Raising the (Green) Roof

(Monica Cesinger)– “Do you feel doomed?” my long-time friend Sophie asked me last week over dinner, when the conversation had turned to conservation. My friend Scott and I looked at each other, looked back at her, and shrugged a “sort of” in resigned unison. The fact of the matter is, our generation will be privy to one of the bleakest eras in ecological history, and knowing this, we couldn’t possibly say no. The devastation wreaked by the carelessness of our species has left many of my fellow young adults with a pretty deep chip on our shoulders about the future we are responsible for building. If you are at all informed about the status of the world’s ecosystems, it is difficult not to feel doomed in some sense, awash in the overwhelming complexity of climate change. A terrifying wave of irrevocable anthropogenic damage perpetually clouds my own peripheral vision when I look towards the future, and yet, funnily enough, I consider myself an optimist. In my mind, resigning myself to the fact that we have doomed our current world is not an act of morbid apathy but of pragmatic adaptation. Accepting our troubled state represents the first step towards aiding a natural world I still care very deeply about.

Through my pursuit of science, I reconcile the weight of our cumulative crimes against ecology with my irrational inability to give up on a brighter future. It’s hard to feel down about the state of the environment if you are actively doing the best you can to help, and by working on conservation science in urban environments, I feel that am doing just that. This summer, working with my mentor Kelly Ksiazek, I get to explore the very new field of green-roofing ecology and its potential to give biodiversity a fighting chance in a perpetually more hostile world. It is our shared hope that through the cultivation of bio-diverse green roofs, urban spaces could actually be home to some of the species that the sprawling growth of cities has put in such peril. I spend my days here assessing the ability of native Illinois prairie plants to survive the harsh conditions present on rooftops; this work can bring hope in some cases and total disappointment in others. While I have approached the science of my project with necessary skepticism about how much green-roofs can actually do for conservation, in my off-time I cultivate a perhaps irrational dream about the astounding potential of these novel ecosystems. I can geek out to no end about the environmental, social, and political impact of buildings that literally raise conservation above all else by hosting ecosystems on their roofs.

As I round the corner of my 4th week here in Chicago, I have begun to understand some of the stubborn intricacies that keep our cities from being the mean, green, biodiversity machines I dream of. The wonderful people of this teeming Midwestern city, known for being more open to green roof enterprise than most urban areas, still know so little about the secret lives of the roofs right above their heads. Kelly demonstrates superhuman patience dealing with the innocent ignorance that can make green roof science an uphill battle, and through watching her I have learned a good deal about not only how to research but how to teach. The gun-toting security patrol members that are obligated to follow us from roof to roof at one of our research sites, though sort of scary and gruff at first, open up to us with child-like curiosity when they get up on the roofs and experience firsthand a small facet of what a green-roofed future might offer. In my more zealous moments, I fantasize all of Chicago experiencing the hidden beauty of these green pockets in the sky, rising up from the streets and frosting their own rooftops with cacti, sedum, and wildflowers.

The more I learn about urban ecology and the impact green roofs have, the more optimistic I get that, though our current world may still be doomed to a sixth mass extinction, the world my children face need not be a barren dystopia. If we are smart, adaptable, and open to a little hard work, we can still promise the future a green, albeit very different, world. The ecosystems we could foster from the ecological ashes of our past bad behavior would be no return to pristine wilderness. However, blanketing our cities in green roofs might give at-risk species the teeth they need, and soften the blow to biodiversity promised by climate change. To my generation, I have this to say: Climb up on your roof, and imagine for a minute the weight on our shoulders carried on the backs of the buildings that surround you. Raise your rooftops to be successful beasts of our current ecological burden. We need not let the mistakes of our species crumple our own hopes for a future we are proud of, a future worth working for. Stop attempting to shrug off the question of our doom, and instead, look the current state of the world in the eye for what it is, and join the struggle for something better.

This article was originally published on the Chicago Botanical Garden REU blog on June 28, 2014. It is re-posted here with permission.