Safe, friendly environments for after-school programs like the Gary Comer Youth Center’s are precious few in Grand Crossing, a low-income community on Chicago’s South Side. Rarer still are secure, inviting outdoor spaces like the Center’s green roof, a garden atop a two-story gymnasium where local children and teenagers learn to cultivate organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

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Hoerr Schaudt designed the garden in close collaboration with architect John Ronan and donor Gary Comer, a Grand Crossing native who founded the retailer Lands’ End. Comer welcomed our team’s suggestion that capital costs include the employment of a full-time garden manager, not only to supervise hands-on activities, but also to demonstrate their relevance to biology, horticulture, and nutrition. The project budget also stretched to afford a structure capable of supporting soil eighteen to twenty-four inches deep. Almost triple the depth—and weight load—of typical nonagricultural green roofs, this volume is required to nurture food crops as diverse as potatoes, carrots, strawberries, and lettuce.

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Glass-walled classrooms and corridors overlook the garden on all sides, keeping everyone at the Center in touch with their on-site, working farm. Ambient heat from the upper story, warmth from the gym and café downstairs, and solar energy puts the sheltered planters into a more temperate climate zone than the surrounding neighborhood. Floating row covers protect winter crops from damaging frost. Almost-continuous growing seasons enable the 8,160-square-foot patch to yield at least 1,000 pounds of produce every year. In addition to generating camaraderie, self-confidence, and pride, harvests teach entrepreneurial lessons: freshly picked edibles that aren’t gobbled up in the Center’s café get sold to Chicago restaurants.

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Another wonderful thing about this green roof is the graphic punch of its colorful stripes. The exact alignment of horizontal crop rows and flower beds with vertical facades present a case study in artistic minimalism and practical sustainability. Plastic lumber made from recycled milk cartons frames the planters; recycled-tire pavers surface the paths. Cylindrical metal skylights protrude from the gym and café like abstract sculptures in a modernist parterre, syncopating the regular rhythm underfoot.

Speaking to youngsters and staff at the Center in May, 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama praised, “this thriving, inspiring, beautiful place, just minutes from where I grew up.” She cited the many educational opportunities available there for the pursuit of fresh interests and future careers, from broadcasting and culinary arts to politics. “If you want to be a scientist,” she said, “then get up on top of that roof and start studying those plants and working in that garden . . . which, by the way, is more than five times bigger than the garden at the White House. I’m not hating on you, but you’ve got us far outmatched.”

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ASLA National Honor Award 2010

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, Green Roof Award of Excellence 2009

ASLA Illinois Presidential Award 2008