Rooftop gardens are good for the body and soul…and the wallet. What keeps a building cool in the summer, warm in the winter, improves air quality, lowers food costs and boosts mental health? Turning an ordinary city roof into a green oasis. Green roofs are becoming more popular in urban areas as people turn to plants to improve their health and economy.
Cities have a long history of using their rooftop spaces. The whole reason behind building up – lack of ground area – makes the tops of buildings valuable open air real estate. In the late 1800s rooftop gardens blossomed in order to replicate the outdoor spaces of Europe. Fantastical garden theaters were created to host variety shows and other entertainments. Patrons flocked to the top of cities like New York for cafes and vaudeville shows. Rudolph Aronson built the first outdoor theater on his Casino Theater at 39th and Broadway. Operettas and concerts were performed amid flowerbeds, winding pathways and colored lights. Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theater at 44th and Broadway had a rustic alpine design with rocky crags, waterfalls and swans swimming in a 40 foot lake. A 65 foot frosted glass ceiling was lit by 3,000 electric lights. Visitors called it a fairyland. A couple of world wars and the introduction of movies and air-conditioning quashed the rooftop garden theater movement. Now, a new type of garden is moving in.
Grass, flowers and food are popular items to grow on today’s green rooftops. Some people are looking for a park-like space where they can relax high above the hustle and bustle of city life. The air is cooler and fresher up on top of a multi-story building. Other people grow flowers in containers to brighten and beautify their surroundings. A small oasis of nature provides a haven from the concrete jungle, but there is also a growing movement in cities to grow produce and herbs on rooftops for local restaurants and farmers markets. Growing locally keeps vegetables fresher and can reduce their expense. However, it is not necessarily easy to grow plants on a roof. Zachary Pickins, who created a rooftop garden for Madiba Restaurant in New York and runs a milk crate farm for the restaurant Riverpark, started a seed company specifically for the challenges of urban rooftop farming. He says “plants are urban-heat-island-affected, exposed to heavy winds and extreme sun exposure on rooftops, and usually confined to containers.” Seeds that are rooftop ready develop plants with the best characteristics to adapt to these unique conditions.
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, a pioneer in the field of urban farms, runs its own market and bicycles fresh produce to area restaurants. The 6,000 square foot organic farm sits on a three story warehouse. The largest urban farm in the world, though, covers 2.5 acres (roughly 110,000 sq. ft.) and operates two vegetable farms and one bee farm. The Brooklyn Grange Farm produces over 50,000 pounds of organic vegetables a year. Even the grocery chain Whole Foods has gotten into the rooftop farm movement and is planning the first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn in order to supply fresh produce to local stores.
Although rooftop gardens are good for the body, the soul and the wallet, most city-dwellers are not going to grow full farms on their roofs. However, flowers and fresh vegetables for private use are becoming more popular again. Not only are people thinking about their dinner plates, but they are also thinking about their respiratory health. Forester Dave Nowak and a team of researchers found that trees prevented 850 human deaths and 670,000 cases of respiratory illness in 2010. The study, published in Environmental Pollution, looked at the relationship between plants and pollution. Although trees capture the most particulate pollution and convert the most carbon dioxide into oxygen, all plants lessen the effects of pollution on human health. Plants are most effective in urban areas where there are more people and more pollution. According to The Atlantic, people who live in urban areas stand to gain the most from this benefit. Other studies have looked at the mental health benefits of exposure to natural environments. Surgery patients whose windows look out at trees and plants recover faster than those who look at other buildings. It is clear to see that creating green gardens is healthy for people’s diets, lungs and moods.
In addition to health benefits, green roofs are excellent at cooling urban air. Shading rooftops from otherwise direct sunlight has a wonderful effect on cooling costs in the summer. Instead of radiating the heat, plants soak up the sun’s energy and the rooftop remains a comfortable place to relax. If the gardener covers the roof with soil to grow grass or plants, the soil acts as an extra layer of insulation in both summer and winter. One city factory owner claims to have saved 22 percent on air conditioning and 16 percent on heating costs since planting a meadow on the roof. He also harvests herbs and vegetables.
To create a green roof or grow a rooftop garden it is important to know just how much weight the roof will support. Adding in the future weight of roots, plants and water retention is necessary so the roof does not collapse. Modern building practices, however, allow most roofs to hold a green space. It was the advent of steel that made the garden theaters of the 1800s possible and the building materials of today can enable every roof to have flowers, vegetables, fruits or trees. Maybe soon the urban landscape will be as green as it is gray.
Green roofs are bringing back a thriving ecosystem to urban landscapes. People have access to a greater variety of vegetables and fruits and the gardener’s partner – the bee – has access to a greater variety of flowers. Rooftop gardens are good for the body, soul and wallet. The new wave of green roofs taking root can vastly improve urban life.
By: Rebecca Savastio