Gary Comer Youth Center-Rooftop Haven for Urban Agriculture, South Chicago, IL



Gary Comer Youth Center

Location: Greater Grand Crossing, South Chicago, IL

Climate Zone: Humid Continental Climate

Scale: Building-Rooftop

Area (sq. ft): 8,160 (roof area)/5,800 (cultivated area)

Production: o.454 tons/year  (1,000 lbs/year, 0.12lb/sq.ft)

System: Surface Bed & Irrigation System

Growing Season: Apr. 20-Oct. 24, 187 days

Designer: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

Contractor: W.E. O’Neil Construction Co. & Walsh Landscape Construction, Inc.

Client: Gary Comer Youth Center

Year: 2003~2006               Cost: NA, $35 M in total

Data Source: Gundula Proksch, Urban Rooftops as Productive Resources-Rooftop Farming versus Conventional Green Roofs. On Measurement. page 497-509. University of Washington, Seattle, WA

plan1111-01      2

source: Google Map

1.0 Background of Case Study:

The Gary Comer Youth Center Roof Garden is an after-school learning space for youth and seniors in a neighborhood with little access to safe outdoor environments. Sleek and graphic, it turns the typical working vegetable garden into a place of beauty and respite.

According to Frazer’s “Paving Paradise”, roofs cover up to more than 30% of cities and built-up areas. Gary Comer Youth Center farm as a rooftop farm, which is a good example on reinventing the underutilized urban areas. Besides the food production and environmental benefits it provides, the farm is really outstanding for the educational function of urban agriculture/outdoor farming for the community.



The project is located within Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood at south Chicago, the area is in the southeast corner of Chicago’s 5th Ward, a ward which includes the University of Chicago and Jackson Park in the north, but also a series of less affluent neighborhoods in the south. There were a large number of vacant lots created holes in the residential fabric over the past few decades, in last ten years, residential development by CSEF has filled in many of these spaces with new construction.

The region lies within the humid continental climate zone, and experiences four distinct seasons. Summer are warm to hot and often humid, and winter are cold and snowy with few sunny days, which put certain limitations on year round growing length.



The conversation to build the whole structure can be traced back to 2003, Gary Comer hired architect John Ronan to work on upgrades to the school building, and later to discuss a new home for South Shore Drill Team, which is an awarding-winning organization that provide youth development activities, then the conversation quickly expanded to a community center for youth. Therefore, the outdoor farm has been integrated to the project and became a great educational resource for the community.

“This project is so simple and straightforward and is clearly a good collaboration between landscape architect and architect. It is redeeming.”
 —2010 ASLA Professional Awards Jury

1.1 Stakeholders



Stakeholder Relationship, Source: Chun&Lu

The rooftop farm is a part of a community oriented development, which serves less affluent neighborhoods around. As a result, the project involved numerous stakeholders in the development process, including major fund provider Comer Science and Education Foundation(CSEF), who also lead the development for the youth center. Also, including some neighborhood organizations who tenant in the building, including Gary Comer College Prep (GCCP), South Shore Drill Team (South Shore Drill Team), etc.

The Stakeholders are:Comer Science and Education Foundation, Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep, South Shore Drill Team, Gary Comer, Inc., Department of Housing and Economic Development, ACCESS Community Health Network, Free Spirit Media, Paul Revere Elementary School, Revere C.A.R.E, South Oakwood-Brookhaven Neighbors Organization, City of Chicago, Community members, etc.

1.2 Policies

“Seeding the City” – Land Use Law

Communities can support, promote, and preserve urban agriculture through land use laws. Land use policies can assist in securing access to and ensuring the preservation of land for agricultural uses. Zoning regulations can ensure that agriculture occurs in suitable locations and under the proper conditions. But there is no one-size-fits-all urban agricultural land use policy. Urban areas vary in availability of land for agriculture, population density, soil suitability, and resident interest. This toolkit sets forth a framework and model language for urban agriculture land use policies that communities can tailor to their particular context and needs.


1.3 Crop Production



The surface beds’ soil is about 18–24 inches deep which allows for viable food production, including cabbage, sunflowers, carrots, lettuce, strawberries and etc.

Seasonal Planting:

Besides the crops grow during the regular season, including a wide variety of baby salad greens, Mâche, unique mesclun mixes, spinach, and herbs, etc. The unique micro-climate of the rooftop garden combined with row covers creates a year-round growing season. On a sunny winter day it’s 20 degrees warmer up on the roof than in a ground-level garden. A sample list of all-year round rooftop crops would include:

Fall Mesclun Mix: Tasoi Mustard, Mibuna Mustard, Bull’s Blood Beet Greens, Red Deer Tongue     6Lettuce, Red Salad Bowl Lettuce, Parris Island Cos Lettuce, Forellenschluss Lettuce, Rouge d’Hiver Lettuce, Winter Bloomsdale Spinach

Greens Mix: Red Giant, Early Mizuna, Tatsoi, Red Russian Kale and Arugula

Herbs (fresh/dried): Basil, chives, cilantro, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme

Lettuce Mix: Dark Lollo Rossa, Firecracker, Red Salad Bowl, Tango, Parris Island and others

Lettuces (baby heads/leaf): Winter Density, Red Salad Bowl

Mâche: Vit

1.4 Design and System 



Source:Chun Zheng

The diagrams illustrate the circulation in the garden, irrigation system and the water draining system.One of the beat part of the is the giant skylights that shone down into the building, helping to establish a physical and mental connection down below at the cafeteria to the outside world.




Source:Lu Zhu

1.5 Benefits

Gary Comer Youth Center rooftop farm creates three major aspects of benefits for the community as follows:

  • 1.5.1 Food Production
  • 1.5.2 Social & Economic benefits
  • 1.5.3 Environmental benefits

1.5.1 Food Production

The farm produces 1,000lbs of fruits and vegetables annually, that is 0.12lb/sq. ft. Food from the rooftop feeds 175 children at the center each day, and is distributed among four local restaurants, and sells in local farmers market.



The annual yield is based on the amount of food harvested in 2009 and 2010. The 2009 yield and number of distribution points including the number of lunches provided each day were reported in the Summer, 2009 publication of Edible Chicago, posted July 22, 2009 by editor, Ann Flood. ( d is sold at a local farmers market.)

The rooftop functions as an outdoor classroom, enriching a variety of mathematics, horticultural, culinary and business courses.Also, it provides a diverse educational platform, with approximately 600 students and community members ages 8 to over 80, participating in the garden learning programs and activities throughout the year.

In the farm, children can plant and harvest vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs, and grasses as part of a comprehensive educational program developed by the center’s Garden Manager. They learn about the seed-to-harvest cycle, the green roof, botany, cooking, and the processes of nurturing growth, and environmental concerns in the garden.

Source: Job Creation

With the development of the rooftop farm, employment opportunities were created through the food processing industry, farm management, and the educators of urban agriculture professionals, etc. Community Engagement

The farm only has 1 full-time, 2 part-time employees, who are students. Therefore, most of the time, it’s supported by volunteers. In this way, it provides more opportunities for community engagement and bring community people together to grow social capital for the region.


Additionally, with the physical engagement with the outdoor farming, students become entwined with the planting, growing, and harvesting process, their lifestyles become ingrained with healthy eating habits. They become anxious to sample the fresh fruits and vegetables they help grow. Economic

With the help of rooftop farm, the structure saves $250 in annual heating and cooling costs as compared to a conventional roof by moderating heat gain and loss. (Participation numbers are gathered from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration’s Spring 2011 Report, Grand Vision by Charles Whitakker. Easement

Adding to the environmental sustainability of the site, the rooftop farm’s surface bed could ease the stormwater runoff during the rain event, it absorbs rainwater rather than directly diverting it to city sewers. This helps to reduce water pollution and the likelihood of urban flooding. Also, the green rooftop help reduce the urban heat island effect significantly and offset building’s carbon emission. Efficiency

The most important benefit of the farm is the ecological influence, including:

  • Reducing small scale urban heat island effect
  • Creating micro climate for farming environment
  • Sequestering CO2 emissions
  • Cooling air temperature

Source(left):Chun Zheng     


Studies on the roof have shown that the microclimate in the rooftop courtyard averages temperatures between 20-30 degrees F warmer on the roof in winter and 10 degrees F cooler in summer. The garden maximizes two heat sources, ambient heat from the building and solar energy, which allows for gardening nearly all year.

Sharp differences between ground temperatures and those on the roof mean that the rooftop is in a different climate zone and can be utilized throughout the winter. The resulting garden, only three years old, is still evolving.

Energy savings for the intensive green roof design are calculated using a Green Roof Calculator developed by the Portland State University Green Building Research Laboratory. The estimated savings of 642.58 kWH and 156.53 Therms, generates an annual savings of $248.80.

2 Possible implications

2.1 Green roofs occasionally fail to perform at the level for which they were designed. Potential failures include leaks, plant loss, inadequate drainage, soil erosion and slope instability.Roof landscaping may change snow drift patterns, seismic loads, and ponding from rain accumulation; these changes may be in excess of typical or previous design allowances.

2.2 The green roof environment is especially harsh compared with on-grade conditions, and not all plants are able to successfully establish on green roofs. It still needs care to make sure that the plants are covered in winter.

3 Conclusion

Beside being able to withstand enthusiastic children digging for potatoes and carrots with garden tools, the green roof reduces negative climate effects and providing an outdoor classroom. The benefits of the farm should be valued in every way.


[9] Dunnett, N.P. and Kingsbury, N. 2004. Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls. Timber Press: Portland, OR
[10] Getter, K.L. and Rowe, B. 2006. The Role of Extensive Green Roofs in Sustainable Development. HortScience. 41(5): 1276-85.
[11] Mentens, J., Raes, D. and Hermy, M. 2006. Green roofs as a tool for solving the rainwater runoff problem in the urbanized 21st century? Landscape and Urban Planning. 77 (3): 217-226.
[12]SC-10-25, Final Report -12-25-B-0921, From Rooftop to Tabletop: Gardening at the Gary Comer Youth Center, Dec. 2012, P403

Group member: Chun Zheng, Lu Zhu, Ankita Patel


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