Beautifying grey urban work and residential areas has been a challenge in many concrete jungles around the world, and, in recent times, busy city dwellers have a new found appreciation for the greener side of life. As a result, a whole new world of flora opportunities have sprouted in city centres around the world.  

Often dubbed the greenest commercial complex in India, CRISIL House, Hiranandani Gardens, Mumbai has 14 gardens inside the building, the ITC Green Centre in Gurgaon is certified as one of the world’s greenest buildings – eco-friendly yet commercially viable and uses drip irrigation for the garden and in New York, Bank of America Building (One Bryant Park), is the city’s most sustainable skyscraper boasting green roofs and an Urban Garden Room that brings the park nearby into the architecture emphasizing the natural qualities of city life.

As a solar rich country that typically experiences adequate rainfall to sustain urban greening, Johannesburg with its millions of trees, is one of the most wooded cities and therefore no stranger to being green, has joined the urban greening movement led by corporates as well as individuals around the city.

With properties getting smaller and city living becoming more desirable for new homeowners and business owners, rooftop gardens are a growing city trend.

The Green Building Council SA develops the Green Star SA rating tools to provide an objective measurement for green buildings in South Africa and to recognise and reward environmental leadership in the property industry and multiple-award winning company, Insite Landscape Architects have worked on several four to six-star rated premium projects such as the Nedbank Phase II, Sandton and the Standard Bank in Rosebank.  The Green Building rating building incorporates design, construction and operational practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of development on the environment and people – green buildings are energy efficient, resource efficient and environmentally responsible.  The striking five-star-rated Standard Bank building at 30 Baker Street is one of Johannesburg’s corporate buildings featuring an atrium with trees.  It also overlooks a rugby-sized urban garden with 422 trees, indigenous flower gardens and lawn areas.

Talking to Business Day about the cost of attaining Green-star rating, Rory Roriston, head of Standard Bank Real Estate Asset Management, said the development had achieved the five-star rating without substantial additional costs. Attaining a Green Star rating had cost only about 3% more than the same building without sustainable features would have cost, he said.

More laid back is The Living Room, based in the vibrant Maboneng District of Johannesburg – a unique urban jungle oasis filled to the brim with vertical gardens, trees and plants that serves as an event venue, cafe and show space.  Patrons enjoy healthy meze, sharing plates, salads, smoothies and sundowners in a relaxed, plant-filled rooftop. 

And if you’re thinking of putting a garden together at home, it’s as simple as a quick Pintrest search and local flora can be employed on just about any rooftop and work very well if one is looking for minimal maintenance.  However, it’s advised that a licensed professional check out the structural capacity of the building beforehand in order to assess whether or not the roof is stable enough to support the additional weight of a rooftop garden – the waterproofing component is also critical. This of course could be more of a challenge if you’ve got a body corporate with strict rules on either the aesthetics or structure of your apartment, however, a bit of digging for the right information may lead you in the right direction.

Puwai Mpofu is a farming and gardening enthusiast and entrepreneur who also makes and sells rooftop and hanging gardens says that although the uptake of residential gardens hasn’t been very high, he believes it’s growing. “It's my opinion that every building should have a green roof.  Although the visual, convenience and even health aspects of rooftop and hanging gardens are undeniable, they have yet to rise in popularity in Johannesburg and other cities in South Africa.  Rooftop gardens work really well and the financial barriers that deter most home owners will eventually subside with more competition from installers of the solution.”

The Johannesburg Development Agency has also made a mark on the ground with a project called Makhulong A Matala, "greener pastures", and has planted a rootop food garden on the corner of Peterson and Edith Cavell streets in the inner city of Johannesburg.  The rooftop garden is aimed at empowering people to promote healthy eating, overcoming hunger, transferring skills, reducing unemployment by supplementing the family income through saving on the purchase of fresh vegetables, and alleviating malnutrition.  This is one of six other projects of this nature at buildings in Johannesburg. There are four rooftop gardens and two ground gardens in Hillbrow, Joubert Park, Troyeville, Newtown, and Fordsburg, growing spinach, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, beans and rosemary among other crops.

There are several benefits to rooftop gardens – besides the decorative and food benefits, rooftop gardens provide temperature control, hydrological benefits, architectural enhancement, recreational opportunities, and in large scale, they may even have ecological benefits.  Simply tending a garden has been known to have calming effects and therefore a great remedy for stress.  With the rising unemployment rate in South Africa, the growth of green roof market creates new job opportunities related to manufacturing, plant growth, design, installation, and maintenance.

“People being able to live off a piece of land, no matter how large of small is an excellent privilege to have so I believe South Africans should take much more advantage of the opportunity, and in terms of urban planners, becoming green should be very high on their priority list” said Mpofu.