Impact in December 2016 that explores various sustainability initiatives throughout Israel.