From suburban homes to giant water treatment plants, the city’s rooftops are turning green in a bid to cut carbon emissions and summertime temperatures. Ben Leo looks at why councils and businesses are reshaping the skyline
The mercury is rising, the beach is bustling and the sun is blazing away.
On hot days, temperatures in urban areas like Brighton and Hove can be 20 to 60 pe cent higher than in the surrounding countryside.
This is because land surfaces and some buildings, particularly those built with dark and dense materials, retain a substantial amount of heat and fail to find the capacity to release it until night-time.
That, coupled with concentrated energy use and less ventilation than in rural areas, creates a phenomenon dubbed the “urban heat island effect”, which has been blamed for an increased number of deaths in the city during heatwaves.
Brighton and Hove City Council is conscious of the problem and keen for businesses and residents to take action.
One of the biggest remedies for the urban heat island effect requires green-fingered gardeners to get the pitchfork out and take a trip up to the roof of their office block or home. Then, start work on planting your thriving “green roof”.
Green roofs maximise the use of otherwise wasted roof space by using it as an area of vegetation, cut summertime temperatures and lower our carbon footprint.
The idea is to create rooftop gardens full of plants, flowers and life.
They’re nicknamed “living roofs” and are designed to help lower urban air temperatures and reduce the heat island effect. Additionally, they absorb rainwater, provide insulation and create habitats for wildlife.
London, backed by Mayor Boris Johnson, is spearheading the green roof agenda – all major new developments within the most of Westminster and the inner parts of Camden, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth and Kensington and Chelsea, are required to have a green roof.
Now there are calls for Brighton to follow suit. James Farrell, who works for the Environment Agency and the campaign group Building Green in Sussex, previously used his expertise to direct town hall chiefs in London on a greener path.
He said: “You can green any structure from a shed to a sewage treatment works, and there’s great evidence from around the world on how this approach to cities improves the way they look and feel for everyone who visits, or who lives and works in them.
"In my previous job I led on green roofs at the Greater London Authority, and developed the first UK planning policy requiring green roofs and walls on all major development.
“The Mayor of London now expects green features like these on all major developments and encourages the London boroughs to expect the same.
"There has been a rapid uptake since and it’s becoming more common to see them.
“Green roofs help us handle flood risk by reducing the impact of heavy rainfall on our drainage systems and there are great benefits for keeping buildings cool to lower energy bills, and providing a home to urban wildlife. What’s more, seagulls don’t like them.”
It’s estimated that less than 1% of buildings in Brighton and Hove are host to a green roof.
Mr Farrell suggests the UK is a “long way behind” countries like Switzerland and Germany, where green roofs are required on all developments.
He continued: “Here, we rely on goodwill and generally supporting policies in its local plan – but a firmer planning policy would make a huge difference.
“The current Local Plan has a general requirement for ‘new nature conservation features’ but no specific requirement for green roofs or walls and doesn’t recognise the wider benefits. With a bit of a bigger push from the council, we could catch up and be a flagship world city.”
Two years ago, Mr Farrell and Lee Evans, the founder of Organic Roofs – a leading grass roof installation company – set up courses to teach people how to install their own ‘DIY’ roofs.
He said: “This month we had 18 very happy participants who had fun learning the basics in the classroom, built their own green-roofed bird boxes to practise the principles, and visited a number of green buildings across |the city.”
Despite low numbers of green-roofed buildings in Brighton, their popularity is increasing. Last year Organic Roofs saw their turnover trebled.
“We aim to encourage clients to emulate local ecological conditions with their roofs.
"We research the local biodiversity action plan and then cross-reference the priority species with their food source plants that we know will grow on a green roof, so that clients know their roofs are a small but meaningful contribution to their local environment and its challenges,” said Mr Evans.
One of the largest green roofs in Europe can be found at Southern Water’s new treatment works site in Peacehaven.
Covering an area of almost 18,000 square metres – the size of two-and-a-half football pitches – it’s been planted with downland grass to blend in with the surrounding landscape.
Bosses at the firm are so protective over the roof they drafted in birds of prey to stop crows and seagulls from digging it up.
The council has also invested in numerous green roof projects across the city, including at Whitehawk Library, Downs View Link College and Whitehawk Children’s Centre.
Further projects at The Level and at student accommodation in London Road are also in the pipeline.
Councillor Pete West, chairman of the environment and sustainability committee, said the council encourages green roofs because they reduce atmospheric pollution and encourage biodiversity without consuming scarce land.
It’s also helping town hall bosses work towards their green-goals in the Local Biodiversity Action Plan.
He continued: “In some cases they can provide high-rise green space for people with access to the buildings to enjoy and together with other greening features, such as green walls and urban landscaping, they can connect otherwise isolated green spaces to establish networks of green space through the city.
“This is important for biodiversity and ties in with our efforts to protect and conserve Brighton and Hove’s most important species.”
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