Greening the Concrete Jungle
Portlandia greets visitors to the Portland Building with a giant outstretched
hand. The symbol of Portland, Oregon, the copper sculpture (second only to
the Statue of Liberty in size) is what most people notice about the downtown
headquarters of the city's government. But inside the building, at the top
of 17 flights of stairs, the Portland Building opens onto a rooftop meadow
of living plants and one of Oregon State University's latest agricultural experiments.
In this urban environment colored in hues of steel gray and asphalt black,
the rooftop offers a patch of rich color and texture, a living quilt of gold,
red, and green plants, some in bloom and buzzing with insects. It is not a
roof-top garden with potted palms and banana plants as I had imagined, but
it is definitely a growing, thriving rooftop meadow in the middle of a major
Looking across the city from this vantage point, I see an environment filled
with impermeable surfaces—roads, buildings, and parking lots—that
separate the falling rain from the spongy ground. Western Oregon's heavy winter
rains can't penetrate these hard surfaces. As a result, storm water runs off
roads and sidewalks, overflowing treatment facilities and sweeping pollution
into rivers and on downstream. Portland is investing $1.4 billion in its Big
Pipe project to keep most of the city's sewage and storm water from overflowing
into the Willamette River. The green roof I'm standing on will help reduce
run-off and bring some green back into the urban landscape.
"Storm water management is a primary reason that many city governments
are interested in green roofs," said Erin Shroll, the lead researcher
on OSU's Green Roof Technology project. "But there is a host of other
benefits associated with the roofs, ranging from better building insulation
to reductions in the urban heat island and increases in wildlife habitat."
There are 12,500 acres of rooftop in the city of Portland, according to Tom
Liptan, an environmental specialist with the city's Bureau of Environmental
Services, who has pioneered green roofs in Portland. He estimates that just
a few, about 25 acres, are planted as green roofs, either as old-fashioned
roof gardens or as what he calls eco-roofs, specially designed with a lightweight
growing medium, an assortment of rock-garden plants and other vegetation, and
an underlying waterproof membrane.
As part of Portland's efforts to promote sustainable development, city leaders
are encouraging the use of green roofs as a lightweight, low maintenance, vegetated
alternative to conventional rooftop materials on both residential and commercial
buildings. There are now more than 80 green roofs within the city, and more
are being planned. But up until now, little has been done to determine what
plants are best suited for roof-top use in the wet-winter, dry-summer climate
Planting green roofs is more than blanketing a roof with sedums and succulents
and hoping for the best, according to David Sandrock, a researcher in OSU's
Department of Horticulture. "The science behind creating a successful
green roof is still in its infancy," he said. "This is a brand new
landscape where nothing is truly native. There's a lot to learn and a lot to
To help explore this new frontier, OSU joined into a partnership with Liptan
and the city of Portland to study the green roof on top of the Portland Building
in the heart of the city's downtown area.
"Each part of the city, and to a degree each part of each roof, has its
own microclimate and a variety of conditions that must be considered before
planting," said Shroll. She and Sandrock are examining what plants will
be most successful on rooftops across the Northwest.
To learn more about rooftop microclimates and the plants that could thrive
in each, Shroll and Sandrock are leading a green roof research program at the
newly developed Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture on the southwest side
of the OSU campus in Corvallis. There they built 24 raised test plots, each
planted with a mixture of six different plants native to the Willamette Valley
and two non-native plant varieties. The plots represent extensive roofs,
that is, green roofs with two to six inches of growing medium and not intended
for foot traffic. These green-carpeted roofs are in contrast to intensive rooftop gardens, what people generally imagine when they first hear about roof-top
plantings, with patios and gardens that can be used as outdoor living spaces.
Extensive roofs are usually within the normal load-bearing capacity for commercial
buildings and do not require additional structural reinforcement before installation.
However, said Shroll, approval from a structural engineer should be the first
step in designing any green roof. In contrast, intensive roofs tend
to have deeper soils to support a wider variety of plants and may require structural
modifications to be considered safe.
"But as far as storm water management, extensive green roofs are
the workhorses," said Sandrock, who leads OSU's program in landscape design. "In
our test plots, it's all about reducing run-off and the overflow of winter
rains. Keeping the plants alive through the dry summer is part of the cycle."
The idea of watering extensive roofs is new to the green roof industry, and
it is generally unnecessary in places where summer rain is abundant. The researchers
fitted their plots with an irrigation system that drips the minimum water necessary
to carry the plants through the dry season and ensure they are ready for rapid
uptake of moisture when the winter rains begin to fall.
In order to use less water for irrigation, Shroll and Sandrock collect and
store rainwater that drips from the conventional roofs at the Urban Horticulture
Center during winter. They've also created a bioswale on the property to help
absorb and filter run-off from the Center's buildings before it enters nearby
Back at the Portland Building, Tom Liptan points out honey bees patrolling
the rooftop plants. Where are they coming from? How did they find their way
here? Where are they going?
"I mentioned them to the mayor, and he suggested that we put a beehive
up here," Liptan said.
Green roofs are opening new territory for cities and homeowners alike. "Putting
in a green roof begins to address the 'What can I do?' stumbling block that
many people face when thinking about sustainability issues," said Sandrock. "It
helps people understand that by doing something relatively small, each individual
can have a big impact on the health and sustainability of their communities."