such great heights: cleveland rooftop gardens taking sustainability to the top

One of Terminal Tower's sturdy stone shoulders keeps a well-tended secret. Just walk through a quiet hallway on the iconic skyscraper's 15th floor, use a keycard to pass through an inconspicuously marked door, and you'll suddenly find yourself in a Narnia-like land of bucolic splendor.
Maybe that's a bit of hyperbole, but this 5,000-square-foot rooftop garden in the heart of downtown is a rare gem for a city with enough vacant land to allow a plethora of urban gardens to grow on good old terra firma. Look closely throughout Greater Cleveland, however, and you'll discover a few people taking gardening and sustainability to new heights.
Sweet as Honey
Forest City Enterprises Inc. employees transformed the Terminal Tower roof into a green oasis as part of the company's annual community day in 2010. The garden was designed from the ground up with sustainability in mind; the two dozen planters bearing various fruits, vegetables and herbs were built from the remnants of recycled filing cabinets. Five 55-gallon rain barrels gather rain from 16th-floor downspouts, with a solar-powered pump watering the enclosed rooftop's thirsty plants.
The garden's first harvest generated a crop of eggplant, cherry tomatoes, peppers and herbs for Forest City employees, who formed an impromptu gardening club to tend the plants. This summer the fertile patch has yielded blueberries, onions, sugar baby watermelons, chives and basil. Colorful sprays of flowers inhabit recycled pots, while a beehive buzzing with an active population of little pollinators is expected to give up its first batch of honey this year.
The rooftop gives visitors a private area to work and relax, as well as a chance to get involved in the local food movement, says Forest City operations manager Don Beck. The white reflective surface gets good sun, and the parapet that encircles the area gives it a safe, cozy feel. The garden, adjacent a new greenhouse space that once held the offices of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, gets 10 to 15 visitors daily during warm months.
"There was nothing up here when we started," says Beck. "Now it's a nice place to chill and just exhale a little bit."
The Smart Choice
The green roof atop the Cleveland State University Recreation Center acts as an environmentally friendly insulator, water proofer and event space all in one. Now in its third summer, the 7,000-square-foot endeavor is partially made up of permeable pavers. The remainder of the plot is a plant-inhabited "live roof."
With a price tag of $350,000, work on installing 15,000 plants from 10 wildflower species began in August 2009. The money dried up before the project was completed, but a fundraising campaign spearheaded by former CSU environmental science students Erin Huber and LeeAnn Westfall finished off the venture, says project manager Tania Anochin.
The rooftop, with vegetation forming the top layer of a sustainable sandwich made of soil, a drainage membrane and insulation, is now populated by a variety of easy-to-maintain sedum plants that are able to survive Cleveland's harsh winters and semi-dry summers. The greenery "is virtually carefree," says Anochin. "We give it a haircut in spring and that's it."
From an aesthetic standpoint, CSU's green roof is a gorgeous spot for hosting freshman orientations, yoga classes and other events. Still, the rooftop garden is more than just a pretty amenity, Anochin says. The green roof protects the surface from weathering and saves the school another kind of green in heating and cooling costs. It also reduces stormwater runoff, improves air quality and serves as a habitat for wildlife.
"It's the manifestation of what can be done when you put your heart and soul into something," says Anochin. "It really is a beautiful space."
Like Sunscreen for the Roof
It makes sense that the Cleveland Botanical Garden, of all places, has a thriving living roof on its main building. The space, located above the cafeteria, consists mostly of grasses and has become a burgeoning ecosystem for birds, bees and other insects. Since its debut in 2010, the roof has even attracted grasshoppers that have managed to find their way up a few stories.
The garden uses a modular system, consisting of trays filled with plant life grown and shipped in from Sandusky. "It's an instant green roof," says Cynthia Druckenbrod, the Garden's vice president of horticulture. The plants grow over each other and can be viewed by visitors from a walk-in window.
Like the roof at CSU, the Botanical Garden's enterprise reduces energy use and slows stormwater runoff, theoretically extending the building's roof life by 50 years. "Roofs usually have to be replaced much sooner because of UV light," Druckenbrod says. "Here, the plants are absorbing that light."
The living roof is among a handful of green features that recently earned the Botanical Garden certification from the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a new best-practices program that does for landscapes what the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has done for buildings.
A Healing Space
The dearth of commercial development in Cleveland means green roofs are at a premium. The Botanical Garden's horticulture department has assisted the few rooftop garden projects in town, including one planned for the Angie Fowler Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Institute at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.
The garden on the 9th floor of UH's adolescent cancer wing will consist of a 4,000-square-foot "respite garden," a smaller sculpture garden, and a glass sky lobby that looks out into the space. Construction will finish in November, with plantings taking place sometime next spring.
The dual gardens will flow into each other, creating a restful atmosphere for patients, says Portia Ellis, architect and designer with Stanley Beaman & Sears, an Atlanta firm serving as lead on the project.
UH's green roof will be "intensive," meaning it offers a greater soil depth that can support hearty shrubs and shade trees. Ellis's firm consulted with a landscape architect that designed a garden at Seidman Cancer Center to ensure the new project's greenery will be compatible with the immuno-compromised patients enjoying it.
Strolling through the garden can have therapeutic benefits, but young UH cancer patients may also have an opportunity to tend their own plants, which would end up on a "living wall" that acts as a kind of vertical garden, Ellis notes.
Artistic and environmentally sound, rooftops gardens scattered about town don't come cheap. That's likely why Cleveland has a ways to go before it catches up with Chicago, a city that boasts an estimated 517,000 square feet of green real estate.
"These [gardens] can be wonderful for Northeast Ohio," says Ellis. "They can blaze a trail."

Photos Bob Perkoski


Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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