The Age of the Urban Retro-Fit: Reversing Climate Change, One Green Roof at a Time

A proposal to turn buildings into mean, green, climate-cooling machines.



We’re obsessed with the death of cities: our Netflix queues are filling up with post-apocalyptic sagas, we stack our coffee tables with doomsday books, and drool over ruin porn. The idea of saving cities with sparkling new architecture sounds trite these days–the stories we love are about re-use.

From New York to San Francisco to London, planners are turning abandoned train tracks (and bridges) into parks. There are plans to fill Detroit’s vacant lots with farms. Akron and Toledo are revamping steel-age relics into factories that produce not tires and windshields but biotech polymers and solar cells. An article last month in the New Republic revealed that what really turned Bilbao around wasn’t a hot new building, but cohesive, long-term plans to reconfigure the city’s geography around a cleaned-up riverfront.

Welcome to the age of the retrofit.


The latest idea, presented by architect Vanessa Keith in an epic article on Urban Omnibus, looks at buildings–abandoned or not–as fertile ground for reforestation, thinking beyond green roofs to include vertical farming, facade-mounted wind turbines, and waterfall power generators. We need to think of buildings, says Keith, as thousands of square feet just BEGGING to be put to use:

A hypothetical six story apartment building has a footprint of approximately 2,100 square feet. The vertical surface area available on the facade for the deployment of green technologies using wind and solar power, or green screens for vertical gardening, or water walls for cooling, is approximately 12,000 sf if the building is freestanding, and around 3,600 sf if it is in an infill condition. Add on the roof area, much of which remains unused, and you get 14,100 sf for the freestanding and 5,700 sf for the infill building. Multiply that by the sheer number of buildings occupying any densely populated urban condition and the number becomes more significant still.

The best part is, we don’t need to wait for them to turn to ruins.