School Seeks Votes for Green Roof

by Briana Warsing

PS/IS 217 might be changing colors from Roosevelt Island red to tree-top green, thanks to the delegates who got the schools’ green roof project past the City Council team, RIOC, and all relevant City agencies, and then onto the Participatory Budgeting ballot.

The next step toward greening the school’s roof is winning the most votes. The roof project is up against 16 other District 5 projects. (District 5 is comprised of the Island, the Upper East Side and Midtown East.) Voting takes place from April 11 to April 19. Needless to say, Islanders are being urged to vote. District residents 16 years old and up can vote, citizenship is unnecessary.

Participatory budgeting is a process through which community members vote to decide how to spend part of the City budget – at least $1 million per City Council district – on proposals developed by the community to meet local needs.

Delegates submitted a dozen projects for Roosevelt Island, only two of which made it to the ballot. The second project concerns the new library.

Green Roof

The idea is to turn PS/IS 217’s 6,750 square-foot roof into a real world laboratory for 217’s students, while gaining environmental benefit for the community at large.

It’s not a new endeavor. In 2013, the school got $35,000 from former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer for a feasibility study. At the time, Stringer said, “There were a lot of naysayers arguing that you couldn’t transform these rooftops. To me, they are outdoor classrooms. These spaces are not ornamental. Kids are learning while they are planting.”

Ursula Fokine, 217’s Sustainability Coordinator, distinguishes between the purpose of the schoolyard and the green roof. She says, “I see the school yard as the playground and the roof as [the students’] backyard. It provides inspiration and relaxation, a different venue for classes and learning experiences and also that whole nature connection for insects and plants. It provides a natural habitat for animals like birds, insects and butterflies. As butterflies migrate they look for a green space. We want to give the Monarchs a refuge as they fly by.”

Fokine remembers, “The feasibility study launched the whole project. We had just finished all the construction on the building and Christina Delfico [Roosevelt Island Community Coalition Board member and founder of iDig2Learn] had applied for this grant. They did the feasibility study, gave the engineering approval, and now it’s going to be on this ballot. It’s my understanding the project will cost $1.5M so it will probably be a few years of gathering the money together. The green roof came partially out Christina’s iDig2Learn organization, but also in her conversations with the school about how we can engage students more in STEM learning.”

Some of Fokine’s inspiration comes from across the world. She says, “I went on an educator’s tour of Japan, and, in Tokyo many buildings have green roofs, including schools. Students there participate in laying sod, planting plants.” But she wants more. She says, “A garden is just too limited. We see the space as an outdoor classroom with outdoor space and grass, theatre space, classroom space.”

Since then, Principal Mandana Beckman has requested $1.5M from the Borough President’s capital fund. The Participatory Budget money would alleviate the Borough President’s commitment over the next two budget cycles. Despite commitments made by Cornell in their lease, this green roof project is not something Cornell is involved in. Fokine says of the relationship, “I am not quite sure how the two could be connected unless they want to come and help us wire up the roof.”

Community Impact

According to iDig2Learn’s Delfico, “A strong school is like an anchor for the community. A green roof provides more than a much needed learning hub for 21st century skills; it excites students about new careers, it creates a beautiful extended view for residents, it reduces pollution storm water run off into our rivers and it allows city children not often exposed to nature to benefit from its calming qualities.”

But there’s more. Girl Scout Troop Leader Aiesha Eleusizov says, “Not only will the green roof have numerous positive environmental effects such as a reduction in storm-water runoff, reduction in energy consumption for air conditioning in the summer, mitigation of heat effect by no longer having a black rooftop, and improved air quality on the Island, but it will also provide a concrete example to explain and teach about these important environmental and scientific lessons and concepts and possibly inspire some budding young scientists.”

In fact, green roofs do clean the air. They capture pollutants, filter noxious gasses and decrease asthma and other pulmonary diseases. Green roofs also impact the community at large because they quiet city and mechanical equipment noise.

Examples Elsewhere

The Greek Ministry of Finance installed a green roof on the Treasury in Constitution Square in Athens. It was inaugurated in September 2008. The first year, savings of 50% were observed for air conditioning in the floor directly below the installation. Many beneficial insects have been observed on the roof, such as butterflies, honey bees and ladybugs. A study suggests that the micro-climate and biodiversity of Constitution Square in Athens is improved by the installation.

Germany has had a green roof tradition for over a century. In the 1970’s, they expanded their technology as a result of serious storm-water issues. The result was modern green roof technology made from high performance, lightweight materials used in growing hardy vegetation even on roofs unable to support any additional weight. By the 1980s, modern Green Roof Technology was common knowledge in Germany, despite it being practically unknown everywhere else in the world.

Studies cited by PS/IS 217 say that students in garden based learning score significantly higher on science tests, are more interested in careers in science, are more engaged in environmental issues, are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, and have more interest in improving their immediate neighborhood.

At the opening of PS 41’s green roof in Greenwich Village, then-Borough President Stringer said, “The opening of the Green Roof Environmental Literacy Laboratory at PS 41 is a landmark event, not just because it is the largest such roof at a New York City public school – but because it expands our commitment to making environmental study a fixture in classrooms. This laboratory will boost students’ knowledge of environmental priorities and also benefit the community by reducing storm-water runoff and the school’s carbon footprint and improving air quality. Just as important, it shows that worthy projects like this can become a reality through community-based advocacy and governmental assistance.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, to make 90% of New York City’s waterways suitable for recreation, was a campaign to install green roofs, sidewalks and porous parking lots in order to capture excess rainwater and runoff. According to the Mayor, the proposed green surfaces will eliminate 40% of the existing runoff into the waterways and save taxpayers $2.4 billion dollars over the next 20 years.

The Evidence

In 2013, Scientific American profiled Krista McGuire, assistant professor of biological sciences at Barnard College, who studied Bloomberg’s scientific assertions starting in 2010 after he announced his initiative. McGuire compared soil samples from 10 roofs planted with native vegetation with soil from five city parks spanning New York’s five boroughs, seeking to identify the microbial communities that thrive on green roofs to better understand how healthy rooftop ecosystems sustain themselves. Her goal was to see if a variety of native plants could survive on green roofs and how well they would deliver the desired benefits.

McGuire’s results, published in PLoS ONE, found that green roofs have distinct fungal communities that help plants thrive in harsh, polluted environments and filter heavy metals. On average, 109 different types of fungi were present on each roof including Pseudallescheria fimeti, a fungus that grows in polluted soils and human-dominated environments. Rooftop soil also contained fungi from the genus Peyronellaea, which live in the tissues of plants to help them take in nutrients.

McGuire hopes her research will be able to help inform green roof companies on planting the best species for each rooftop. Three of the rooftops, which received more intensive sampling, showed that fungal communities are different from one roof to another. Roofs are microclimates, McGuire says. Fungal growth depends on the position of the roof, pollution levels in the area, temperature, and how much rainfall it receives. “Plant species are adapting to new environments,” she says. “Without the fungi, the plants would not be able to grow and survive.”

“In the long term, this information may help individuals decide which types of soil microbes to amend on their green roofs, so that they can maximize plant survival and minimize management,” she says.

At 109,000 sq ft, New York’s largest green roof is atop the United States Postal Service’s Morgan Processing and Distribution Center. Native plants and ground cover include: Coral Carpet, John Creech, Weinhenstephaner, Immergrunchen, Fudaglut, and Red Carpet. The roof, comprised of nearly 90 percent of the original roof recycled and reused on the new roof, has an expected lifetime of 50 years. An impetus for the green roof was savings: the USPS hoped to save $30,000 in annual heating and cooling costs and significantly reduce the amount of storm water contaminants entering the municipal water system. The actual numbers exceeded more than $1 million in first year savings. The increased savings are attributed to a 40 percent reduction in energy use and an average decrease in energy expenses of 15 percent.

Zeckendorf Towers transformed its 14,000 sq ft roof into the largest residential green roof in New York City as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Green Infrastructure campaign. One of the purposes was to allay transit delays by capturing some of the rain that falls on the Union Square subway station.


Many other schools already have green roofs. The National Wildlife Federation blog reported that three New York City Eco-Schools are collaborating on a green roof curriculum guide connecting green roofs to existing New York City education standards, common core, STEM.

Roosevelt Island Garden Club secretary, Julia Fergusen says, “Our motto at the Roosevelt Island Garden Club is In earth we trust. Each year with help from our members, Christina Delfico brings PS 217 students to the garden to get the children thinking and learning before they plant with iDig2Learn. We believe in community and in the health, joy, and beauty that comes from gardens. Congratulations PS 217 on this Ballot Proposal. May the voters show up and speak their minds!”

According to PTA President Olga Schuchinov, “The 217 Green Roof project was so long in the making – it took years to secure funding for the feasibility survey alone, and then to apply for the Borough Presidents’ funding. It also took months of work to determine if a project is eligible to be on the Participatory Budgeting ballot. We are grateful to Principal Beckman for believing in this vision of Green Roof for 217 and following through, and to the Roosevelt Island community for supporting her efforts in their letters to the Borough President. We now ask for your help: Spread the word, so we can secure funds from the City Council! Vote at PS/IS 217 on Monday, April 13 – 7:30-10:30am!”

Tags: Briana Warsing PS/IS 217 Participatory Budgeting Island Life Environment

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