Located in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood, the Gary Comer Youth Center offers a safe, welcoming after-school space for indoor activity. Its 8,160-square-foot green roof is a model for using traditionally underutilized space for urban agriculture and exceptional in its balance of an aesthetic vision with practical needs. The garden provides the crowning touch to an award-winning building recognized for its bold architecture.
The landscape architect worked closely with the architect and donor to develop a vision for a green roof to include a flower and working vegetable garden, and suggested that the center employ a full-time garden manager to enhance educational program development and manage maintenance. The result is a garden used in extremely creative ways for horticultural learning, environmental awareness, and food production.
While reducing climate control costs and providing an outdoor classroom, the green roof is able to withstand enthusiastic children digging for potatoes and carrots with garden tools. Soils 18–24 inches deep allow for viable food production, including cabbage, sunflowers, carrots, lettuce and strawberries. Sharp differences between ground temperatures and those on the roof mean that the rooftop is in a different climate zone and can be utilized throughout the winter. The resulting garden, only three years old, is still evolving.
Located on the second floor over the center’s gymnasium, the garden is surrounded by the circulation corridor and classrooms of the third floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows transform this working garden into a highly graphic viewing garden as students move from one classroom to another. Plastic lumber made from recycled milk containers forms pathways within the garden that align with the courtyard garden’s window frames. Metal circles scattered throughout the garden serve as elements of artistic expression even as they function as skylights, bringing outdoor illumination to the building’s gymnasium and café below.