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Ladybugs from ReNatur Brochure

Source: ReNatur© 98 Brochure

"By working with the patterns and processes favored by the living world, we can dramatically reduce the ecological impacts of our designs," (Van der Ryn and Cowan, 1996).

To a certain measure, we have the opportunity to mitigate the developmental impacts of construction practices by replicating the environment that we have destroyed with the building footprint through the design of our rooftops.  Greenroofs embody many environmental benefits, especially when applied to urban settings, where nature is at a premium. They can help restore the ecological value of open space to densely developed city centers. Obviously, the larger the greenroof surface and the plant mass, the greater the ecological benefits.

According to The London Ecology’s book entitled Building Green: A Guide to Using Plants on Roofs, Walls and Pavements (1993), “Cities can be viewed from an entirely new, ecological perspective.  Buildings offer surfaces akin to natural landforms and these can be planted following clues from nature.  The skin of the city can be transformed into a living landscape.”

Perhaps the greatest ecological function a greenroof can provide is its stormwater management capacity Impervious cover has become a function of contemporary land uses.  As a result of new land use practices, cities across the nation have developed over-stressed sewer systems with urgent stormwater management problems. According to analysis of Lansat Satellite data by NASA climate scientists, University of Georgia researchers and others, metro Atlanta is losing 50 acres of tree cover per day.  From 1988 to 1998 the 13-county metro area lost approximately 190,000 acres of tree cover to development (Charles Seabrook, 1999).  Lost green space is then a by-product of the proverbial asphalt jungle, and the inherent natural processes associated with natural areas are also lost.  The chart below from Bruce Ferguson's Introduction to Stormwater: Concept, Purpose, Design (1998), shows the amount of impervious cover that development and the new impervious pavements produce.

Redrawn from Bruce Ferguson's Introduction to Stormwater: Concept, Purpose, Design

Redrawn from Bruce Ferguson's "Introduction to Stormwater: Concept, Purpose, Design," 1998.

“We are obligated to restore the mechanisms of the earth’s self-maintaining balance.  Runoff must be moderated, treated, and returned to its restorative path in the soil,” (Ferguson, 1998).

Source:  ZinCo International 3/98 Brochure

On-site stormwater retention and runoff control from expansive roof surface areas of buildings can be accomplished through greenroofs.  According to civil engineer Charlie Miller, Principal, of Roofscapes, Inc., “Vegetated roof covers may offer the only practical ‘at-source’ technique for controlling runoff in areas that already are highly urbanized.” The reversal of damage caused by uncontrolled storm water runoff and non-point source pollution is possible within our urbanized watersheds. He believes that the intelligent use of best management practices (BMPs) can result in significant improvements, as well as long-term savings to individuals and municipalities (

Depending on rain intensity and greenroof soil depths, runoff can be absorbed between 15 to 90 %, thereby considerably reducing runoff and potential pollutants from traditional impervious roofing surfaces.  Plants intercept and delay rainfall runoff and the peak flow rate, alleviating combined sewer overflows, and eventually return water to the surrounding atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration.  Average runoff absorption rates are between 50 to 60%  ( 

Courtesy of Roofscapes, Inc.;

The control of stormwater runoff is achieved by mimicking natural processes by intercepting and delaying rainfall runoff.

Greater grass & plant diversity provides better plant uptake and simple friction, which creates less erosion, and more water is retained on the greenroof surface.  Stormwater Natural Processes Detail from

According to Charlie Miller, the installation of greenroofs is “a potential technique for relieving nuisance flooding and reducing hydraulic loads on combined storm sewer systems.”  He contends that, “In addition to providing immediate relief for overburdened stormwater management facilities, the deployment of vegetated roof covers can help reduce the overall costs of infrastructure rehabilitation in our older cities.”

Greenroofs reduce the volume of stormwater flowing into streams and drainage channels, resulting in the control of sediment transport and overall soil erosion. According to an article in the November/December 1998 issue of Erosion Control Magazine, the natural carpets provided by greenroofs protect both roofs and the soil below. Nitrogen, phosphorus and toxins can enter a vegetated stream as dissolved substances.  Greenroofs' vegetated cover properties of friction, root absorption, clay, and soil organic matter can control these substances from entering a stream corridor (Dramstad, et al, 1996).  In February of 1999, the International Erosion Control Association’s Conference & Trade Exposition was held in Nashville, TN, and featured a training workshop and special section regarding the benefits and applications of roof greening systems.  Thomas Roess of Strodthoff and Behrens GMBH of Germany presented on this subject in 1999, and is a frequent lecturer worldwide on greenroof technology.  Publisher's Note:  Thomas Roess is now Managing Director of IGG Internationale Geotextil GmbH and they are supplying roofgreening systems under IGG Roofgreening Systems (October, 2006).

Vegetation absorbs pollutants from rainwater, and greenroofs provide this same amenity.  Heavy metals and nutrients found in stormwater are bound in the soil instead of being discharged into the groundwater or streams or rivers.  Over 95% of cadmium, copper and lead and 16% of zinc can be taken out of rainwater.  Nitrogen levels can also substantially fall (The London Ecology Unit, 1993).

An Atlanta area problem common to other growing cities is the water quality and supply issue.  Extremely important to environmentalists and developers alike, this situation has potentially critical consequences for all of Atlanta (Bookman, 1999).  Metro Atlanta is now the fastest growing metro region in the country, and the Chattahoochee is the smallest river in the country serving as the primary water source for a major metropolitan area.  Atlanta’s ever-burgeoning residential and commercial developments’ demand for water also raises the question of water quality. Invariably, expansion places chemicals, bacteria, sediment and other pollutants into local waterways.

Tightly sealed impervious surfaces such as concrete and asphalt, commonly found in urban areas, greatly contribute to the ever-growing problem of the urban heat island effect.   Barren walls, roofs and streets act as reflectors, absorbing some energy and redirecting a portion to other hard surfaces (The London Ecology Unit, 1993). “Asphalt in parking lots and on rooftops, in particular, soaks up everything and reradiates it as thermal infrared radiation.  The heat is released after sunset and forms a dome of higher temperatures over the cities,” (  This growth of our cities has resulted in hot spots within otherwise cool areas of the countryside.

NASA has been conducting a study of several sprawling U.S. cities contributing to this phenomenon of higher urban temperatures.  Its Project ATLANTA (Atlanta Land-use Analysis: Temperature and Air-quality) was funded in 1996 as a NASA EOS Interdisciplinary Science (IDS) investigation. This urban heat island experiment in Atlanta “seeks to observe, measure, model, and analyze how the rapid growth of the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan areas since the early 1970’s has impacted the region’s climate and air quality.  Our key goal is to derive a better scientific understanding of how land cover changes associated with the urbanization in the Atlanta area, principally in transforming forest lands to urban land covers through time, has, and will, effect local and regional climate, surface energy flux, and air quality characteristics,” (

In natural landscapes, vegetative canopy biomass greatly lowers air temperatures, whereas the artificial, altered surfaces common in urban landscapes greatly raises them.  “Urban forests are important to keeping cities cool,” says co-investigator Dr. Jeffrey Luvall of the NASA Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  “What’s important are both the extent and arrangement of these forests.”

Satellite images of Atlanta readily show how urban sprawl has extended into previous areas of farms and wooded areas, largely along interstate and other major highways. Aerial photography below illustrates the wide range of thermal energy responses between the May 1998 daytime (Figure 1) and nighttime (Figure 2) Atlanta landscapes.  (See "Why Have A Test Greenroof?" for color thermal photos.) Figure 1 shows intense thermal energy responses from buildings, rooftops, pavements and other typical urban surfaces.  Maximum daytime air temperature was approximately 25 degrees C (77 degrees F).  According to the NASA study, sample surface temperatures for tree-shaded grass, tree canopy, and asphalt in full sunlight during the afternoon were 28 degrees C (82.4 degrees F), 21 degrees C (69.8 degrees F), and 50 degrees C (122 degrees F), respectively.

               Figure 1                           Figure 2

Figure 1

Courtesy NASA, Dr. Jeffrey Luvall

NASA Figure 2

Courtesy NASA, Dr. Jeffrey Luvall

In contrast, Figure 2 shows the relative flatness of the Atlanta thermal landscape at night, with an average temperature of 10 degrees C (50 degrees F).  Daytime temperatures for a commercial building roof comprised of rock/membrane coating ranged from 49 degrees C (120.2 degrees F) to 52 degrees C (125.6 degrees F).  It appears that thermal energy responses for vegetation across the image are relatively uniform at night, regardless of vegetative type, e.g., grass, or trees (

The temperature in downtown Atlanta is often 10 degrees F warmer than the surrounding outlying areas. The bottom line is that “asphalt parking lots and roofs soak up virtually all of the radiation that falls on them and reradiate it as heat,” (  The debate is not over whether the greenhouse effect is being increased, but to what extent.

The heated air from large expanses of dark asphalt paving is suspected by meteorologists of causing thunderheads to develop on summer afternoons.  This may cause moisture-laden air to dump its water on the cities where it loads the storm sewers, rather than carrying it over to the open lands beyond.  A light-colored pavement should not have this effect (Edmund Thelen, et. al., 1972).  The urban heat island in Atlanta creates thunderstorms in Fayette and Clayton counties, south of the city ( Researchers found an unusual pattern of thunderstorms after dark, from 4 a.m. to dawn, that are tied to the heat released at night from buildings and roads.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Luvall, the added heat also contributes to Atlanta’s air quality problem.  “The city already has a serious ozone problem, and the 10-degree rise in temperature doubles the amount of ozone that is produced,” (CNN interactive)

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is in the process of developing a 20-year growth plan for a 10 county area around Atlanta and NASA hopes to work with the ARC using data collected from Project ATLANTA. NASA hopes this information will then be applied by urban planners, environmental managers and decision-makers to improve our future by modifying growth plans to design sustainable urban environments.

Courtesy NASA, Dr. Jeffrey Luvall

Salt Lake City also showed its hot and cold spots, seen at right, from overflight data recorded with infrared photography in July 1998.  Its rooftops and other structures reached a blistering 71 degrees C (160 degrees F) (

For more information regarding urban heat island  studies of Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and New York City, click here for an October 2000 In-Depth Special article. 

Greenroofs can reduce ambient air temperatures and increase humidity levels in the surrounding areas.  Differences in cooling and heating between the natural and manmade surfaces can affect city temperatures.  Even when the air is clean, dry air can put a strain on our breathing during periods of higher temperatures. Due to the capturing and holding of precipitation in the plant foliage, humidity levels increase, and the release of moisture results in a cooling effect. It has been proven that local microclimates are positively affected by the presence of green space. In urban settings where a greenroof has been installed, warmer air above hard surfaces rises, lowering temperatures above the vegetated roof cover (The London Ecology Unit, 1993).  Greenroofs contribute to the vertical mixing of ambient air, producing lower air temperatures, and thus, in quantity, can reduce the urban heat island effect.

ReNatur Extensive Greenroof

Source:  ReNatur;

Greenroofs can filter and bind dust particles, and naturally filter airborne toxins.  Ventilation is sometimes inhibited due to the vertical design of downtown areas, which reduces wind speed and traps heat in air pockets. Pollutants can remain suspended for days without relief.  Atmospheric dust is held until rain washes it off into the greenroof soil substrate. Carbon dioxide and other airborne toxins from the city air are absorbed through the foliage, naturally cleansing the air.  A NASA study for space laboratories found that even a single fig tree can purify 10 m3 of air per day (McMarlin, Western Roofing, May/June, 1996). And Green Roofs For Healthy Cities states that, "One square meter of grass roof can remove approximately 0.2 kg of airborne particles from the air every year."

Some relief of natural areas for wildlife can be sustained through the use of greenroofs, although they are not intended to be replacements for true natural areas.  Rather, they should be part of a system to compliment green corridors and wildlife habitats within an urban setting. "In the face of continued habitat loss and isolation, many landscape ecologists stress the need for providing landscape connectivity," (Dramstad, et al, 1996).  In highly populated areas, greenroofs could represent island habitats, or better yet, stepping stones using a series of them for wildlife movement.  In this way a natural wildlife corridor can be somewhat replicated.

Greenroofs provide a habitat for a diversity of wildlife species.  In a landscape ecological context, greenroofs create an artificial or man-made edge, and yet also serve as a vegetative habitat patch.  These greenroof patches are set within the matrix of a city or urban landscape, and can accomplish ecological functions or objectives.  Even in densely populated areas, beneficial insects, birds, bees and butterflies can be attracted to greenroofs. Studies in the U.S. indicate that butterflies will visit gardens up to 20 stories high, and birds up to 19 (The London Ecology Unit, 1993).   Native plant selections usually fare better in these instances since they have evolved together with the animals that depend on them for food, shelter and cover.

Roof vegetation normally encounters less interference than an equivalent area at ground level, which could be an important factor to creatures wary of human disturbance in urban settings.  Subsequently, micro habitats can be created for insects and birds.

Greenroof architecture embodies both physical and culturally sustainable design concepts. The simple definition of sustainable design or sustainable landscapes is those that "meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs," (Morrison UGA lecture, September 1999).  

One of greenroofs' greatest sustainability factors is the reduction or conservation of a structure's heating and cooling resources.  Also, as stated previously, once extensive greenroofs are established, little maintenance is required.  With the correct plant palette, regeneration will occur naturally by means of seeds or offshoots, as will growth media  enrichment through decomposition.  Certain drainage products and sustainable water collection techniques can supply additional water automatically during periods of drought.

The numerous aforementioned environmental attributes offered by the natural processes present within the design of greenroofs certainly meet the definition of sustainability.  One could definitely argue the sustainability of some of the very elaborate intensive greenroofs due to their higher human maintenance requirements.  And yet, the natural processes of evapotranspiration, stormwater retention, etc. inherent in the design of every greenroof, cannot be denied.

To ensure culturally sustainable landscapes, it is also our responsibility to expose healthy areas and then to inspire the public to protect them.  By attracting the attention of humans, an aesthetic of care will ensure cultural survival (Alfie Vick UGA lecture, September, 1999).  The same thought can be applied to creating ecologically healthy greenroofs.  By using the natural landscape characteristics present on a particular site as a model, sensitive greenroof design can reflect its surroundings, establishing a sense of place, and become an integral part of the landscape master plan.  In the case of urban settings, we could historically recreate original landscapes lost through development on the rooftops. 

We have the ability (and responsibility) to ask pertinent ecological questions and therefore raise the overall level of design for the future to reflect sustainable design practices.


"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."  - Andre Gide 


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