Of grazing goats and green rooftops – practical solutions to fire and heat

While a great many high tech ideas are bounced around from time to time in terms of dealing with climate change, some simpler – and old – low tech ideas help reduce fire and urban heat, while providing other benefits to communities as well. 

I was reminded of this by two stories I read this past week.

Cairo rooftop gardens.Photo by Egyptian Streets

YES Magazine had a story about how rooftop gardens can help keep cities cooler – even in one of the world’s hottest cities, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. A study there showed that indoor air temperatures in buildings with rooftop gardens were as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than those without gardens, even during the warmest hours of the day.

And because plants can remove ozone and pollutants from the air, air quality may be healthier there, too. Outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year, most in low- and middle-income countries, and researchers say that in Cairo, an estimated 19% of non-accidental deaths in people over the age of 30 – 20,000 a year – result from long-term exposure to two common air pollutants.   

Informal or ‘squatter’ settlements are most vulnerable to rising temperatures, ultraviolet radiation, and air pollution, in part because they lack access to green space. “Some areas in informal settlements have zero square meters per inhabitant of green space,” says Abdallah Tawfic, co-founder of Cairo-based organization Urban Greens

His organization, founded in 2018, partners with sponsors to provide hydroponic gardening supplies to low-income families for free and sells the same supplies to other customers. Urban Greens hopes new projects in Upper Egypt and a website called the “Urban Greens’ Network” will inspire more Egyptian city dwellers to begin gardening.

In 2019, Egypt’s Ministry of Environment launched a nationwide green-roof initiative to encourage planting roofs of buildings and facilities. Earlier, Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal had introduced an initiative to plant gardens on the rooftops of Cairo’s buildings, as part of the governorate’s sustainable development plan.

In Bangladesh, Green Savers has worked on more than 5,000 rooftop gardens since 2010. “We don’t have the space to plant trees, but we have 500,000 rooftops capable of taking the load of a rooftop garden,” says its founder, Ahsan Rony. Green Savers was created simply to fill the city with green roofs and teach citizens to care about the environment around them, he says.

While most of its projects are in Dhaka, it also has expanded to Cox’s Bazar and Sylhet. In response to Bangladesh’s high youth unemployment rate, Green Savers has hired and trained young people as “plant doctors” to tend to rooftop gardens.

Rooftop gardens, of course, also provide food and income. Schaduf, another Cairo-based organization working in urban green solutions and agriculture, establishes rooftop gardens in which Egyptian and migrant families in informal neighborhoods grow gourmet leafy greens and herbs. Schaduf connects them with upscale supermarkets so they can get the best possible price.

Cairo Climate Talks, 2015

The company name refers to an ancient irrigation tool that lifts water to irrigation canals. Schaduf was founded by two brothers, Sherif and Tarek Hosny, after they volunteered on a farm in Louisiana in 2010. They started as a small-scale rooftop farming endeavor but have grown into a design and technology hub with innovations in landscape architecture, farming, vertical gardening, and sustainability driven products and services across the Middle East and Africa.

All three organizations run community workshops and school programs. “We found that kids are really interested,” Rony says. Many students, after learning about rooftop gardens in school, have convinced their parents to research them further. 

While more significant interventions will be needed as temperatures rise, these small urban agriculture initiatives are a good place to start. Another good place to start was outlined in a Civil Eats story about how one California city has decided to use grazing animals to lower fire risk in a local open space preserve.

Healdsburg, which is located about an hour north of San Francisco, now has a herd of 150 goats grazing in 90 acres of grass and woodland areas around Fitch Mountain. By eating down the grasses and shrubs that would act as fuel for wildfires – known as “ladder fuels” – the goats reduce the potential that burning ground cover could spread to the trees. Healdsburg has seen major wildfires to the east and the west in recent years. The herd is managed by a local family-run business called Chasin Goat Grazing.

Goats in Sonoma County. Caltrans photo.

“We need to create defensible space for residents that live around the mountain: If the preserve catches fire, it will cast embers down into the city,” Healdsburg Fire Marshal Linda Collister told Civil Eats. Having animals do the work has several benefits, she says. “It’s steep terrain and we would worry about injuries to firefighters. They eat the fuels, whereas we would have to make all that material into chips to burn, which we can’t really do so close to peoples’ homes. Plus, they are aesthetically pleasing—everyone loves the animals.”

And just like the rooftop gardens in Egypt and Bangladesh, public education is an important component of the project. There are plans for a potential youth training program in partnership with a local Future Farmers of America chapter. 

For California communities that don’t have a handy nearby goat herd, there’s now a list of available herds. Last fall, University of California’s Extension in Sonoma  launched an online mapping tool called match.graze, which allows landowners and ranchers to make profiles and connect with one another. California is the second state to offer the online matching tool. The South Dakota Soil Health Coalition developed a similar mapping website for South Dakota in 2018 with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Coordinator Cindy Zenk hopes the model spreads nationwide.

Sources:

Connecting Ranchers with Land Stewards Could Be Key to Less Disastrous Wildfires. Civil Eats, Jul. 8 2021

400 Goats In Sonoma County For US Hwy 101 Fire Prevention Mission. Patch, Jul 20, 2020

Cooler, Cleaner Megacities, One Rooftop Garden at a Time. YES Magazine, Jul 8 2021

Ahsan Rony Green Savers. BBC. Mar. 18, 2017.