Getting Their Hands Dirty: The Story of NYU Shanghai’s Rooftop Garden

getting their hands dirty
Sep 22 2023

On a recent Monday afternoon, more than 50 people gathered at an open rooftop space at the New Bund Campus, transplanting seedlings to raised bed containers and setting up an irrigation system. The inaugural gardening event was organized by Assistant Arts Professor of Interactive Media Arts Andy Garcia, as part of his Urban Farming, Technology and Community class. 

It was senior business major Yan Zhiying’s first time gardening. “I want to be more involved with gardening, and get in touch with the food we eat,” she said. “When we eat something, we need to know where it comes from.”

Economics major Joseph Taylor ’24 said gardening was a nice antidote to the pressures of urban life. “Shanghai being a city, you only get so many opportunities to go out into nature,” he said. “I thought this would be a nice opportunity to do something productive with my time.” 

andy garcia
Professor Garcia showing off the garden to students. 

The event was a hit with students, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Students have been a crucial driving force for the creation of the garden space since its very inception. Nofar Hamrany ’18 spearheaded the garden project while she was the president and founder of the Green Shanghai club at the University’s former campus on Century Avenue. Once plans were announced for the New Bund Campus, students and faculty lobbied heavily for the architects to reserve a rooftop garden space, and plans are now underway to transform the space into a garden laboratory of sorts. 

The plans for the space feature a landscaped garden with fruit trees, raised beds and walkways, built according to a design by Nunzia Carbone, founder of DEDODESIGN. Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Yifei Li says that once complete, the garden space is sure to be one of the highlights of the New Bund Campus, and even of the Qiantan neighborhood. “It will provide the NYU Shanghai community with an innovative green space that can serve as a platform for research on past and future ecologies,” he said. “The aim is for the garden to host research projects, classes, student groups and community events.”

Students transplanting seedlings into raised beds. 

Associate Professor of Contemporary Global Media NYU Shanghai Anna Greenspan and Amy Goldman, Clinical Professor of NYU Shanghai's Writing Program, have been working on the garden space project since 2016. Professor Greenspan says that it will be an important way for NYU Shanghai to collaborate with other NYU gardens, including in New York and Florence, Italy. “I can't wait to think and learn in a multisensory, experimental, generative garden that activates new connections across NYU Shanghai as well as NYU's Global network,” she said. At the NYU Florence site, located on a villa estate, students help grow olive trees and press their own olive oil. The Urban Farm Lab at NYU’s New York campus operates as an outdoor classroom, research lab, and community farm, and is used by the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt. 

For now, Professor Garcia’s students are using the garden space to experiment with small-scale gardening techniques, including composting, vermiculture, hydroponics and vertical farming. “It's really hands-on,” he explained. “We explore the reasons why we should care about urban farming from a global perspective, also from a personal perspective, and there's a health perspective.”

Professor Garcia and his Urban Farming class hold weekly afternoon gardening activities on the rooftop and welcome anyone to join. The garden, he says, not only encourages community members to step outside and away from their screens, but also fills an important need for the NYU Shanghai community to explore and innovate together. “It can be our playground,” he said. “We can experiment here, and bring people from all the departments, staff or students, to merge together around this activity.”

At the garden activity, first-year students Perla Dai and Catelyn Wen knelt down to transplant green bean seedlings and water the soil. “Now I want to learn more about farming skills,” said Dai. “Maybe we can plant more trees and plants here.”

Biology major Suvi Biesinger ’26 said participating in the gardening activity reminded her of her home in Buffalo, NY. “I moved from a rural place and gardening is something I’ve missed,” she said. “So the idea of a communal garden where I could come and garden sounds like a cool idea.”

Garcia isn’t the only faculty member with plans to incorporate gardening into their curriculum. This semester, he’s already collaborating with Assistant Professor of Practice in Environmental Studies Travis Klingberg’s China and the Environment class and EAP Senior Lecturer Catherine Journeaux’s Food For Thought class. 

Students watering and preparing irrigation for raised beds. 

That’s just the start though. Professor Li says that once the garden fully opens, there are more than 20 proposed courses that will utilize the rooftop garden space. The courses cover a range of fields, from IMA and Visual Arts to English for Academic Purposes and Economics. There are plans for a garden lecture series to bring gardening and farming experts to campus. And there are other ideas for the space as well, including using the space for rainwater collection, outdoor movie screenings, and stargazing. 

For students looking to get involved, NYU Shanghai’s Garden Committee is now looking to hire two students as project managers for the development of the space. NYU Shanghai community members are welcome to join Professor Garcia’s weekly gardening activities and once the space is set up, people can apply to use the space. 

Professor Li says that the garden is meant to be able to accommodate the needs of the community. “We are putting together a design that is flexible, that is modular, where the students can have a say, and staff and faculty can have a say about how we continue to shape and reshape it down the road,” he said.

Join Professor Garcia’s weekly gardening activity on Tuesdays from 12:40 pm to 1:10 pm on the 7th floor rooftop of the South building.