Meadows in the skies: A closer look at the growing, green rooftops in the city

(Published July 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

High above the streets, there are fields through the city filled with wildflowers, grasses, trees and even crops.

A growing rooftop greening movement is transforming the downtown environment and, according to Molly Meyer, it’s also improving the buildings.

Meyer, CEO and founder of Omni Ecosystems, an organization that designs sustainable green infrastructure, said her firm has developed rooftop farms and prairies. She said the green trend gained steam about 15 years ago and it’s been going strong ever since.

“In the mid 2000s there were a huge number of green roofs developed,” she said.

Now, every neighborhood in the city has green roofs, mostly only observable from higher floors on neighboring buildings. But while they may be invisible to most people, they’re still important.

“The top of the McDonald’s headquarters in West Loop is a 20,000 square foot wildlife meadow,” Meyer said. “That’s an important habitat for native butterflies.”

Their green roof includes crops which the company hopes to deliver to the community. 

“At McDonald’s headquarters, as employees and visitors collaborate on the ninth floor open work space and outdoor terrace, they are standing directly under one of the premier sustainability features of the headquarters: the green roof,” McDonald’s spokesperson Anne Christensen said. “The green roof boasts a garden with food for harvest and is purifying the air in the West Loop. The garden includes buckwheat, carrots, wheat, radishes, as these items are good for promoting strong soil. Harvesting soon, we hope to partner with a community organization to help us share our crops.”

In Streeterville, Navy Pier got into the game a year ago, when it developed its new welcome center. The center, to the right of the entrance, near Polk Brother Park, features a roof sloping down to the sidewalk and as visitors walk along the south side of the building, the concrete facade gives way to a meadow, complete with two bee boxes, which are a permanent fixture in the meadow. 

Michael Thompson, an apiest and farm manager at Chicago Honey Co-op who manages the boxes for the pier, said in the few months since the boxes have been installed, the have already produced 30-40 pounds of honey. In just two bee boxes, Navy Pier is home to some 50,000 Italian bees. 

According to Savitha Chelladurai, the Navy Pier’s sustainability program manager, the pier will use the honey at various restaurants. She said the rooftop project makes good sense for the Pier. 

“The creation of a green roof at the People’s Energy Welcome Pavilion helps to mitigate heat island effects and create a cooler environment for our guests,” said Chelladurai. “In addition, the native plants used at the Pier lead to better storm-water management and require little fertilizer or chemical applicants.”

The Pier isn’t alone.

“Downtown we have nine bee locations and they’re all on roofs,” Thompson said. 

In addition to bees, Meyer said the greenspaces are habitats for birds and small insects like grasshoppers, likely dropped by birds. But the roofs offer more than an ecosystem. 

Green rooftops are growing in popularity because the city mandates new construction be “green” or energy efficient, she said, and rooftops help achieve that goal.

“There is a benefit to extending the life of the roof membrane and a green roof protects that,” she said. “And there’s the storm water benefit and energy saving benefit too.”

Besides the buildings, the rooftops also help the city. 

“It’s important to make sure the built environment gets more sustainable and resilient,” she said.

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