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From Heat Island to Eat Island

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:18pm

Okay, so lemonade is one way to cool down on these sizzling Atlanta days (and there's nothing I like more than seeing young entrepreneurs at work, especially when they use real lemons and shout, "Mrs. Baker, it's organic!" as one team of kids did recently as I was riding my bike down the hill into my neighborhood).

But we have bigger heat problems here, caused by us . Atlanta is a "heat island," like many urbans areas, which means it is up to 10 degrees hotter than surrounding areas because of more paved surfaces and pollutants in the air. Since Atlanta has no natural borders (water or mountains), unbridled sprawl has contributed to the extension of this heat island in all directions. The result is violent thunderstorms with fire-causing lightning that destroys homes. To think that loss of life and limb (trees, homes, communities), not to mention increased utility costs, is because of human activity has got to give you pause at some point to ask, " What are we doing to ourselves?"

Thank goodness the High Museum of Atlanta asked that question, because now, the High Museum can boast the largest vegetative "green" roof in the Southeast, covering 7,000 square feet of its 3-year-old administrative building.

I spoke with Kevin Streiter, the High Museum's manager of facilities and logistics (and a 5-mile-each-way bike commuter) who told me how a board member, David Harris, brought a complete turn-key green roof solution to him that involved the installation of a grid-like system of four varieties of low-growing, drought-tolerant succulent plants called sedum in 100% post-industrial recycled plastic trays that lock together.

Funded with grants from the Candida Fund and the EPA, this green roof protects the roof from UV rays, extends the roof's life, has the ability to retain about 62,000 gallons of storm water per year, reduces the heat island effect, reduces energy consumption, and improves air quality.

As opposed to the Atlanta City Hall green roof, the High Museum's green roof is not a gathering spot with benches and other accommodations for human activity. It's just a roof. However, in a nod to those who live and work in the plethora of buildings overlooking this roof, Streiter had graduate students from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which has its Atlanta residence hall housed at the Woodruff Arts Center (of which the High Museum is part) designed a "purposeful pattern of color" for the placement of the four varieties of sedum, which change color and flower seasonally.

And so, these students visualized the future (it takes two years for the plants to mature) on a roof that few will see, atop a building in the middle of a heat island that's part of a place dedicated to art and education, and designed concentric circles, perhaps representing the circles of effect that each action has on its surrounding area.

As for Streiter, he says that the green roof is merely a part of the High Museum's increasing move toward environmental improvements. With an expanded recycling program, increased energy-efficiency throughout the museum's operations, the pursuit of LEED certification for the administration building, temperature setbacks during unused hours, and most germaine to Streiter's particular needs, bike racks and showers for alternate commuters, the High is taking the high road in more ways than one.

As for me, I asked Streiter a question that hit home.

"So, these four varieties of sedum are low growing, drought-tolerant, low maintenance, look great four seasons of the year, require only four inches of soil, and grow well here in Atlanta?

"Yes," he answered.

"So, technically," I went on, "these would be a good replacement option for, let's say, a front lawn?"

Streiter thought a moment. "Yes, I guess they would."


Now, all I need to do is design a purposeful pattern of color. Who needs SCAD students when there are inspired future thinkers manning lemonade stands in my neighborhood?! Plus, once I mix in herbs and seasonal vegetables, I will complete the tranformation from heat island--to eat island.
Nurturing sustainability close to home and around the world. (And other food for thought!)

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