Green Roofs Improve Our Lives. Why Don't We Have More of Them?

Sourced from the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Every day, it seems, a new building appears in our skyline, whether in Iowa City’s downtown or Riverfront Crossings districts, Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, or in Tiffin or North Liberty. Sometimes the new building is LEED certified — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the rating system used by the U.S. Green Building Council to measure a building’s sustainability and resource-efficiency. A few are even beautiful. But almost all of them have dead, black tar and asphalt roofs. Empty, heat-sink roofs. Wasted space.

Imagine seeing a magnolia tree in full bloom on top of an apartment building or prairie grass swaying in the breeze out your bedroom window. Imagine tending a vegetable garden on the roof of a school or strolling through a meadow on the roof of a hotel.

Despite our county’s recent environmental strides — e.g., Iowa City Council’s endorsing federal carbon fee-and-dividend legislation and mandating that multifamily units provide recycling — only a handful of buildings in our area have green roofs.

Green or “living” roofs — those partially or completely covered with soil and vegetation over a waterproof membrane — provide multiple benefits to individuals and communities. By absorbing rainwater, they reduce erosion, prevent flooding, and filter pollutants. They prolong roofing membranes by protecting them from ultraviolet rays. They conserve energy and lower air-conditioning costs by absorbing and reflecting heat. They reduce noise and air pollution, provide wildlife habitat and sequester carbon dioxide. Plus, research continues to show that visual and physical access to nature improves our health. (In one notable study, hospital patients with views of green space  recovered faster.)

Green roofs can function as parks, urban farms, playgrounds, outdoor classrooms and peaceful retreats, even in winter. They can be public or private. They can be installed on most roofs (up to a 45-degree pitch), at various levels of cost, access, and maintenance — from shallow, lightweight, perennial grass plantings requiring little to no maintenance to deeper beds with trees and shrubs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, simple green roofs cost about $10 per square foot to install and provide a 220 to 247 percent return on investment.

Given that green roofs improve our vistas, our air, our water, our soil, our moods, our health and our roofs; provide food; reduce community resistance to infill; create jobs; increase buildings’ marketability; pay for themselves; and, I would argue, make an area significantly more attractive to young professionals — why don’t we have more of them?

Two reasons, as I see it: lack of understanding and funding.

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