Need Food, Water, & Energy? Use Your Roof!

by Ingrid Severson-Tondre, Co-Founder and Rooftop Resources Coordinator

Bay Localize and Oakland Food Connection helped build a major rooftop garden atop E.C. Reems Academy of Technology and Art, an East Oakland elementary school.

Although Bay Localize now had a visionary blueprint for localizing our regional economy, one core challenge remained: how do we turn these ideas into practical demonstration projects that inspire people and policymakers to take bolder action? Thankfully, one of our team members, Ingrid Severson, began to see at least one compelling solution right above our heads!

Ingrid’s path intersected with the Bay Area Peak Oil movement back in 2003 when she interviewed Dave Room on behalf of the Post Carbon Institute for a statement on the value and need for biodiesel. At the time, Ingrid and many other activists were promoting and developing fuel-alternatives to divest from war-sourced oil production. Dave introduced Ingrid to a burgeoning group of Peak Oil leaders who held monthly meetings to exchange ideas, raise awareness, and develop solutions. The most prominent and dire need Ingrid recognized was how to meet the growing demand for food, water and energy in an increasingly populated Bay Area. In 2005, Ingrid took a Permaculture Design Course with Toby Hemenway and Penny Livingston.  The course highlighted a range of urban permaculture systems, including edible rooftop gardens and rainwater catchment systems.

Inspired by these solutions, Ingrid started posing the question: how much water and food could Bay Area rooftops produce? San Francisco State University professor Raquel Pinderhughes’ book Alternative Urban Futures projected that the Bay Area’s rainfall levels are too low to provide a significant enough supply of water for mass use. Delving deeper into how rainwater catchment technology could be optimized and expanded, along with the design possibilities for rooftop gardens, Ingrid posed these ideas to members of Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR). Multiple architects responded that these systems have potential and a few contractors and builders even expressed interest, noting that there is a promising market for rooftop gardens and rainwater catchment.

Bay Localize’s Use Your Roof Guidebook offers resources and strategies for turning your roof into a source of abundance and community resilience.

As a co-founder of Bay Localize and member of our growing Steering Committee, Ingrid proposed that we conduct a formal assessment of Bay Area buildings and their capacity to yield resources from rooftops, including food, water, and solar electricity. With such an assessment, coupled with working models as case studies, Ingrid saw that Bay Localize could create exciting opportunities for people to get involved in hands-on local solutions. Fellow board members voted the project in, and together the team secured funding to formally launch it. Thanks to support from individuals, an angel investor, the Rose Foundation and the Laurence Levine Charitable Trust, our newly minted Rooftop Resources Project was able to hire the planning firm, Design, Community and Environment and the engineering firm, Holmes Culley, to carry out a neighborhood assessment and analysis of Bay Area building types and their potential to host various rooftop systems. We selected the Oakland Eastlake neighborhood for our local assessment area, and were hosted by the Intertribal Friendship House for our volunteer training day and building survey. Informed by these efforts, Bay Localize published Tapping the Potential of Urban Rooftops, which won an award from the American Planning Association’s California Chapter, and the Use Your Roof Guidebook.

Pilot projects were the next phase of the project: live demonstrations of these systems that would inspire people to envision, design, and ultimately build their own rooftop solutions in their own communities. Finding builders and partners to help with these projects proved to be a challenging but fun adventure. Oakland-based DIG Cooperative Inc. was the first partnership Bay Localize forged. Together, we approached the owner of North Berkeley’s Epicurious Garden, and proposed a rooftop design for his building. While he wasn’t ready to invest in a green roof at the time, he loved the designs so much that he offered to open a demonstration and educational gallery in one of his vacant buildings on Shattuck Street in Berkeley. We took him up on the offer, and for over a year, an epic, bustling Green City Gallery operated in the heart of downtown Berkeley, featuring live exhibits including a living roofs, earthen building, composting solutions, as well as live workshops, classes, and musical performances.  This open, free community space convened many organizations, individuals and artists. Though short-lived, the Green City Gallery provided a creative, open space for the commons, and is said to have inspired other models like the Space for Creative Living. See video of the Gallery above.

Bay Localize and DIG Coop co-produced a community workshop on rainwater harvesting at the Berkeley Ecology Center’s Eco-House.

In 2007, Bay Localize finally began to bring our urban greening vision to life with the installation of a number of rooftop systems. Partnering with DIG Coop, we jointly produced a community workshop and build-out of a new rainwater catchment system at the Berkeley Ecology Center’s Eco-House (see photo above). We also assisted in adding an edible rooftop garden to the Eco-House’s toolshed. Later that year, Bay Localize connected with Oakland Food Connection’s director Jason Harvey who was teaching students nutrition at E.C. Reems Academy of Technology and Art, an East Oakland elementary school. Over several work days with dozens of community volunteers, we built an edible garden of raised beds on the rooftop of the school right next to a classroom (see video below).

In 2008, Bay Localize partnered with People Organized with Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco to construct another rooftop garden on the patio of this organization’s Mission-based offices (see video below). In 2009, with the assistance Bay Localize’s talented intern Maya Donelson, we secured to grant to build a rooftop garden system on top of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial, which operated for many years under the name of Graze the Roof.

Through Bay Localize’s rooftop work, in collaboration with our many partners, we helped catalyze the movement for rainwater catchment and living roofs in the Bay Area. Rainwater harvesting is a standard service that many contractors are now offering, and which many residential and commercial developments increasingly include. In 2010, the City of Oakland started an initiative, the Oakland Rain Barrel Program, which provided subsidized rain barrels to Oakland residents, schools, churches and nonprofits.  Within three years, the City and its partners established 400,000 gallons of rainwater systems throughout the area, as well as rain tank demonstration projects including Chabot Space & Science Center, Merritt College and Skyline High School. Today the East Bay sees more and more of these rooftop systems, from notable ecological farmers and other builders like Top Leaf Farms.

As the effects of climate change intensify with drought conditions, and impacting food and economic security, the need to localize and optimize local food, water and energy security is greater than ever.  The Rooftop Resources Project was initiated by the vision of mainstreaming rainwater catchment, solar power and where possible, agriculture and food production integrated into our built infrastructure. Thankfully, these systems are currently more common with many building professionals including those systems in their skill-sets, and associations and training courses that support the technology.  Please see our Tools & Resources page for further information on how to implement your own projects!