Youth center’s vegetable roof garden provides food for children in Chicago

Place: Chicago, Country: United States

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The vegetable roof garden of the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago; photo © Scott Shigley

Gary Comer Youth Center’s vegetable roof garden provides food to children in Chicago

American design firm Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects has transformed the terrace of an education center in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods into a large rooftop vegetable garden which also provides organic food to the school’s kitchen.

The 8000-square-foot roof garden entirely occupies the terrace above the gymnasium of the Gary Comer Youth Center, built after a design by John Ronan Architects in 2006 in Greater Grand Crossing, one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods.

The Gary Comer Youth Center was founded to provide education and employment opportunities – in sectors including technology, music, visual arts, agriculture, and culinary arts – to young people aged 10-18 many of whom are coming from impoverished families and are at risk of being involved in crime and violence.

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View of the Gary Comer Youth Center from S South Chicago Ave.; photo © Steve Hall/ Hedrich Blessing

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Aerial view of the center; photo © Larry Okrent Associates

The center’s vegetable garden was primarily created for two reasons.
First, to be an educational resource inspired by the STEM principles, which advocate a technical-scientific education based on an interdisciplinary approach combined with real-world applications.
At the same time, it was designed as a real source of food, which every year produces some 1,000 lbs of organic vegetables for the center’s kitchen, four local restaurants, as well as for selling at special Farmers’ Market events. Furthermore, horticultural classes integrate with the Gary Comer Youth Center culinary arts programs.

Another important element is that the view of the garden, which is surrounded on all sides by a circulation corridor and classrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, contributes to the psychological well-being of students and educators, thus creating a coherent and synergic combination of architecture and landscape design.

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A view of the garden from the circulation corridor on the third floor; photo © Steve Hall/ Hedrich Blessing

The vegetable garden consists of 29 strips of soil, from 18 to 24 inches deep, separated by narrow pathways made with white concrete tiles. Edible plant species are rotated following a seasonal cycle and include vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, lettuces, squashes and zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli, beans, peas, peppers, onions, and potatoes, among others, together with aromatic herbs such as basil, sage, rosemary, dill, oregano, and chives. Flower beds and ornamental plants – including daisies, lilies, and tulips – alternate to edible plants.

Vegetable roof garden Gary Comer Youth Center Chicago plant species layout

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Above: scheme of the garden beds with summer species and cultivars, courtesy of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects; and a view of the vegetable roof garden, photo © Scott Shigley

The system structure of the garden and its beds is similar to that of a traditional intensive green roof; species and cultivars are selected among those more apt to a relatively shallow growing medium, usually with shallow-to-medium root systems. The garden provides all the typical advantages of a green roof, including a reduction of the building’s heating and cooling costs and the capability to absorb rainwater. The irrigation system consists of a simple piping network which integrates a drainage system designed to collect and recycle unused water.

Vegetable roof garden Gary Comer Youth Center Chicago growing medium and system structure

Assembly scheme of the Gary Comer Youth Center’s roof garden; image source: American Hydrotech Inc. (www.hydrotechusa.com)

The peculiar microclimate of the terrace – which is heated both by the sun and the building itself, which also protects it from bad weather on all sides – allows growing Mediterranean and tropical edible plants in Chicago’s climatic conditions, notoriously windy and cold in Winter. Thanks to the building morphology and the use of small movable and lightweight greenhouse modules, the average winter temperature in the garden is up to 20 degrees higher than at street level so that vegetables can be produced all year round.

Over time, the vegetable roof garden, along with an open-air classroom for students, has also become a reference point for the local community and accommodates horticultural classes and activities open to all in a neighborhood where public green space is scarce and often unsafe. Overall, about 600 people, students, and residents, regularly frequent the vegetable garden every year.

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Gary Comer Youth Center Chicago plan

Longitudinal section and third-floor plan of the building and the kitchen garden; images Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

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The garden with the large circular skylights which illuminate the gymnasium (below); photos © Scott Shigley, and © Steve Hall/ Hedrich Blessing

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The vegetables cultivated in the rooftop garden are used in the center’s kitchen to feed up to 175 children; photo courtesy of Gary Comer Youth Center


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