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Rooftop Farm Designer Gwen Schantz Wants to Cover New York City in Green

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Gwen Schantz at the Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Photo by <a href="">Mark Wickens</a>.
Gwen Schantz at the Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Photo by Mark Wickens.

For someone who now holds a very specific, focused job—Chief Operating Officer at urban farming business Brooklyn Grange, helping run the two largest rooftop farms in the world and leading the firm's green design and installations division—Gwen Schantz, 34, has taken a rather meandering path. There was the international studies coursework at Vassar College; the summer spent on a farm in upstate New York; the year in Cambodia working for a nonprofit; the cross-country journey that took her to Alaska for a summer of bartending; the stint as a pizza cook in Brooklyn. But by chasing a consistent fascination with food and the environment, Schantz has since refined her mission: to design ecosystems that allow plants and organisms to thrive, which, in turn, shape an urban environment where people can thrive.

That cross-country drive Schantz and her then-boyfriend, now-husband took in 2008, born out of a boredom with their early jobs out of college, ultimately became both a rude awakening and unexpected opportunity. While she no longer had a "cushy job," with a salary and health insurance to be envied during the financial crisis at the time, Schantz had the chance to try something totally new. That's when she started helping out at a friend's catering company and a pizza place, experience that soon landed her a job at Roberta's, the popular pizza joint in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood.

When Schantz joined, Roberta's was in the midst of acquiring a 6,000-square-foot junk yard next to the restaurant. Suddenly, as the only person on the team who had farmed before (and with only about six months experience, at that), Schantz found herself spearheading the conversion of the vacant lot into a vegetable garden and event space. After that, everything snowballed.

Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.
The original Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm in Long Island City. Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.

In 2010, Schantz, along with business partners, Ben Flanner, Anastasia Cole Plakias, plus a few folks from Roberta's, expanded the urban farm idea to Brooklyn Grange, a one-acre rooftop farm they built in Long Island City, Queens. In 2011, Schantz began working on Brooklyn Grange full-time, and a year later the company expanded to a 1.5-acre rooftop farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with Schantz continuing to lead the landscape design.

"Suddenly I'd gone from pizza cook to farmer to landscaper to landscape designer—and I have no formal training in any of it," says Schantz in a phone interview. But her work speaks for itself.

Photo by Mark Wickens.
The Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Photo by Mark Wickens.

According to Schantz, the two most important implications of Brooklyn Grange are expanding green spaces in the city and and educating people about food and agriculture. "It can be very difficult for New Yorkers to make connections between themselves and the source of their food," Schantz explains. "We don't really connect a lot with nature, we don't connect a lot with farming, but it's really important for people to know where food comes from."

While the farm-to-table movement—which has ushered in tons of restaurants that source seasonal, locally grown ingredients—certainly helps connect consumers with their food, Brooklyn Grange's farms take it another step closer. The two current farms—a third is already in the works—grow over 50,000 pounds of organically-cultivated produce every year, most of which is eaten within a couple miles of their facilities. The farms, of course, also allow tens of thousands of visitors each year to, in Schantz's words, "connect with food and nature in a way that's rare for most city folks."

Photo by Mark Wickens.
Photo by Mark Wickens.

Through the Schantz-led design and installations component of the company, these sustainable ecosystems can also reach beyond the two existing farms. So far, she has designed green roofs for schools, homeless shelters, high-end residences, commercial properties, and more. Though the company has consulted for several governments—and a former trainee from Denmark managed to start a similar facility in Copenhagen—every built project so far has been in New York City, where Schantz says they are "barely even scraping the surface right now."

Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.
The rooftop meadow at Vice Media's headquarters. Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.

Still, Brooklyn Grange has been making strides towards transforming NYC into a city of sustainable rooftops. Completed earlier this year, the 20,000-square-foot rooftop meadow atop the Vice Media headquarters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is the company's largest installation to date. The ecosystem there includes 2,000 square feet of vegetable and herb gardens, a large stormwater retaining natural bluestone patio, and fruit trees in reclaimed wood planters.

Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.
The green walls at the SIXTY Soho Hotel. Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.

Across the bridge in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Grange also brought nature into the SIXTY Soho Hotel with two 12-foot-tall green walls. The aluminum alloy sub-irrigated green wall system employed allows plants to be easily rotated in and out and comes as part of a comprehensive interior renovation for the hotel.

Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.
The vertical community garden in Bed-Stuy. Photo courtesy Gwen Schantz.

This year, Brooklyn Grange also partnered with community garden non-profit Green Guerillas to create a vertical gardening demo, intended to inform locals of the potentials of vertical greenery in a city strapped for space. The first installation has gone up at the Clifton Place Memorial Garden and Park in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Though Schantz said that making green roofs and green walls "ubiquitous and mainstream" is one of her life goals, that doesn't mean she will let any old building grow a lawn up top. "People come to us because they want a vegetable garden but sometimes I have to talk them out of it and tell them it's not a good fit," Schantz says. A building without a strong enough roof or enough sunlight, for example, cannot really support vegetable gardens, which require a certain depth of soil and are generally pretty high-maintenance. But it's not all or nothing when it comes to greening a space—smaller interior features like hydroponics systems, for instance, can always be considered. "No matter who we're working with, we always want to try to get them something—we want to try to figure out out a way to create a landscape and an ecosystem that fits with the building, lifestyle, and culture of the place."

Photo by Mark Wickens.
Photo by Mark Wickens.

At the moment, in addition to developing a third farm, Brooklyn Grange is preparing to break ground on two green roofs in the Bronx this month, and another for a residential development in Bushwick. And through a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection, Schantz and team will also tackle a green installation for a new and unusual client: a slaughterhouse in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens.

Looking forward, Schantz says Brooklyn Grange has a lot of room to grow, and it may not be exclusively about green spaces. "Over the years, we've picked up a lot of knowledge not just about green roofs but also sourcing food sustainably, and energy, and using materials that are reclaimed, sustainable, and non-toxic," she says. "It's fun to work on projects and be part of the whole integrated design and not just the landscaping necessarily, because it all ties together."

Photo by Mark Wickens.
Photo by Mark Wickens.

· Brooklyn Grange [official]
· Young Guns 2015 [Curbed]