Thursday 19 August 2021

A Green Roof in Greenwich

4th July 2021

Upon arriving at North Greenwich station, I walked to the bus stop, where I was greeted by the gigantic tree-lined car parks surrounding the O2. In fact, there were not many trees at all - in their place stood towering office blocks, some of which looked quite futuristic and otherworldly. This concrete metropolis seemed to stretch for miles around; however, I had forgotten that wildlife thrived here in a most unusual way.

The bus passed through much of this emerging urban jungle: brownfield sites, new villages and flats enveloped the landscape. That is, until I reached an IKEA. Beneath this large blue shipping container I met Dusty Gedge, a real champion of green infrastructure who had promoted the use of green roofs in cities over the past few decades. Last year he had introduced me to the stunning parks and rivers of urban Lewisham, but now, we were visiting a habitat created entirely by people.

We climbed a staircase to a large grey door. Like a portal to another dimension, it opened onto an endless array of gardens. The grey, polished IKEA flooring had transformed into a lush carpet of sedum, and mesmerising views of the capital, both urban and rural, stretched for as far as the eye could see in every direction. The charming call of Linnets could be heard above the noise of traffic below, and Pied Wagtails darted their heads from side to side in utter confusion, before flying back into the urban sprawl.

The IKEA Greenwich green roof (credit: Aryan Kaul)

Scattered among the sedum grew the beautiful Viper's Bugloss. These gorgeous plants were filled with Bumblebees, nestled in between their glowing blue and purple hues. In fact, the Viper's Bugloss Bee had been discovered recently in Greenwich, a new species which Dusty hoped would visit the roof.

Adjacent to the sedum was a kitchen garden, where onions and delicious strawberries grew. Artificial grass and deck chairs - far different from the surrounding vegetation - lay at the heart of the roof: perhaps a place for IKEA staff to rest and take in the views. However, the most striking feature of this novel environment was its variety of wildflowers. Facing the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf grew scattered numbers of Chicory, Purple Toadflax, Oxeye Daisy and Common Vetch, clinging onto the soil in the wind. This assortment of hardy flowers had been collected locally by Dusty, from around Southeast London.

Dusty described green roofs as 'tough places'. There are several challenges involved in creating and maintaining green roofs - a great deal of resilience and patience is required. However, they have certainly gained popularity. Over the years, an expectation of green roofs by local authorities in London had been formed, and Greenwich now had the third largest area of green roofs in the capital. In fact, forty percent of the green space in the surrounding new developments consisted of green roofs. 

The microclimate and location of green roofs attract a whole range of biodiversity. Dusty had suspected that the Greenwich roof was home to a nesting pair of Linnets, the first instance in Europe, let alone in the UK. Crucially, green roofs across the capital had aimed to boost the capital's population of Black Redstarts, which favour industrial and urban environments. None had visited the Greenwich roof yet, though they had become a frequent sight in Westminster and Canary Wharf.

The IKEA Greenwich green roof, facing Canary Wharf and the O2 (credit: Aryan Kaul)

Invertebrates had become rife too. A Migrant Hawker flitted past us, and a few Craneflies scuttled along the gravel as we admired the wildflowers. The Purple Toadflax was a favourite of moths, namely the Toadflax Brocade Moth; and of course, there were the bees, gently tending to the myriad of flowers, with bulbous bags of pollen grasping their legs. 

It is remarkable to think how quickly this new ecosystem had been developed; starting with a few seeds collected locally, plenty of insects arrived, and birds took refuge in the bushes that soon sprouted. The fact that green infrastructure is on the rise certainly makes me optimistic about the future of wildlife in Inner London. The IKEA Greenwich green roof was created by people through sheer determination and resilience - it is testimony to what we can achieve in accommodating wildlife within our inner cities.