With Rooftop Garden Designed By ‘Starchitect,’ Earth School Branches Out

IMG_1187Courtesy 5th Street Farm Project The Earth School’s rooftop.
IMG_1196Courtesy 5th Street Farm Project Manure awaiting installation

Not only are middle-schoolers at P.S. 64 creating traffic signs, they may soon be growing ingredients for school lunches. This fall, the Earth School, which shares a building with P.S. 64, plans to unveil a $1.1 million rooftop garden designed by Michael Arad, the architect of the 9/11 Memorial.

Five years ago, Abbe Futterman, a science teacher at Earth School, had the idea of turning the 56-year-old building’s roof into an outdoor classroom. To get there, the school had to develop a cost-friendly design, procure over a million dollars in funding with the help of local politicians, and get necessary city approvals – complicated steps for building professionals, let alone schoolteachers and administrators focused on students.

IMG_1180Courtesy 5th Street Farm Project Stairs to the green roof.

The Earth School’s principal, Alison Hazut, said the project received a major push from one individual: “It really was a parent saying, ‘I can help to make this happen.’ And that parent was Michael Arad.”

Mr. Arad, whose son attended the school, was famously tapped as the designer of the 9/11 Memorial at the age of 34. His experience turning plans for the memorial into reality gave him some idea of what to expect from the School Construction Authority, a formidable bureaucracy that approves any construction or renovations planned for city public schools. “If I were building a green roof for a private client on a new building in the middle of nowhere, it would be easy,” said the architect. “But design is about constraints and challenges.”

IMG_1792Sarah Darville Window to the current garden.

Construction, which began last August, is now in its final stages. The green roof section, which includes 70 planters and a deck, was raised four feet above the existing roof by extending the building’s support columns, similar to the way air conditioning units are often installed.

Even with these cost-cutting measures, it would have been impossible to raise funds for the project through parent donations or from the Department of Education, Ms. Hazut said. In the end, grants from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, and State Senator Daniel Squadron financed the project.

IMG_1781Sarah Darville The current garden.

Parents and teachers have recently registered the Fifth Street Farm Project as a nonprofit entity, to help raise funds for future upkeep. And teachers have started brainstorming ways to use the space for social studies lessons about Native American plants, sensory experiences for pre-kindergarten students, and as a source of fresh food for the cafeteria. The larger garden space will allow students from Tompkins Square Middle School and P.S. 64 Robert Simon, which share the building with Earth School, to be involved as well, Ms. Futterman said.

IMG_1791Sarah Darville Gardener task list.

For now, she and her students are still climbing out of her first-floor window to maintain an eight-foot wide space where she has cultivated an organized jungle of plants: Genovese basil, rosemary, collard greens and eggplant.

Ms. Hazut said she looked forward to the rooftop expansion. “Having this kind of hands-on lab on the roof maximizes space in a place where there isn’t any,” she said. “It allows kids to be outdoors in a way that they can’t be in most of the city.”

And Mr. Arad said he planned to bring his son back to the school once the green roof is completed in the fall. “You hope that the work that you do will impact the lives of other people,” he said. “It’s about education, and also about trying to bring that into the day-to-day life of a community, more than just an environmentally responsible way but in a cultural way. And it should be fun, too.”