LONDON — Graham Garland works at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of the Southbank Centre complex in London. Every day, he is able to look over the river, with Somerset House right ahead of him and the Shard just over his shoulder. He volunteers here twice a week, tending the vegetable beds on the hall’s roof garden, designed by gardeners for the Eden Project—three large biomes that were built in Cornwall to house plants from all over the world.
At the end of summer, the flowers have extended their final blooms, and the harvest was coming in. Garland shares that harvest with the other volunteers, who go home with organic kale, spinach, potatoes, chard, beans, herbs, yams and more. But life wasn’t always this idyllic; he was homeless for two years, suffering from drug addiction and mental health problems. After being taken in by a charity, he was asked if he wanted to come here, to work and learn. “I enjoy it,” he said, smiling, “or I wouldn’t bother turning up. I’ve found what I want to do.”
I picked runner beans with him, and he told me how his dad used to grow beans too. As he removed the seed heads to encourage the production of more flowers for the insects and pruned back damaged leaves, the garden filled with members of the public, who value the leafy retreat as a place to eat their lunch or hold meetings. More than just a green space, it is also the energetic nucleus of Grounded Ecotherapy, a social enterprise that works to rehabilitate the socially disadvantaged through growing vegetables and fostering biodiversity. The team built the roof garden in 2011 and has been maintaining it ever since.
Previously, green roofs were seen as a haven for wildlife; in the 1990s, ecologists planted green roofs in London to encourage the flora and fauna of unique postindustrial habitats. Later the roofs became tools to help cities combat climate change. Now they exist in more forms than a simple sedum carpet; in Britain’s cities they have become secure centers for community engagement, education, rehabilitation and food production. The two that I visited are the Southbank Centre roof garden and the forest roof garden owned by the Reading International Solidarity Centre. Both focus on edible plants, encouraging the public to see the links between nature, food and people, and both are open free of charge, as educational spaces.
Back in 2002, the mayor of London acknowledged the need for extensive planting on London’s rooftops. The capital is an urban heat island, and with climate change threatening hotter summers and an increase in flash floods, it soon became clear that the cooling effect of more greenery was needed. Green roofs also are able to slow down the runoff of sudden downpours and thus reduce the risk of overloaded drains at street level. A government audit in 2008 showed that green roofs in London already cover nearly twice the area of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined. It has been estimated that if the roofs of Central London’s Cannon Street, Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road were bedecked with roof gardens, an area of 226,750 square meters, it would reduce the city’s maintenance and sanitation costs by 4 million pounds.
Since 2008, all major developments in the city are expected to include a green roof or wall, whereas before they had only been encouraged to do so. Furthermore, the need to retrofit existing buildings and provide a green roof tool kit for developers was addressed by Ecology Consultants Ltd., which provides a consultancy service to create green roofs of the highest possible standard. A good green roof insulates its host building, helps create a cooler microclimate, aids drainage and encourages biodiversity.
A roof garden has unique social advantages too. Imagine if an area the size of Hyde Park could be opened up above our heads, like some kind of eco-parody of Mary Poppins. Paul Pulford, head gardener for Grounded Ecotherapy at the Southbank Centre’s roof garden, says the social value of a green roof can be fully realized only if it is accessible to the public, free of charge.
As he collected nasturtium seeds from the beds, which he was planning to put in packets and save to give away to the public next spring, he told me, “There are too many gardens that are cut off, that say, ‘You can’t come up here.’” Pulford disagrees with that sentiment. “It’s got to be open and free,” he said.
Known as Scruffy to his friends, Pulford is a wiry man with a long, tangled mane. His Jack Russell terrier, also called Scruffy, followed him everywhere. Pulford had a difficult early life, but he learned gardening from his adoptive parents. This began a lifelong interest in plants and nature, which he has pursued ever since. He turned to heroin as an adult and suffered from alcoholism while living on the streets, homeless. But the lessons of his childhood were not forgotten. His knowledge seems inexhaustible, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Since I had been helping out in the garden, Pulford offered to let me pot up and take home some of the marigold seedlings that pepper the beds. “Yeah, take them,” he said. “That’s what I call plants for free.” He inspires many of the other workers on the Grounded Ecotherapy team as he puts into action the lessons that he learned as a young man. I listened to him chatting to members of the public about everything from the five types of bees he has seen come to the garden to what can be done with different herbs. These gardens help create centers of biodiversity that foster healthy populations of bees and other insects.
The gardens also foster sustainable food production and holistic medicinal production. Pulford pointed out a frilly-leafed seedling to me. “That, right there, that’s feverfew, and it’ll help migraines. And borage, you can’t have proper Pimms without one of its flowers floating at the top,” he said.
A green roof that is open to the public and available as an educational space can have a far-reaching social impact as well. I found this out on my visit to the only public roof garden in Reading. The Reading International Solidarity Centre had just moved into a new building when it was discovered that the roof, which was leaking, needed to be renovated. They had a better chance of securing funding for the job if they applied for it in the form of a project. To address this, they decided a roof garden would benefit the center. With a 50,000-pound grant from the Lottery fund, which included funding for teaching about gardening, permaculture and global food affairs for three years, they built a sustainable forest roof garden as an outdoor classroom and set up an educational facility to show people how to set up their own community gardens.
As well as insulating the building and providing the funds needed to secure the roof, the Reading garden is home to over 180 species of plants from all over the world, including some substantial trees. The RISC garden employs permaculture design principles and perennial plants to create a low-maintenance forest garden, which mainly requires pruning and harvesting. The garden’s designers ensured that the plants would be suitable for the British climate, even if they are not all native to Britain.
On my visit to the garden, I sampled a relation of Szechuan peppercorn, the spiny pepper plant, and ate the pungent seeds of the Babington’s leek and cracked open cobnuts. They also cultivate kiwis, ginger, turmeric and lemon grass, and this year have given pride of place to the Native American “three sisters”: maize, beans and squash, which complement each other in terms of light, nutrients and root depth when planted together. The roof garden is a classroom for teachers, members of the public and children and has become a springboard for other environmentally focused community initiatives.
One of its gardeners and my guide at the garden, Dave Richards, told me, “You should always have a roof garden, but a biodiverse roof garden would be the default value. Then, if you want community benefit, you plant as we do. There is nothing like food for bringing people together.” He noted that on top of that, he noted, the roof garden allowed them to secure even more funding for a new project, working in schools and community gardens around Reading.
Organizers are only just starting to see the environmental and now social potential of green roofs. Private owners, charities, corporations and councils have an opportunity to make use of the space above our heads to grow food and strengthen communities.