Reclaiming The Rooftop

A rooftop is one of the most beautiful spaces in the city. Perhaps it’s New Yorkers who make the best use of their rooftops, via musty staircases or, with a touch of acrobatic finesse, up zigzagging fire escapes. They are the essence of Manhattan summers, when the perspiring humidity of the day relents to merciful summer evenings – best enjoyed above the city with a glass of rosé. Up here we are enveloped by the skyline, inextricably linked to the city and yet one part removed. Our problems are a little further away. Up here, we can wink at the Chrysler Building, and tip our hats to the Empire State.

There is euphoria in the vertical. Historic cultures built their holy sites vertically – think, the soaring windows of gothic cathedrals to skywards­-pointing pyramids – as though architecture brings a sense of closeness to the heavens. And when we’re filled with the most passionate of declarations, it’s upwards we go to sing from the rooftops.

But in an increasingly dense urban landscape, these vertical enclaves are becoming pockets of nature within the city. Rooftops are the built environment’s unspoiled frontier with boundless opportunity. From gardening to beekeeping to farming to green roofs, we are reclaiming the rooftop to bring us closer to nature.

In London, the occasional honeybee can be seen zipping purposefully along Piccadilly, buzzing past top hat-­wearing doormen and camera­-clutching tourists. This honeybee is, in all likelihood, returning to its home atop Fortnum & Mason, where four colonies are producing a honey so delicious it comes with a waitlist. Up here, each colony is designed to a different architectural style: Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothic, with copper­-clad pagoda roofing. It is said the honey’s tasting nodes – chestnut, citrus and floral ­ allude to the journey the bees take via Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Green Park.

It is in human nature to keep bees. Beekeeping is documented in Ancient Egypt and Greece, as well as ancient Chinese and Mayan civilisations. Aristotle avidly studied them and made lofty assumptions: that bees lived for seven years (alas, it’s seven weeks), that bees do not give birth but fetch new life from flowers, and that their honey is not produced, but rather distilled from air. It’s an unfortunate reality that this ambitious little producer is increasingly endangered, but pockets of colonies are thriving well above ground in urban rooftop colonies. Bee experts have reported that 62.5% of urban bees live through the winter, compared to 40% in rural areas, and have proven to provide a greater yield of honey. Urban honeybees pollenate the local flora, helping city gardens flourish.

Fortnum & Mason is not the only hive­-hosting London landmark – the Tate Modern and Buckingham Palace both tend their own, while countless smaller initiatives have taken beekeeping by storm. This sits firmly within the local food movement, one that beekeepers cite gives them a feeling of closeness to nature – even in the midst of a sprawling metropolis.

In Japan, where over 130 million inhabitants live in dense urban environments, the railway company JR East has introduced a string of urban farms atop train stations. In Tokyo’s Ebisu neighbourhood, the Machinaka community farm offers residents the opportunity to rent allotments to grow their own vegetables. Far above Japan’s busy streets, the many inhabitants with little green space of their own can come here to exercise their green thumb and encounter the deeply therapeutic experience of gardening. These urban farms give a new sense of enjoyment to the daily commute and have grown communities among the gardeners.

From growing gardens to growing a building’s infrastructure, green roofs are experiencing a renaissance. The concept isn’t a new one. Ancient writings hint that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon had stone terraces with lush trees and greenery to provide shade from the scorching sun. It demonstrates that green roofs have always been intrinsic to human nature. Even the Vikings lived below birch bark, topped with a grassy turf. This historic people recognised plants would keep their homes dry and insulated. These early green roofs were a part of the glue that held the community together. “Dugnad” is a Norwegian term that refers to a rural custom of neighbours coming together to build these heavy roofs.

In contemporary architecture, green roofs have become the key to sustainable building. Cities around the world are implementing green roof policies for urban­dwellers to reap the myriad benefits of this architectural feature: green roofs’ cooling and insulation reduces energy consumption, they create a much ­needed habitat for local birds and insects, and they filter carbon monoxide and other pollutants out of the air. Adding a few plants to the top of a building is more than an attractive design feature, but is a great contributor to the health of our surroundings.

And when a green roof is an attractive design feature, it is very attractive indeed. From the New York’s High Line to Thomas Heatherwick’s fabled, albeit unborn Garden Bridge, we simply cannot get enough of elevated gardens. The origin of this shift can be pointed to German architectural thought of the late 1960s. Architecture and design theorist Christian Werthmann has written that environmentally­-conscious design was embraced in Germany, green roofs were recognised for “not only the prospect of ecological benefits but the deep aesthetic discontent with the status quo of the built environment.” In short, modernism’s stark functionalism and rationalism was in need of a breath of life. And that breath came to us in the form of living roofs. Now that’s worth singing from the rooftops.