Green Roofs/Living Roofs

Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in Milan Italy, designed by Boeri Studio, constructed in 2014. Photo by Erik de Haan.

Green roofs, also referred to as living roofs, rooftop gardens or eco-roofs, are a building-integrated vegetation nature-based solution that utilises the surface area of rooftops to increase vegetation and urban green areas. The IUCN classifies green roofs under their NbS typology as Type 3: solutions that involve creating new ecosystems (Cohen-Shacham et al., 2016). There are three main types of green roof:

Extensive green roofs 

Extensive green roofs are a modern modification of rooftop gardens, first established in Germany during the mid-20th century to mitigate the damaging effects of solar radiation on roof structures (Obendorfer et al.). In general, they serve a functional purpose, usually installed for their effectiveness in stormwater management, roof protection, and thermal insulation. They typically consist of low-growing ground cover with drought-resistant, low-maintenance plants and therefore have shallower substrates (Oberndorfer et al., 2007). They are the most widely researched type of green roof because of their comparatively straightforward and low-cost installation requirements and ability to be ‘retrofitted’ onto existing buildings (MacIvor et al., 2016). See the Auckland Central Library Living Roof case study.

Intensive green roofs

Intensive green roofs are essentially rooftop gardens, designed to provide accessible green spaces for recreation, aesthetic amenity, and agriculture for example. They consist of a wider variety of vegetation including trees and shrubs and therefore require deeper soil media to support this diverse, deeper rooting plant selection and often require additional load-bearing structures (Auckland Council, 2013a). See the Hundertwasser Wairau Māori Arts Centre Intensive Green Roof case study.

Intensive green roofs can include urban rooftop agriculture. Different forms of green roofs or green roof/walls such as green or living terrace roofs, stepped terraces, and cantilevering tree balconies tend to fit into this category. An often-cited example is Bosco Verticale in Italy.

Semi-Intensive green roofs

Semi-intensive green roofs combine elements of both intensive and extensive green roof design and therefore have varying levels, depths and types of substrates. Planting generally comprises shrubs, grasses, sedums or mosses (Avery, 2019). The exact composition of the roof’s vegetation can be adjusted to fit the local climate and due to the varying substrate thickness can support a richer habitat for biodiversity (Vaek et al., 2017).

These three broad classifications of green roof structure types overlap with classifications related to the function of green roofs. These subsets include:

Biodiverse green roofs

The purpose of biodiverse green roofs is to support increased biodiversity. Biodiverse green roofs can be either extensive, intensive, or semi-intensive. Their design and installation method determines the level of biodiversity achieved. Biodiverse green roofs are important because increasing rapid urban expansion poses a growing threat to biodiversity (Wooster, et al., 2022). Green roofs can offer increased green spaces in dense urban areas which have suffered significant biomass cover loss and subsequently the destruction of habitats. Green roofs have shown to provide biodiversity benefits, providing habitats, and ‘green links’ or corridors for a variety of species including birds and insects which contribute to further ecosystem services provision and benefits (Avery et al. 2022).

Climate Change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Increased temperatures
  • Reduced air quality
  • Urban heat island effect
Socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Energy security 
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Pressures of urbanisation
Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Habitat Provision

They can also act as stepping-stone habitats in dense urban settings. A study in Sydney, Australia comparing green roofs with conventional grey roofs found a significant increase in biodiversity across avian, arthropod, and gastropod species on green roofs (Wooster et al., 2022).  It is important that biodiverse green roofs have differing levels of substrate in order to create a variety of microclimates (Avery, 2019). Research findings suggest that creating an invertebrate-rich green roof depends on varying substrates, varying depths, different native plants, and the inclusion of dry wood or rocks for habitat (Brenneisen, 2006; Avery et al., 2022). See the Hundertwasser Wairau Māori Arts Centre Intensive Green Roof case study.

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Biosolar green roofs

Biosolar living roofs, also referred to as photovoltaic green roofs, combine the benefits of renewable solar energy through the use of solar panels, with the benefits of rooftop vegetation, in order to enhance the performance of both. Photovoltaic panels have been used globally as a source of on-site renewable energy production at a building scale, reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy security. 

Climate Change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Freshwater flooding
  • Increased temperatures
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced air quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Urban heat island effect
  • Reduced fresh-water availability
Socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Pressures of urbanisation
  • Freshwater security
Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Habitat Provision
  • Provision of freshwater

The energy efficiency of photovoltaic panels can decrease when temperatures get too high on rooftop surfaces (Shafique et al., 2020). The ideal temperature for panels is around 25°C. Studies show that photovoltaic arrays perform more efficiently when temperatures are cooler (Hui and Chan, 2011). Installing solar panels on a green roof can cool the surface of the photovoltaic system as plants reduce surrounding ambient temperatures significantly through the process of evapotranspiration. Several studies show that biosolar green roof systems can cool down the photovoltaic surface temperature and produce between 4.5 – 6% more electricity when compared to conventional solar roofs, and that  solar panels can protect and support vegetation growth on often harsh and exposed rooftop conditions (Köehler et al., 2007; Fleck et al., 2022). Shading structures integrated onto green roofs may produce effects that resemble natural ecotones, supporting greater plant coverage and biomass, and therefore greater green roof resilience (Bousselot et al., 2017). See the Ōtākaro Orchard Blue-green Roof with Solar Panels case study.

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Blue roofs / roof ponds

While technically not a ‘green roof’, blue roofs or roof ponds are non-vegetated stormwater control systems designed to retain rainwater. These take different forms. In some blue roofs weirs are utilised at roof drain inlets to create temporary ponding and facilitate the gradual release of rainwater. In roof ponds a permanent or fluctuating pool of water is found on the roof.

Climate Change benefits
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Drought
  • Freshwater flooding
  • Increased temperatures
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced water quality
  • Storm surge
  • Urban heat island effect
  • Reduced fresh-water availability
  • Wildfire
  • Wind damage
Socio-cultural benefits
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Pressures of urbanisation
  • Freshwater security
Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Provision of freshwater

The primary objective of blue roofs is to collect rainwater by providing dedicated catchment areas. Light-coloured roofing materials are commonly employed, not only for their potential effectiveness in cooling rooftops (Bakshi & Pedersen Zari, 2020) but also for their contribution to the overall functionality of blue roofs. Roof ponds are sometimes used as a means to increase thermal performance of buildings (Sharifi & Yamagata, 2015). In comparison to green roofs, blue roofs may be more cost-effective in terms of water management and can effectively mitigate runoff in a given area (Shafique et al., 2016). 

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Blue-green roofs

Blue-green roofs bring together the benefits of both blue roof and green roof systems to create  blue-green infrastructure. The notion of blue-green infrastructure recognises that aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are interconnected (Liao et al., 2017).

Climate Change benefits
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Drought
  • Freshwater flooding
  • Increased temperatures
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced water quality
  • Storm surge
  • Urban heat island effect
  • Reduced fresh-water availability
  • Wildfire
  • Wind damage
Socio-cultural benefits
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Pressures of urbanisation
  • Freshwater security
Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Habitat Provision
  • Provision of freshwater

With rapid urbanisation, stormwater systems are becoming increasingly overloaded leading to flooding and the contamination of waterways. Stormwater management is one of the major benefits of green roof systems installed in urban areas (MacKinnon et al., 2022). Blue-green roofs are essentially green roofs that can store more rainwater below the soil layers than regular green roofs. They are therefore able to enhance stormwater management, and work more effectively to mitigate flooding in urban areas (Shafique et al., 2016). Blue-green roofs consist of a top layer of plants, the substrate in which they grow, and added layers below for water storage and drainage. Each of these layers can include several variations, in particular the layer for water storage. This may be designed in the form of standing water filling cups or boxes, water absorbed in porous materials, or pooling directly on the roof membrane (Andenæs et al., 2021). See the Ōtākaro Orchard Blue-green Roof with Solar Panels case study.

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Urban rooftop agriculture

Urban agriculture is a growing movement which aims to address the diverse goals of urban sustainability, including food security, food equity, efficient food supply chains, stormwater management, mitigation of urban heat island effects, and waste management using compostable waste (Harada & Whitlow, 2020).  Rooftop agriculture is an innovative and resourceful strategy to address the increasing need for urban food production by taking advantage of underutilised rooftop surfaces on buildings in densely populated areas with limited land for growing (Sprecht et al., 2014).

Climate Change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Desertification
  • Increased incidence / distribution of disease
  • Increased temperatures
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts
  • Loss of food production
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced air quality
  • Reduced soil quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Soil erosion
  • Storm surge
  • Urban heat island effect
  • Reduced fresh-water availability
Socio-cultural benefits
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Pressures of urbanisation
  • Food security
Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Habitat Provision
  • Provision of freshwater
  • Provision of food

There are many diverse approaches to rooftop agriculture, from simple setups like growing vegetables and herbs in containers to more elaborate installations resembling farms, often utilising engineered lightweight soil systems. In some cases, hydroponic systems are employed, either outdoors or within greenhouse structures, further enhancing the efficiency and productivity of rooftop farming projects. Urban rooftop gardens and farms can serve as more than just agricultural endeavours. Some are accessible to the public, functioning as educational hubs for various communities to learn about local food production and sustainable food systems (Nasr et al., 2017). See Te Tāpui Atawhai Auckland City Mission Homeground Rooftop Garden case study.

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Name of NbS

Green Roofs/Living Roofs

Type of NbS

Hybrid living/engineered interventions; Created or constructed living ecosystem

Location

  • Urban
  • Peri-urban
  • Rural
Blue roof on a Buddhist Temple in South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo by Aquaproofing.

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

While the use of NbS terminology is relatively recent, working closely and reciprocally with nature to create effective human settlements has been a fundamental part of many Indigenous belief and knowledge systems (Kiddle et al., 2021). Indigenous communities across the islands of Te Moananui Oceania have traditionally engaged in place-based approaches to their building practices, working with their natural environments and taking care of their ecosystems. In the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, a guiding principle and core value for Māori is the concept of kaitiakitanga; managing and conserving the environment as part of a reciprocal relationship, based on the Māori world view that humans are part of the natural world (Auckland Council, 2013b).

Māori traditionally developed new construction materials, techniques, and tools that were socially and climatically responsive (Brown. et al, 2019) exemplifying an adaptive approach to design.  Pacific Island peoples and their environments are inextricably linked and this is reflected in the rich variety of vernacular architecture and landscape design in the region (Latai-Niusulu et al., 2022). In many Te Moananui Oceania island nations, roofs are typically the most important architectural component. Traditional building materials are within the economic reach of most of the population and common building materials are organic and therefore blend into the environment (Latai-Niusulu et al., 2022). Although roofs made of natural material such as thatch might support plant growth in some cases, green roofs are not a common vernacular tradition in Te Moananui Oceania. Some design-led research into combining vernacular traditions with green roof ideas using Spanish moss and fatai vines in Samoa has been conducted (Nonu, 2016).

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Climate Change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Changes in rainfall
  • Increased temperatures
  • Reduced air quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Urban heat island effect
  • Loss of food production

Urban environments are now the primary habitats for humans, and while they cover only 3% of the Earth’s surface, they contribute to 38% of GHG emissions (UNEP, 2020). The resulting loss of biodiversity and vegetation due to urban expansion reduces global carbon sequestration and drives climate change at local and global scales (Kiddle et al., 2021). There is growing research to support that increasing building-integrated vegetation, such as green roofs, in urban built environments can reduce climate change impacts and/or increase resilience to them (Pedersen Zari et al., 2022). Some key climate change benefits and ecosystem services that green roofs can provide include:

Stormwater management: One of the key benefits of green roofs is their significant role in stormwater management. In Aotearoa New Zealand, conventional rooftops make up 40-50% of impervious surfaces in commercial areas and 25% in residential areas (Auckland Council, 2013a). In contrast, the vegetation on green roofs provides a porous surface area that can absorb water. They can therefore contribute significantly to stormwater management in urban areas, capturing and treating runoff at source, and improving water quality through infiltration and capturing dissolved contaminants  (Lewis et al., 2015; MacKinnon et al., 2022). Green roofs are an accepted stormwater management device for the Auckland region in Aotearoa New Zealand (Fassman et al., 2010).

Carbon Sequestration: Vegetation-based carbon sequestration is a natural ecological process that actively removes carbon from the atmosphere as vegetation grows. Urban vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and stores it in the biomass of trunks, branches, foliage, stems, roots, and soils (Lorenz & Lal, 2009). Green roofs therefore provide an effective carbon sequestering method through strategic planting of vegetation within urban built environments, though the impact of green roof carbon sequestration is a lot lower than carbon sequestration found in forests (Varshney et al., 2022). An indirect benefit for reducing carbon emissions includes the long-term benefits of green roofs in reducing building energy consumption, leading to a reduction in fossil fuel consumption. (Shafique et al., 2020).

Urban Heat Island effect: Vegetation on green roofs can have a significant effect on reducing ambient air temperatures within and around buildings in urban areas where temperatures are significantly higher compared to surrounding areas due to the widespread use of high mass and impervious surfaces such as concrete and asphalt which absorb solar radiation and then release it as heat. This is called the urban heat island effect. Expanding the area of trees and other vegetation in cities is considered to be one of the most effective and least costly approaches to reducing the urban heat island effect  (Glick et al., 2020). Plants use a process called evapotranspiration where the moisture in their leaves evaporates into the air, producing a cooling effect that helps regulate air temperatures. Plants also reduce temperatures by shading high mass materials (such as roofs and walls) from direct solar radiation. Captured rainfall can also be re-used for passive irrigation and cooling of buildings  (Lewis et al., 2015). 

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Socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Energy security
  • Food security
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Pressures of urbanisation

Connection with nature is vital for human wellbeing. Several studies have highlighted the health and wellbeing benefits of increasing green spaces through building-integrated vegetation such as green roofs in the urban built environment, including mental health benefits and improved physical health for urban residents (Varshney et al., 2022). Even if a green area is not accessible, the aesthetic value of a green roof can have positive psychological benefits for humans (Oberndorfer et al., 2007). These benefits include, reduced stress and negative mood, improved attention control, and a renewed sense of vitality (Hartig et al., 2014).

Green roofs can also improve air quality. Urban vegetation can moderate the effects of air pollution by absorbing contaminants such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, and intercepting fine particulate matter that can harm human respiratory systems (Lewis et al., 2015). 

Green roofs have the capacity to save energy when they act as insulation, or thermal regulator which can lead to a significant reduction in heating and cooling expenditure which also reduces carbon emissions, depending on the source of energy for building electricity (Avery et al., 2022). Further to this, they can reduce noise.

If food growing is integrated into greenroof design, benefits to food security can occur.

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Climate regulation
  • Food production
  • Disturbance prevention 
  • Habitat provision
  • Purification 
  • Species maintenance

The interlinked issues of climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the most urgent issues that humans must grapple with (Varshney et al., 2022). There is growing research and discourse around the vital need to protect and restore biodiversity in order to reduce the impacts of climate change, which in turn, has a destructive impact on biodiversity. The growing urban built environment is contributing to ecological fragmentation, degraded habitats, and biodiversity loss (Pedersen Zari, 2018). Through the creation of new ecosystems and habitat provisioning on unused surface areas such as rooftops, green roofs have the potential to increase and support biodiversity in urban environments including plants, insects, birds and pollinators. 

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Technical requirements

Technical requirements vary depending on the type of green roof installed. An important factor to consider when designing and installing any green roof is the load capacity of the building structure. The general components a green roof requires are vegetation, substrate, a filter layer, drainage material, insulation, a root barrier, and waterproofing membranes (Shafique et al., 2018). Rooftop conditions can be challenging due to exposure to the elements and therefore appropriate plant selection is important. Native plants are generally considered ideal choices because of their adaptation to local climates and for biodiversity benefits (Oberndorfer et al., 2007).

Extensive green roofs are typically lightweight, consisting of shallower substrates of growing media of between 20 – 150 mm thickness, drainage, and low-growing drought-resistant plants such as sedums, mosses and grasses. Roof structural requirements are lower than other green roof configurations, with saturated weights at 70 – 150 kg per m2 reported in the literature (Fassman et al., 2010). Due to their relative lightness, they are more likely to be used to retrofit buildings because renovations to structural supports within the building may not be required. In general, they require less maintenance than intensive green roofs.  

Intensive green roofs involve a deeper substrate layer, usually between 200 mm and 1500 mm. This is to support a wider variety of plants with deeper roots including larger trees and shrubs. This thick substrate layer results in higher imposed loading of 300 to 8 1000 kg per m2 on the structure (Fassman & Simcock, 2011), making them less suitable for retrofit applications and also more costly for new builds. 

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Issues and Barriers

There are an increasing number of cities globally including Toronto, Singapore, Portland, Tokyo, Washington DC, Basel, Melbourne, and Stuttgart that are implementing green roofs into their urban planning policies, and in some cases subside the installation of green roofs. Widespread uptake has been slower in Aotearoa New Zealand and other parts of Te Moananui Oceania for several reasons. One significant barrier is a lack of locally relevant design, operation and maintenance information (Fassman et al., 2010). Another barrier to mainstream implementation of green roofs can be the initial cost of installation which can be off-putting to clients and stakeholders. It is therefore important to outline the long-term economic, well-being and environmental benefits that green roofs can offer.

Opportunities

In the aftermath of the extreme weather events in Aotearoa New Zealand in early 2023, the topic of green infrastructure and nature-based solutions have become widely discussed in mainstream public discourse. An urgent issue Aotearoa New Zealand faces is stormwater management. Stormwater systems often reach capacity and cannot cope with the changing climate due to increased rainfall, increased storm intensity, and sea level rise.

Green roofs can play a significant role in stormwater management, along with many co-benefits (MacKinnon et al., 2022). Cities in Te Moananui Oceania, particularly the larger denser ones have an opportunity to follow the lead of global cities that are implementing, legislating for, and subsidising the widespread adoption of green roof systems in new buildings. The emergence of high-rise buildings in some island cities across Te Moananui Oceania, such as Apia, Samoa, has been closely related to the loss of green spaces calling for an urgent need to make the city cooler during the daytime and provide spaces for peoples’ health and well-being (Latai-Niusulu et al., 2022). Increasing urban green spaces can also help rejuvenate urban biodiversity in an area that is increasingly covered by concrete surfaces and human-made structures (Latai-Niusulu et al., 2022). The implementation of building-integrated vegetation such as green roofs in these growing urban areas has the potential to address the twin impacts of urbanisation and climate change. 

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Financial case

While the initial construction costs of green roofs/living roofs can be more expensive than conventional roofs, there are many long-term economic benefits, including energy reduction and protection of roof membranes from the elements increasing their longevity (Oberndorfer et al., 2007). There are also wider, long-term economic benefits through increased human wellbeing (Lewis et al., 2015).

Extensive green roof using native plants on the Children’s Garden toilet block at Auckland Botanic Gardens, 2020. Photo by Auckland Botanic Gardens.

The Cloak Te Kaitaka – Auckland International Airport, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo by Greenroofs.com
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  • Wooster, E.I.F.,  R. Fleck, F. Torpy, D. Ramp, P.J. Irga. Urban green roofs promote metropolitan biodiversity: A comparative case study. Building and Environment, Volume 207, Part A, 2022,108458,ISSN 0360-1323, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2021.108458 
  • https://www.aucklanddesignmanual.co.nz/design-subjects/maori-design/te_aranga_principles#/design-subjects/maori-design/te_aranga_principles/guidance/about/core_m%C4%81ori_values

Further resources: