With the campus’s Green Week in full swing and Earth Day beckoning, the time seems ripe to revisit a most astute and prescient observation made by the Badger Herald Editorial Board on April 12, 2006. The University of Wisconsin, the board said that day, “could use a few roof gardens.”

The board’s logic was simple. Green space on campus has always been at a premium, and it continues to be that way as the university embarks upon a new round of construction under the two-decade-long Master Plan. The university needed to take advantage of a vast and underutilized resource: the many flat gravel roofs on campus buildings, perfect for lush, flowering gardens of greenery.

Unfortunately, in what can only be considered a gross dereliction of their duties as state officials and part-time Herald perusers, UW big wigs have not incorporated roof gardens into their planning since that time. Luckily, though, they now have an opportunity to make up for years of neglect.

Chadbourne Hall, which UW recently announced will be renovated, presents a perfect opportunity for the establishment of a veritable sanctum of elevated vegetation, filled with shrubs, grasses and flowers. Between its central location and great views, the dormitory has long been begging for plants on its roof. Chadbourne’s unique three-pronged building structure would even allow for three different themed gardens, kind of like the Mitchell Domes in Milwaukee.

These facts alone should be reason enough to build the university’s first major roof garden. But if university officials need more convincing, I would point to the sorry condition of Lake Mendota. It’s gross. I wouldn’t swim in it. Thanks to the impermeable concrete that characterizes much of downtown Madison, storm water runs off into the lake carrying pollution with it. Vegetation on roofs would capture some of this runoff and filter out pollutant particles in the process.

Lest Chancellor John Wiley and Co. still not be impressed, let me remind them that UW has struggled mightily in recent years recruiting and retaining top faculty. If history teaches us one thing, it’s that people are attracted to roof gardens. For instance, would Amytis of Media have stayed in Babylon if her husband Nebuchadnezzar didn’t build her the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? It’s doubtful. Would Paul McCartney have visited Springfield if Apu didn’t keep a flourishing garden sanctuary on the roof of the Kwik-E-Mart? Certainly not.

There is much talk these days about global warming. Al Gore, aka Moses, has built an effective second career around the subject. Temperatures can be especially pronounced in cities due to the urban heat island effect. There are many causes of this — concrete and asphalt absorb solar radiation and re-emit it as heat; buildings block wind; air-conditioning and general human industrial activity produces waste energy and air pollution — and it can be countered with green roofs. Vegetation reduces ambient air temperatures through evaporation from the soil and transpiration from plants.

Roof gardens would also reverse the cultural drain Chicago exerts on Madison. The Windy City attracts many UW graduates as part of Wisconsin’s continued brain drain, and in the ultimate insult, even Madison’s own Ian’s Pizza is now planning to open a location in Chicago. We can get even through roof gardens. Despite Chicago’s problems in other areas (such as post-WWII quarterbacking), the Second City is second to none when it comes to rooftop topiary. Greenery adorns more than 2.5 million square feet of Chicago roofs, tops in the nation. Even the roof of the Chicago City Hall is graced by a bounty of botanical goodness. UW should follow suit.

UW claims to be interested in energy conservation. A sign on the SERF building says so. If they really mean this, UW officials must invest in roof gardens, which greatly improve the insulation quality at the top of buildings. In fact, the SERF would be perfect for a rooftop garden. Not only would it improve the aesthetic appeal of the building (which is desperately needed), but maintenance of the garden would provide something to do for the SERF’s ID card swipers, who have the cushiest job on campus.

Rooftop gardens help preserve the structural integrity of roofs by absorbing ultraviolet radiation and regulating temperatures, which in turn protects roof membranes from deteriorating. A study by the Penn State Center for Green Roof Research indicates green roofs extend the lifespan of a roof by two or three times. Any university that employs Joe Paterno must be taken seriously when it comes to data about extending life spans.

Mr. Wiley would also be well-served to remember that as a lame-duck chancellor, time is of the essence to cement his legacy. Inventing the PlayStation was cool and all, but it’s been replaced by other video game systems. A campuswide rooftop garden initiative, though? The Wiley Botanical Rooftops would delight students and faculty alike for generations.

Of course, there are some people who aren’t so keen on the rooftop green. Badger Herald Editor in Chief Mike Gendall, for example, is quite wary of them. Mr. Gendall hails from Boston, though, and as such he tends to associate the word “green” with the word “monster.” Certainly, I wouldn’t support a green roof either if it served as a haven for monsters — or Manny Ramirez.

And sure, there’s a short-term capital cost to installing roof gardens, and not every roof can bear the load. But these are small concerns. For the sake of the environment and overall campus aesthetics, UW could use a few roof gardens.


Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a first-year law student