3 Amazing Living Roofs in San Francisco You Can Visit Today

The tops of San Francisco’s buildings are slowly turning green. No, it’s not because of some weird chemical reaction with Karl the Fog — the change is happening because of a 2017 law that requires the newest construction in the city to incorporate solar panels and living roofs.

With the new law in place, you’re likely to start seeing many more green roofs around the city. There are tons of benefits to these living roofs, from better insulation for buildings to reduced runoff to the reduction of urban heat islands. Even before the law went into effect, several SF buildings had already incorporated green roofs into their construction.

Here are three amazing living green roofs you can see in San Francisco right now.

Cal Academy

The California Academy of Sciences has one of the most dramatic and extensive green roofs of any place in San Francisco, and indeed anywhere in the world. Defined by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, the museum’s green roof consists of several undulating domes that span 2.5 acres and include 1.7 million plants.

Photo: Courtesy Thomas Smith/Gado Images

The roof provides insulation for the museum’s building, a habitat for local wildflowers and animals, and opportunities to research green roof technologies.

You can see the Cal Academy’s green roof by visiting the museum and taking the elevators up to a special observation platform at roof level. It’s an awesome chance to get up close and personal with the roof, and also has lovely views of Golden Gate Park. The museum has regular programs focused on the roof as well, including stargazing experiences.

You can get tickets for the museum on Viatour.

California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC)

When Sutter Health’s CPMC did a total redesign of their San Francisco hospital in 2019, they built in all kinds of eco-friendly features. Among those are five green roofs totaling 25,000 square feet, right in the urban heart of the city near Van Ness (one of which is pictured above.)

Clever sundial sign on the green roof. Credit Thomas Smith/Gado Images

The Elizabeth C Peters garden is a great example. It’s a living roof flanking and partially concealing the normal air conditioning compressors and other infrastructure found on any urban rooftop. A clever metal cutout casts the name of the garden across the roof, sundial-style, at high noon.

The roof hosts native plants and is designed to be a habitat for pollinators and monarch butterflies. It’s also a healing vista for the hospital’s patients. This is a great example of the more functional, utilitarian green roofs we’re likely to see sprouting up around the city as new buildings are constructed.

STEM Kitchen and Garden

STEM Kitchen and Garden in Mission Bay doesn’t just host a green roof — it puts that roof to work. The trendy restaurant grows all kinds of veggies and fruits in an active garden on its green roof.

Gardens on the green roof at STEM. Photo credit Thomas Smith/Gado Images

The produce and herbs are used in food and cocktails at STEM. Every dish on the menu uses at least one item grown on the green roof, and some dishes are up to 80% grown on site. The roof produces at least 30 pounds of produce per week from a 1/4 acre.

STEM’s name is a play on words. It’s located in a building hosting advanced biotech startups and UCSF, all examples of the application of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. But the “stem” also reflects the idea of a plant stem, emphasizing its focus on plant-based, roof-grown ingredients.

The high-tech green roof at STEM is maintained by an independent urban agriculture firm. It’s semi-public, so you can grab a cocktail at STEM (as many hard-working science types seem to do after a long day at the lab) and wander through STEM’s living garden, or play a game of bocce ball on a rooftop court. The living roof also has lovely views of the Bay. It’s a great example of creating ambiance and creating food from urban spaces that would otherwise go to waste.

San Francisco’s living roof rules are an awesome step towards further greening of our city. In addition to encouraging living roofs, the new regulations also encourage solar and other creative uses of urban roof space.

Building new units in San Francisco is hard. But as buildings go up and housing and other spaces are added, each will now be topped with a green space like these three pioneering examples.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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