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Plants, grass on the rooftop? No longer an oddity.

With grants and other incentives, Chicago leads the nation in installing green roofs.

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In the center of downtown Chicago lies an oasis of green.

Monarch butterflies flit past little bluestem. Bees fly from prairie clover to purple coneflowers. A small hawthorn tree rises from a mound.

The expanse of native plants and grasses isn't a park, but the top of City Hall, the premier green roof in a city that is making green building a civic cornerstone.

Six years ago, when Mayor Richard Daley had the roof installed, it was an oddity. Today, more than 200 green roofs in the city have been constructed or are under way, covering some 2-1/2 million square feet of tar with plants – by far the most of any American city.

Now other cities, hoping to cool and clean their air and help with storm drainage, are beginning to emulate Chicago, and the city is taking key steps to encourage – and in some cases require – private developers to follow City Hall's example.

Chicago's City Council just announced a pilot program that will provide up to $100,000 in matching funds for developers who retrofit existing downtown buildings with green roofs, out of a $500,000 pool of financing. Last year, the city began awarding small $5,000 grants to smaller projects, many residential. A green permitting process is designed to expedite requests. And Chicago has started requiring green roofs on new buildings that receive city financing.

"You look down on the prime real estate areas of this country – downtown Chicago, Manhattan – and so much is unutilized, all these rooftops," says Sadhu Johnston, Chicago's environment commissioner. The green-roof push, he says, is just one piece of a larger plan for the city that has included adding hundreds of thousands of trees, increasing energy efficiency, and replacing some traffic lanes with planted medians. "It's about a comprehensive strategy of making Chicago a better place to live."


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