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Wanted: Cool Roofs For Hot-And-Bothered Town
Green Futures, 28 Aug 09

By Garry Campbell

With urban green space at an absolute premium, Groundwork is taking it to the rooftops.

High above Hammersmith’s frenetic high street sits an oasis of calm. Right there on the top of the Lyric Theatre is a living, breathing roof garden [right], where locals can enjoy a much needed retreat from the concrete jungle.

It “offers a gentle idyll – such a contrast to everything else nearby”, explains Adam White, Principal Landscape Architect for Groundwork West London. Situated next to a social housing estate, the garden can be accessed by residents, weary shoppers and theatre goers via a street-level staircase.

But the Hammersmith garden is for wildlife, too, he adds. “We’ve deliberately used elements that are good for encouraging biodiversity – for example, a big proportion of flowering plants, as well as timber and evergreen trees.”

Creating inner city green space has been at the heart of Groundwork’s projects for the past 25 years. It’s clear that urban communities find such places invaluable, says the charity. People use parks, nature reserves and gardens to get fit, to get to know one another, or simply to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. As it gets harder to squeeze in any more of these places at street level, there’s no reason why people can’t enjoy the same benefits on rooftops.

Green roofs aren’t only useful in maximising land; they’re a great way of adapting to, and helping mitigate, climate change. For example, they cool cities, which can be a staggering 7ºC hotter than the countryside, by reversing the ‘urban heat island effect’. And in doing so, they reduce the need for artificial cooling systems, such as air conditioning, in hot weather, thereby helping cut carbon emissions. They also retain rainwater, so reduce run-off and the risk of flooding.

Cities desperately need more rooftop gardens, says Anna Cooper, Green Roof Development Officer at Groundwork Sheffield – for the sake of environmental justice. “Deprived urban areas are more likely to be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as increased flood risks and temperatures,” she points out. “Communities in these areas will be most affected by its impact, yet less able to cope with its effects.”

She’s heartened by recent recommendations from the UK Green Building Council urging the construction industry to recognise the benefits of green roofs and to have the confidence to fully embrace them. But she’d like to see more public acknowledgement of their role as a climate change solution.

That’s one of the missions of the Green Roof Centre, which was set up in 2007 by Groundwork Sheffield, in collaboration with the university and several local authorities. “When people experience green roofs for the first time they instantly see the benefits they have to offer and how they fit into the UK’s green infrastructure agenda,” Cooper says. But the word still needs to spread.

The construction industry also needs better technical guidance. “As every green roof is unique, it must be installed to a high specification to reap maximum benefits,” Cooper explains. British builders currently have to rely on European standards, such as those designed for Germany, because there are none issued in the UK. This is problematic, because each country has different climatic conditions.

But now, the Green Roof Centre is working to create a Code of Best Practice that will raise the standard of green roof design and installation. It’s a £640,000 EU-funded project run in partnership with Groundwork Sheffield and the University of Sheffield.

The UK has a lot to learn from Germany, believes Cooper. There, it’s a legal requirement to include green roofs on new flat-roofed buildings – and, to help developers along, there’s a generous grant system that typically pays up to 50% of the installation cost. Fortunately for the Hammersmith garden, private sponsors and non-profit companies came forward, including Marks & Spencer and Hammersmith London.

Cooper hopes the Code will become the ultimate standard for these vital spaces and be a first step towards their wider recognition as a solution worth significant investment. “We want green roofs to become a national phenomenon.”

Read more about green roofs in the Worldchanging archive:

WC Retro: Green Roofs
Canada's Largest Green Roof
Living Walls And Green Roofs Pave Way For Biodiversity In New Building
Green Roofs: The Urban Jungle's Upper Canopy

This piece originally appeared in Green Futures. Green Futures is published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.

Photo credit: Flickr/416style, Creative Commons License.

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