Exploring Milwaukee’s green rooftops

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee has an ever-expanding and changing skyline, not to mention the buildings. Instead, I’m talking about what’s rising on top of that sky: green roofs.

Those are roofs constructed with gardens, plants and grass embedded in the fabric of the ceiling. It’s not just a planter on cement, it’s real grass for a roof. These plants and grasses die and grow all the time. In fact, these roofs serve an incredibly important function.

Rockwell Rooftop

James Groha

Rockwell’s roof is a 49,000 square foot green space.

“So the green roof is designed to save up to a million liters per year. We can say that in the ten years we’ve had it, it’s actually surpassed that performance, totaling about 11 million gallons,” said Aryton Bryan, an environmental and safety manager at Rockwell Automation.

On top of Rockwell’s roof, next to the clock tower, is a 49,000-square-foot green space that collects and absorbs rain.

It saves water by collecting rain, instead of it sliding off roofs and into the sewer.

When it rains too much, such as on August 7 and 8, Jones Island, Milwaukee’s water treatment plant, can’t handle the sudden surge of water. Instead of being treated, the water can be spilled directly into our streams, rivers and lakes, carrying pollutants and wastewater with it. That is the first time it will happen in 2021. It usually happens a few times a year.

This view

James Groha

This display in Rockwell shows how the green space sits on top of the roof.

Green roofs help prevent that.

“So the more green roofs we have, we enable our cities to be sustainable, not just from an infrastructure perspective, but also from an everyday and environmental health perspective.”

Rockwell’s large square footage plays another important role in the city’s ecosystem. It also really helps to cool down the city.

“So in a city, temperatures are usually a few degrees higher than in other areas because sunlight doesn’t reflect off green space in the same way,” said Majo Thurman, director of environmental health and safety at Rockwell.

It’s called the heat island effect. Green spaces absorb heat, which helps to lower the overall temperature. On the other hand, blacktops, buildings and concrete reflect heat, creating higher overall temperatures.

Obviously, the Rockwell roof won’t change Milwaukee’s temperature by a full degree, but having enough green spaces can affect the city’s temperature.

Rockwell isn’t the only building with a green roof. According to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, the organization that helped build many green roofs, there are 68 in the city occupying approximately 11 acres of space.

Another notable green roof is that of the Grohmann Museum in downtown Milwaukee.

“This is one way we can save about 50 percent of that water by effectively going down sewers and drains, and now we’re using it to provide the water needed for our rooftop garden,” James Kieselburg, the director of the Grohmann Museum, said.

Their green roof is also a sculpture garden with 18 bronze statues open to all museum visitors.

The green roof on top of the Grohmann museum

James Groha

On top of the Grohmann Museum are bronze sculptures surrounded by greenery and gardens.

“So we show art and industry and technology. These sculptures fit exactly with that theme because they are all working figures.”

An interesting juxtaposition of old and new is created on this special roof. Eighteen bronze statues of giant workers commemorate the history of labour, industry and engineering. Those works of art are surrounded by modern environmental practices. It is a mixture of old and new.

“Well, I love having these urban oases,” Kieselburg said.

Another additional advantage of green roofs is that they save on the energy costs of buildings. Because they absorb heat, it helps to insulate the building more efficiently. In addition, green roofs, such as Rockwell’s, last about 40 years, which is much longer than the average roof, according to Majo Thurman, director of environmental health and safety at Rockwell.

Not everyone can have a green roof, but you can help. Just put out a barrel, container or thing that can catch water and reuse it at a later time.

So the next time you admire the Milwaukee skyline or think you wish it grew more, know that some of those rooftops have plants and grasses growing every day.

Report a typo or error // Submit a news tip

Comments are closed.