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Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm. Philadelphia, PA.

We’re wandering through a dark maze of a warehouse, down corridors and up flights of stairs, and it would be eerie if not for my jubilant companions. We emerge onto the rooftop, and it’s quite a scene–the light patter of rain, a vast, dark expanse, lights and traffic noise below, and puddles accumulating where the roof sags—but it wouldn’t much resemble my image of a farm if not for my guides, who lend me a bit of their imaginations. Clare Hyre and Rania Campbell-Cobb are the farmers, dreamers, and movers-and-shakers that founded Philadelphia’s Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm. Though the project is their brainchild, it has evolved according to the space and the people around it. Rania and Clare are friends from college, and had been talking about farming together for a few years, but they weren’t at first thinking about farming above street level. Rania describes their decision-making process, saying, “When we started living across the street from each other in Philly we started scheming about spaces we saw around us, and the first really available space we came across was a roof.” Their interest in rooftop farming came at a fortuitous time because, as Rania says, “…Philadelphia’s doing a lot of work to ‘green’ the city, and especially in improving storm water management, so there’s a lot of interesting innovations going on right now, and energy behind putting in green roofs, and also in having more farms in the city.”

Their vision, according to Rania, is to “be a resource to help other rooftop farms start up around the country. We’re just really excited about the idea of reclaiming city spaces so that they’re more supportive of life and ecosystems, less issues with storm water runoff, more fresh food.” This vision has been compelling to other Philadelphia organizations, most notably SHARE, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that gives community members the opportunity to exchange volunteer time for affordable food. SHARE already has a greenhouse and garden space on their property, and when Clare and Rania approached them about using the two-acre rooftop on top of their West Philadelphia warehouse they jumped at the chance. “We started getting hit by the water department. We’re going to be paying about $22,000 a year for storm water management fees, and so we were already thinking about a green roof, and I had already been thinking about planter boxes on the roof […] but I never thought of just putting 18 inches of soil and a tractor on the roof until these guys came,” said Bill Shick, SHARE’s Urban Agriculture and Facilities Director. Cloud 9 has found support from all corners of the city and beyond, from storm water researchers to the city’s Community Design Collaborative, and they have felt particularly inspired and supported by New York City’s Brooklyn Grange. Clare explains that they have felt a tremendous groundswell of support from friends and community members, saying, “More and more people have been contacting us saying that they learned about our project, they’re excited about our project, so I feel like we have the support, it’s now about structuring that support in a way that’s actually useful for us and would help us get the things we need done…”

This season they will be starting small: With a grant through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Growers Alliance, they will be working closely with Urban Ecoforms to design a demonstration garden and teach others about building planters on the cheap. Though their beginnings may be modest, they are not afraid to dream big. They talk without trepidation about one day being the largest rooftop farm not only in the city but in the world. As urban farmers they face problems strikingly similar to those of their rural counterparts: land and money. They had some difficulty accessing space in vacant lots in their neighborhood, and an arrangement with another local roof space fell through. Though they remain upbeat about their progress during the interview, they still have millions of dollars to raise before their project can really get off the ground; meanwhile, both women are working other jobs to make ends meet. Clare affirms the importance of patience in the process, saying, “I think from an outside perspective it may seem like things are going really slowly, but in fact I think they’re going really quickly for the fact that both Rania and I work two to three jobs plus are doing this, the amount that we’re actually getting done in the limited amount of time we spend, it’s actually quite impressive to me, and I guess that’s just something to celebrate.”
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