Green Roof: Sustainably Mitigating Urban Heat Island Effect


Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect has emerged as a significant concern in modern urban planning and environmental management. It refers to the phenomenon where urban areas experience higher temperatures compared to surrounding rural areas, primarily due to human activities and the built environment. As cities continue to expand, and the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanized, addressing the UHI effect is crucial for ensuring sustainable development and safeguarding human health and wellbeing.

One innovative and sustainable solution to mitigate the Urban Heat Island effect is the implementation of green roofs. Green roofs, which involve the integration of vegetation and growing medium on building rooftops, have demonstrated considerable potential in reducing urban air temperature while offering numerous additional benefits. This article will explore the causes and impacts of the UHI effect, with a particular focus on London, and delve into the potential of green roofs as an effective and sustainable solution to this pressing urban challenge.

Causes of Urban Heat Islands

A thorough understanding of the factors contributing to the Urban Heat Island effect is necessary to develop targeted and effective strategies to mitigate its impacts. The primary drivers of UHI can be grouped into three interconnected categories: increased impervious surfaces, building materials with high heat absorption, and lack of vegetation.

Overview of factors contributing to UHI

Increased impervious surfaces

Urban areas often have extensive impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, and rooftops, which absorb and store solar energy during the day and release it at night. This energy exchange contributes to the elevated temperatures observed in cities compared to rural areas.

Building materials with high heat absorption

Materials commonly used in urban construction, such as concrete, asphalt, and brick, possess high thermal mass, which enables them to absorb and retain heat more effectively than natural surfaces like soil and vegetation. Consequently, these materials contribute to the elevated temperatures associated with the UHI effect.

Lack of vegetation

Vegetation plays a vital role in regulating temperatures through a process known as evapotranspiration. However, urban areas tend to have less green space and tree coverage, reducing the cooling effect that vegetation provides. This absence of vegetation further exacerbates the UHI effect.

Role of human activities in exacerbating UHI

Transportation and energy consumption

Cities typically experience higher levels of transportation and energy consumption, both of which generate heat as a byproduct. This waste heat can accumulate and contribute to the UHI effect.

Waste heat generation

Industrial processes, air conditioning systems, and other human activities generate waste heat, which is released into the surrounding environment. This waste heat can further increase ambient air temperature and contribute to the UHI effect.

Relationship between climate change and UHI

While the Urban Heat Island effect and climate change are distinct phenomena, they share a complex and interconnected relationship. Climate change, driven primarily by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, results in global temperature increases. In turn, these rising temperatures can exacerbate the UHI effect by intensifying heat waves and increasing the frequency and duration of hot weather events. Moreover, the increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with UHI can further contribute to climate change, creating a feedback loop between these two pressing environmental issues.

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Examples of Urban Heat Islands

Urban Heat Islands are a global phenomenon, affecting cities and urban centres of varying sizes and geographic locations. This section will focus on London as a prime example while also highlighting other notable urban heat islands around the world.

London, UK

Why London is an urban heat island

London, as the capital and largest city of the United Kingdom, is a prime example of an urban heat island. The city’s dense population, extensive built environment, and high levels of transportation and energy consumption contribute to elevated temperatures compared to the surrounding rural areas.

Microclimate in London

Due to its UHI effect, London’s microclimate is characterized by higher temperatures, particularly during the summer months. The temperature difference between central London and its outskirts can be as much as 5-10Β°C on hot days. This microclimate can exacerbate heat-related health risks, increase energy consumption for cooling, and impact local ecosystems.

The role of pollution in London’s UHI

Air pollution, a significant issue in London, can contribute to the city’s UHI effect. Particulate matter and other pollutants can trap heat, reducing the amount of solar radiation that escapes back into space and contributing to higher air temperature.

Other examples of urban heat islands

New York City, USA

As one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the United States, New York City experiences a significant UHI effect. The city’s extensive built environment, combined with high levels of transportation and energy consumption, contributes to elevated temperatures compared to the surrounding rural areas. In New York City, the UHI effect can result in temperature differences of up to 7Β°C between urban and rural areas.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolitan area, is another notable example of an urban heat island. The city’s dense population, vast impervious surfaces, and extensive built environment result in higher temperatures compared to surrounding rural areas. Tokyo’s UHI effect has been linked to increased energy consumption for cooling, negative impacts on human health, and disruptions to local ecosystems.

Urban heat island effects

The Urban Heat Island effect has far-reaching consequences for urban environments, the urban climate, human health, and overall sustainability. This section will explore the various impacts of UHI, emphasizing the need for effective mitigation strategies.

Increased temperatures in cities compared to rural areas

As previously mentioned, the UHI effect results in elevated temperatures in urban areas compared to rural surroundings. This temperature disparity can exacerbate heat waves and contribute to extreme weather events, posing significant challenges for planning, infrastructure, and public health.

Effect on human health and wellbeing

The UHI effect can have profound implications for human health and well-being. Higher air temperature can result in heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke, and exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions, particularly among vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with chronic illnesses. Furthermore, the UHI effect can worsen air quality by increasing the production of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory issues and other health problems.

Increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

Elevated temperatures due to the UHI effect can lead to increased energy consumption, particularly for air conditioning and cooling systems during warmer months. This increased demand for energy puts a strain on urban electrical grids and contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions from power generation, further exacerbating climate change.

Implications for climate change and urban planning

The UHI effect and climate change are interconnected phenomena, with each exacerbating the other. The UHI effect can worsen the impacts of climate change on urban areas, such as more frequent and severe heatwaves, while also contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, addressing the UHI effect is an essential aspect of climate change mitigation and adaptation and sustainable planning. Urban planners must consider the UHI effect when designing infrastructure, public spaces, and transportation systems to ensure that cities remain safe, healthy, and resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Green Roofs: A Sustainable Solution

As cities grapple with the challenges posed by the Urban Heat Island effect, innovative and sustainable solutions are needed to mitigate its impacts. One such solution is the implementation of green roofs, which can significantly contribute to reducing urban temperatures while offering a host of additional benefits.

Definition and explanation of green roofs

Green roofs, also known as living roofs or vegetated roofs, involve the integration of vegetation and growing medium on building rooftops. They can range from simple, low-maintenance installations with drought-tolerant plants such as sedum and minimal growing medium to more complex systems with deeper soil layers, diverse plant species, and even integrated irrigation systems.

Benefits of green roofs

Mitigating UHI effect

Green roofs can help to mitigate the UHI effect by reducing heat absorption and promoting cooling through evapotranspiration. The vegetation on green roofs absorbs solar radiation, and the moisture stored in the growing medium evaporates, providing a cooling effect that helps to lower rooftop and ambient temperatures.

Energy efficiency and insulation

Green roofs can improve a building’s energy efficiency by providing natural insulation. The vegetation and growing medium reduce heat transfer through the roof, lowering the demand for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. This energy-saving benefit can result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and lower energy costs for occupants.

Stormwater management

Green roofs can help to manage stormwater runoff in urban areas by absorbing and retaining precipitation, reducing the volume of water that enters the city’s drainage systems. This stormwater management capability can help to alleviate pressure on urban sewer systems, reduce the risk of flooding, and improve water quality in nearby water bodies.

Biodiversity and habitat creation

Green roofs can provide valuable habitat for a variety of plant and animal species, promoting urban biodiversity and ecological connectivity. By offering a refuge for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife, green roofs can contribute to the overall health and resilience of urban ecosystems.

Examples of successful green roof implementation

Many cities around the world have embraced green roofs as a sustainable solution to mitigate the UHI effect and enhance urban livability. Some notable examples include:

The Kensington Roof Gardens in London, UK

This 6,000 square metre (65,000 sq ft) rooftop garden, situated atop a former department store, features over 100 plant species and serves as a popular event space. Kensington Roof Gardens on Wikipedia

KRG Google Earth 2020 04 11 2000x980 11
Image Credit: The Kensington Society

The ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall in Fukuoka, Japan

This iconic building features a terraced green roof with over 35,000 plants, seamlessly integrating the structure into the adjacent park.

The Javits Center in New York City, USA

The expansive green roof of this convention centre covers 6.75 acres and has become a haven for bird and insect species while also contributing to energy savings and stormwater management.

sus green roof1
Image Credit: Javits Center

You can view the live roof cam

Green Roof Infrastructure

Green roof types and components

Green roofs can be broadly categorized into two types: extensive and intensive. Extensive green roofs are characterized by shallow growing media (usually 2-6 inches deep) and low-maintenance vegetation, such as sedums and other drought-tolerant plants. On the other hand, intensive green roofs have deeper growing media (ranging from 6 inches to several feet) and can support a wider variety of plants, including trees and shrubs. Both types of green roofs comprise key components, including a waterproof membrane, root barrier, drainage layer, growing medium, and vegetation.

Green roof installation and maintenance

The installation of a green roof involves several steps, including assessing the existing roof structure, selecting appropriate materials and vegetation, and installing the various components. Proper installation is crucial to ensure the green roof’s long-term performance and durability. Maintenance requirements for green roofs will vary depending on the type and complexity of the system but typically involve periodic inspection, irrigation, fertilization, and weed control.

Integrating green roofs with other building systems

A green roof can be seamlessly integrated with other building systems to maximize its benefits and create synergies with existing infrastructure. For instance, green roofs can be combined with rooftop solar panels to enhance their energy generation efficiency, as the vegetation’s cooling effect can improve the solar cells’ performance. Additionally, green roofs can be designed to capture and store rainwater for reuse in irrigation, flushing toilets, or other non-potable applications, contributing to overall water efficiency. Capturing and using water on the roof is known as a Blue Roof.

Green roof policies and incentives

To encourage the widespread adoption of green roof infrastructure, many cities have implemented policies and incentives that promote or mandate the installation of green roofs on new and existing buildings. These may include financial incentives, such as tax credits or grants, density bonuses for developers, or building code requirements for a certain percentage of green roof coverage. By implementing such policies and incentives, cities can drive the growth of green roof infrastructure and reap the myriad benefits it offers.

Green roof research and innovation

As the popularity of green roof continues to grow, research and innovation in this field are driving the development of new materials, techniques, and plant species to improve the performance, aesthetics, and affordability of green roof systems. Research efforts are focused on optimizing the selection of growing media and vegetation to maximize cooling effects, stormwater management, and biodiversity, as well as on developing modular green roof systems that can be easily installed and maintained. This ongoing research and innovation will help to advance the green roof industry and contribute to the widespread adoption of this valuable urban heat island mitigation strategy.

Thermal and Energy Performance of Green Roofs

One of the primary reasons for installing green roofs is their ability to improve the thermal and energy performance of buildings. This section will discuss how green roofs contribute to enhanced thermal comfort and energy efficiency, ultimately contributing to a more sustainable built environment.

Insulation and temperature regulation

Green roofs act as natural insulators by providing an additional layer of insulation on the rooftop. The growing medium and vegetation work together to reduce heat transfer between the building’s interior and exterior, resulting in more stable indoor temperatures throughout the year. This thermal regulation contributes to reduced heating energy demand in winter and cooling in summer, leading to lower energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Reduced urban heat island effect

As previously discussed, green roofs help mitigate the urban heat island effect by absorbing solar radiation and cooling the surrounding air through evapotranspiration. This localized cooling effect not only reduces ambient temperatures in the immediate vicinity but also lowers the overall demand for air conditioning in nearby buildings, leading to decreased energy consumption and associated emissions.

Enhancing the performance of other building systems

The thermal and energy benefits of green roofs can be further amplified by integrating them with other building systems. For example, when combined with rooftop solar panels, green roofs can improve the efficiency of photovoltaic systems, as the cooling effect of the vegetation can help maintain optimal operating temperatures for solar cells. Similarly, green roofs can be designed to work in tandem with energy-efficient building envelopes and passive cooling strategies, such as natural ventilation and shading devices, to further optimize a building’s energy performance.

Longevity of building materials

Green roofs can also contribute to improved energy performance by extending the lifespan of roofing materials. By providing protection against direct solar radiation, temperature fluctuations, and mechanical stress, green roofs can help to reduce the rate of degradation and wear of roofing membranes. This increased durability results in lower maintenance and replacement costs, as well as reduced environmental impacts associated with the production, transportation, and disposal of roofing materials.

Quantifying thermal and energy performance

To accurately assess the performance of green roofs, various metrics and evaluation methods can be employed. These may include measuring the temperature difference between the green roof and a conventional roof, calculating energy savings through reduced heating and cooling loads, or using building energy simulation tools to model the performance of green roofs under different scenarios. Such assessments are valuable for informing the design and optimization of green roof systems, as well as for demonstrating their benefits to building owners, occupants, and policymakers.

Other Strategies for urban heat island mitigation

While green roofs offer a promising solution for mitigating the Urban Heat Island effect, a comprehensive approach to addressing UHI requires implementing additional complementary strategies. These strategies can enhance the effectiveness of green roofs, while also providing their own unique benefits.

Green and cool roofs

Green roofs and cool roofs are powerful tools in the fight against the UHI effect. Both solutions offer unique benefits, with green roofs providing natural cooling through evapotranspiration and insulation, and cool roofs reflecting solar radiation to reduce heat absorption. Combining these approaches can maximize their collective impact on urban temperatures and enhance overall urban sustainability.

Green walls

Green walls, also known as living walls or vertical gardens, are another innovative method for mitigating the Urban Heat Island effect. These installations involve growing plants on vertical surfaces, such as building facades or retaining walls, using specially designed support systems that accommodate the plants’ roots and provide necessary irrigation. Like green roofs, green walls contribute to reducing urban temperatures by absorbing solar radiation and promoting cooling through evapotranspiration. In addition to their temperature-mitigating properties, green walls offer various benefits such as improved air quality, increased building insulation, and enhanced aesthetic appeal. By incorporating green walls alongside other sustainable urban solutions, cities can further diversify their approach to combating the UHI effect and create more resilient, environmentally friendly urban spaces.

Cool pavements

Similar to cool roofs, cool pavements use reflective materials and coatings to minimize heat absorption by urban surfaces. By lowering the temperature of pavements, streets, and parking lots, cool pavements can reduce the UHI effect and improve the overall comfort and safety of urban spaces.

Urban greening and tree planting

Expanding green spaces and increasing tree coverage in urban areas can significantly contribute to mitigating the UHI effect. Trees provide shade, reduce heat absorption by impervious surfaces, and promote cooling through evapotranspiration. Moreover, urban greening initiatives can improve air quality, enhance biodiversity, and provide valuable recreational spaces for urban residents.

Improved building design and materials

Incorporating energy-efficient and climate-responsive design principles in urban architecture can help to minimize the UHI effect. This may include optimizing building orientation, using materials with lower thermal mass, and incorporating passive cooling techniques such as natural ventilation and shading devices. In addition, incorporating green building certifications, such as LEED or BREEAM, can encourage the use of sustainable materials and practices in urban construction.

Public transportation and alternative modes of transport

Promoting public transportation and alternative modes of transport, such as walking and cycling, can help to reduce the UHI effect by lowering the number of vehicles on the road, which generate heat and contribute to air pollution. Improved public transportation systems, walkable neighbourhoods, and dedicated bike lanes can encourage residents to adopt more sustainable transportation habits, reducing both urban heat and greenhouse gas emissions.

Public awareness and policy interventions

Raising public awareness about the UHI effect and the importance of sustainable urban planning is crucial for fostering widespread support for mitigation efforts. This can be achieved through educational campaigns, public events, and partnerships with local organizations. Furthermore, policy interventions, such as incentives for green roof installation, urban greening programs, and building code updates, can play a pivotal role in driving the adoption of sustainable solutions for addressing the UHI effect.


The Urban Heat Island effect presents a significant challenge for cities worldwide, with far-reaching implications for human health, environmental sustainability, and urban planning. As cities continue to grow and the impacts of climate change intensify, the need for innovative and sustainable solutions to mitigate the UHI effect becomes increasingly urgent.

Green roofs offer a promising and multifaceted solution to address the UHI effect, providing benefits such as reduced heat absorption, energy efficiency, stormwater management, and habitat creation. By combining green roofs with other complementary strategies, such as cool roofs, urban greening, improved building design, and policy interventions, cities can effectively tackle the UHI effect and enhance the resilience and sustainability of urban environments.

As awareness of the UHI effect and its consequences grows, it is crucial for stakeholders, including urban planners, policymakers, architects, and local communities, to collaborate in implementing and promoting sustainable solutions. By embracing innovative approaches like green roofs and adopting a comprehensive strategy to address the Urban Heat Island effect, cities can create healthier, more livable environments for their residents while contributing to global efforts to combat climate change.


Jonathan Gaze

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Hello there! I’m Jonathan Gaze, Content Editor for Harry Rufus.

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