Welcome To The Sky Farm

A rooftop garden at a hospital in Indianapolis engages patients and staff to learn more about food and healthy living. Dawn Olsen reports

Sky Farm

Urban farmer Rachel White walked up, down, and around the raised garden beds, watering her most recent plantings. Every few moments, she would pause and scratch her arms, which were tanned from the summer sun, but itchy from harvesting. She had collected tomatoes, beans, and berries all day, working non-stop. White didn’t take a lunch; instead, she took care of the garden – a “sky farm” on the roof of an Indianapolis hospital.

The 5,000-square-foot Sky Farm, which yielded more than 2,200 pounds of food in its first year, is located atop the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital in downtown Indianapolis. The hospital is part of Eskenazi Health, the oldest and largest public health care system in Indiana, with a mission to advocate, care, and teach, with special emphasis on vulnerable populations.

The Sky Farm, now in its third season, fully embraces Eskenazi’s mission. It teaches patients, staff, and community members how to engage with food, and it promotes healthy living. “People know what vegetables look like in a store,” said White, “but maybe they don’t know what they look like when they’re planted or growing. People come to the Sky Farm and make the connection.”

To create the Sky Farm, the hospital partnered with Growing Places Indy, a non-profit organisation that focuses on urban agriculture and provides farm support services. In addition to working with Eskenazi Health, Growing Places Indy farms several “micro-farms” in Indianapolis. At the largest site, a 13,000-square-foot U-Pick farm, community members can learn how food is grown, pick their own produce, and learn about food preparation and storage. Like the Sky Farm, it exposes individuals to urban agriculture, teaches them how to engage with food, and promotes healthy living.

Sky Farm

White emphasised that the Sky Farm isn’t “just a garden” – it’s an educational space. Dietitians hold nutrition classes there, and people can take vegetables home. And since the Sky Farm is open to the public 24/7, visitors can stroll among the garden beds, point out things they recognise, and ask questions about what they don’t. “It’s kind of like a science lab,” said White. “That’s one of my favourite things about working here. Just seeing everyone learn.”

“It’s nice for patients to have a quiet space away from their room,” White explained. “I do know some nurses and physical therapists use the space … and the patients who talk to me really like it and are amazed that it is at a hospital and on a roof.”

In other words, the Sky Farm serves as a reprieve; patients can leave their hospital room, breathe the fresh air, and bathe in sunlight. It’s refreshing. It’s encouraging. And it gives patients the opportunity to learn about preventive medicine and ways of healthy living.

Produce from the Sky Farm also goes to the cafe located on the hospital’s campus. “I like to give them things that are in their menu already so they don’t have to create new recipes,” said White.

But despite the Sky Farm’s size, it doesn’t stretch to all of the hospital’s 5,000 employees and one million annual outpatient visitors; however, there are plans to expand it. Some of the Sedum plots – which help regulate the building’s temperature – will be converted into additional beds and add about 2,000 square feet.

Sky Farm

There is also a beehive maintained by Bee Public, which is making Indianapolis a more bee-friendly city. The organisation, which does not harvest the honey its bees make, focuses on increasing awareness about honeybee plight and the link between pollinators and the food system. It gives classroom presentations and has also installed hives at four area schools, an urban kitchen, and one of the Growing Places Indy farms. As for the hive at the Sky Farm, it gives bees access to the plants and flowers at Eskenazi Health, as well as the Indianapolis Zoo.

Other Sky Farm features include 30-inch-tall beds for patients in wheelchairs, who come to the rooftop garden for physical therapy. There also are 14 employee plots, for which demand is high.

White, who is on track to harvest more than 3,000 pounds of produce this year, said she loves the Sky Farm’s ability to connect individuals – patients, hospital employees, community members – to the earth. Because the Sky Farm is more than a garden: it’s an educational space, and a spot that inspires individuals to start a garden of their own.

White scratched her arm. “Sometimes, you just have to start growing stuff and see what happens.”

Dawn Olsen is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. She writes about architecture, historic preservation, and art and photography

Can we improve wellbeing in cities?

by Francesca Perry

Though it’s clear living in cities can have both negative and positive impacts on physical health – with the overcrowding, pollution, and lack of green space yet comes the maximised access to healthcare and proliferation of support networks – I am interested, as last year’s ‘Cities, health and wellbeing’ conference was, to look beyond this simplistic notion of wellness and consider the emotional wellbeing tied to happiness and satisfaction and how this may be affected by city living. We lack an understanding, as academic Philip Morrison has outlined, of the ‘geography of happiness’.

Some think that cities provide the variety needed to stimulate and animate us, others believe it is a case of overstimulation, causing stress or emotional detachment. There is – unsurprisingly – evidence to support that depression tends to be more prevalent in cities; complaints are lodged at the door of unhealthy work-life balances, high-rise living, limited open green space and apparent lack of community.

I have noted noted before the need to engage with nature on a regular basis – and there is indeed a widely supported link between green space and positive mental health. This is not to say we should all move to the countryside, though. It’s about something far subtler and more workable than even the ‘Garden Cities’ of the early 20th century, designed from scratch specifically for wellbeing by limiting population and maximising open space. Le Corbusier also tried to build cities designed for healthier living, but his plans meant whitewashing what was already there. Such stringent rules can work against what they are trying to achieve. I’m a strong believer that the right kind of support for green spaces, waterways and green infrastructure in the city allows the best of both worlds: to engage with the calming influence of nature as well as enjoy the activity of the city.

Recently, the New Economics Foundation (nef) produced a report on wellbeing patterns in the UK, showing that people who live in rural areas have a higher rate of wellbeing (happiness, satisfaction with their life) than those in urban areas. Specifically, the highest levels of wellbeing (41%) are found on the small islands off the British Isles as well as the northern/southern coastal extremities of country, whilst the lowest levels of wellbeing (20%) are found in London, Luton and Reading.

So do we need the space, the quiet, the sea to be content? Those may be things I dream of whilst at my desk, but I believe living the rest of my life on the Shetland Islands may not ensure permanent satisfaction. Still, different people adapt to different places, and then the familiarity becomes comforting and satisfying in itself – and hard to leave.


A sense of community is promoted as one of the keys to social wellbeing – but is this too stifling in a village, or too disparate in a city? New types of living in the city – such as high-rise, high-density apartment blocks – may affect the type of community interaction that occurs; but community dynamics rely on far more factors, including the social structures set in place like resident associations or neighbourhood centres. There is no reason why a strong feeling of community is unlikely to emerge in a large metropolis.

Peter Marcuse recently recently praised the ‘Occupy Sandy’ initiative in New York, noting the way that people helped one another was: ‘an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked… we are all parts of one whole.’ Though this unity may have emerged in a time of crisis, it shows that cities are not incapable of a powerful sense of togetherness.

Occupy Sandy

Another social activity strongly tied to the idea of wellbeing is the participation in decision-making in environmental and local affairs. This is certainly not automatically more feasible in small rural communities than cities. At least in the UK, there are numerous structures in place to enable this civic empowerment, but we must always ensure – wherever the community – that this participation is meaningful and not tokenistic.

Rural and urban life I think is too different to be compared; as the percentage of the world population living in cities continues to rise, the question now is more likely what kind of city encourages wellbeing? I would like to see an investigation in to the varying levels of wellbeing between different cities, to understand places that enhance and maximise the opportunities and benefits of urban living. The recent trend for ranking ‘liveable cities’, however, often glosses over many key aspects, complexities and subjectivities.

Moving beyond vital infrastructure for physical health often taken for granted in developed cities, including accessibility to basic services (what we might term ‘objective wellbeing’), we can think of more subtle – but still crucial – ways to support holistic wellbeing in the contemporary city.


As I recently discussed, pedestrian-friendly cities – those places which boast ‘walkability’ – encourage greater use of the public realm and result in more social interaction and enjoyment of civic space. Equally, supporting and enhancing access to greenery and nature is crucial to overcoming the challenges to wellbeing presented by a large urban centre.

Furthermore, if urban wellbeing is to be enhanced, it is crucial that the clear benefits of city living – including access to a rich variety of culture – should be fully supported and nurtured rather than forgotten or diminished. Cities also need to maximise on their community initiatives and support networks, as well as opportunities for empowerment and participation; London, though its size may present challenges, benefits from a concentration of wonderful organisations working with the city’s communities to improve lives and places.

Many have claimed that wellbeing is increased by a strong place identity. I believe this notion of place identity has at times been exploited and created by top-down branding efforts for economic benefit; an identity of place which is created collaboratively with the local community, however, holds far more resonance. As more people become involved in civic decision-making, participatory planning and creative interaction, so the ownership of place and space will engender a lasting sense of local pride.

Happiness and satisfaction will always be personal and subjective, as well as vary from day to day – so it is of course difficult to measure wellbeing. What’s more, we cannot anchor wellbeing to place alone – place itself is shaped by the people in it. I do believe, however, and have tried to highlight here, that there are ways in which the people designing and managing cities can support fuller, more active, democratic and creative lives of citizens.  Of course the rest of the work is down to us.

The ‘Cities, health and wellbeing’ conference put forward the power of wellbeing as a point around which to rethink city development and identify more sensitive and intuitive ways of intervening in cities. My only addition to this would be to stress that, more than ‘intervention’, truly sustainable and beneficial efforts will be collaborative and work with citizens to better understand what makes a happier and healthier place.