Seed Money Project Highlight: Interdisciplinary research and education at roof garden VU

Interview with Dr Ralph Lasage.

12/04/2020 | 2:34 PM

Sippora Zoutewelle interviews Dr Ralph Lasage on the subject ‘Interdisciplinary research and education at roof garden VU’.

What was your motivation to apply for ASI seed money?
In AdValvas there was an article about the plans for a roof garden at the VU in partnership with the municipality of Amsterdam, which has the ambition to create 25,000 m2 of green roofs by the end of 2020. I decided to approach the people that were involved in the planning of this project and showed interest to participate in the project. The idea is that green roofs are designed in a way that they reduce peak flow toward the sewerage system during heavy rainfall and retain the water to cool the surrounding area in summertime. Additionally, the roof garden should have a positive effect on the local air quality. I was curious to find out if the green roofs are as beneficial and multifunctional as they promise to be. Therefore, I, along with colleagues from different disciplines, submitted a project proposal at ASI. The aim was to explore the impact of the green roof and investigate whether the green roof could be turned into an experimental site for students.

Your team is quite diverse. What is the link with the Faculty of Humanities?
Yes, it is. Our team consists of researchers from the Institute of Earth and Climate, Environmental Studies, Systems Ecology and Environmental Humanities. Working with Petra van Dam, board member at the Environmental Humanities Center, enabled us to place the green roof and its ability to store and use rainwater, in a historical context of rainwater use in Amsterdam.

Can you share some insights with regard to your project? What are the highlights and main findings?
Since our team was involved with the development of the green roof from the start, we had the chance to give input from a scientific viewpoint. For example, we suggested that a mix of local plants should be used on the roof, instead of exotic plants. Local plants attract insects and improve biodiversity. Since the same mix of plants was also used on other buildings at The Zuidas, the habitat of local insects and birds immediately expanded. In addition to deciding the plant mix, we also helped finalizing the company that was going to landscape the green roof and guided this company on making room to install measuring instruments on the roof.

What do you use the measuring instruments for?
Well, the roof functions as a living lab. The North and South side of the roof have ferns and heather. Students from the ecology department can use these plants to conduct experiments: e.g. which plants grow better in the shadow and which ones perform better in the sun? Also, measuring equipment was installed to monitor the air quality. Since we were involved in the whole process, we could measure the air quality prior to and after landscaping the green roof.

And, is the air quality better now?   
At the moment there is not much difference, but once the plants start to grow in spring, this will probably change.

What challenges did you encounter along the way?
The project was supposed to be executed before the summer of 2019, in the end it happened in September 2019, so there was a bit of a delay.

What are the next steps?
Firstly, we really hope that the new VU campus also gets a green roof, so if this happens we will be involved there as well. As mentioned earlier, students will use the green roof to conduct experiments. Moreover, Petra and I gave guest lectures to each other’s students, with the aim to decrease the distance between disciplines and will continue doing so. We want students from social sciences and natural sciences to learn from each other. They will get the opportunity to focus their thesis around the green roof. Subsequently, thesis presentations of students from Environmental Humanities and Earth & Economy will happen simultaneously. All in all, many interesting collaborations between researchers and students of different disciplines have come out of this project.

The next call for ASI Seed Money Projects will open soon. Do you have any recommendations for researchers that are looking to apply?
Every member of our team was very enthusiastic about the project and continued being involved in all phases of the project. So, I think it is important to choose a subject that you are enthusiastic about. Intrinsic motivation really is the key to success, especially when you are working with researchers from different disciplines.

Link to YouTube video of roof garden: