SAN DIEGO, March 28, 2015 – You may have read the same headlines I did earlier this month about new laws passed in France requiring solar panels or vegetation sections on the roofs of all new commercial construction. French activists were pushing for 100 percent roof coverage but had to settle for parliament’s requiring a minimum of coverage. Interest in this story in United States is surprising. With few exceptions, green roofs get treated as little more than a curiosity rather than a viable solution to so many of the urban planning problems we are confronted with today.
France isn’t even close to being the first government to mandate more environmentally friendly construction involving green roofs or solar energy. Germany has been a leader in this effort for 50 years. Toronto is the first city in North America with a bylaw requiring the construction of green roofs on new development. Even in my hometown, San Diego, builders within the downtown area can receive a density bonus on residential construction if a green roof covers 50 percent or more of their building. Sadly, not a single builder has managed to meet this standard.
While interest in these headlines about France’s sustainability efforts are heartening, how can they be translated into action? As one of the few green roof designers in the U.S. with a green roof on my own building, I have first-hand experience with the benefits that green roofs can provide. They retain rainwater and prevent stormwater runoff and pollution. They reduce the urban heat island effort and heat gain and loss, which saves on both heating and cooling costs. They limit air pollution and create biodiversity. Our list goes on.
What is significant about the French effort is combining the benefits of solar panels and green roofs. These two have proven through repeated studies that they complement each other. Solar panels work better at lower temperatures, and green roof vegetation provides a cooling effect. Research has shown solar panels will create up to 16 percent more energy when surrounded with a green roof.
How can advocates encourage green roof and solar energy development in the United States? I am a small business owner and a property owner. I don’t like government getting in my way. But I am in favor of providing incentives when there is a greater community benefit, and this is true with green roofs. This has been done in Germany with great success. Efforts there started slowly on a local level over a decade ago. Over time the incentives grew with small steps and little victories. The policies became better coordinated. It took decades, but now Germany has successfully made growth more environmentally sustainable at all levels of government.
There is no magic to it. Individuals began working together with other like-minded policy makers at the lowest level to overcome political opposition through education and small demonstration projects. For example, when I constructed the first commercial green roof in San Diego in 2005, there wasn’t even a permitting process because no one had ever tried it. Later, after the roof was finished, the City of San Diego had me retroactively apply for one. I ended up helping the city write the standards and train their staff to assess permits for the builders that followed me.
If we want to see these efforts supported, we cannot wait for the government to come around on its own. Public participation can begin with education about our environmental challenges and the solutions green infrastructure can provide.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to communicate about these issues every chance you get, with every possible audience: individuals, industry groups, citizen groups, elected officials starting at the basic level of decision makers like school boards and water districts. People who control education and infrastructure spending control a huge amount of public funding. These are the people who then run for city councils, state legislatures, and they bring the education and awareness we’ve provided along with them.
This column, my website, my local and national speaking engagements, and my activism in industry groups are my contribution. There are many citizen groups doing the same.
We can increase public acceptance. If we communicate with our representatives, public policy decisions will follow. I’m not naïve enough to think simply by asking we will guarantee the results we want, but one thing I know for sure: If we don’t and we slip into the same old pattern of heads down in our own business and busyness, change will be much slower.
Jim Mumford, GRP, CLP is the owner of Good Earth Plant Company and GreenScaped Buildings, San Diego. Find Good Earth Plants on Facebook and Twitter.