Rooftops became a life saver during the pandemic, but one group didn’t need Covid to tell them that
Want to go beyond the border? See what’s over the wall? Glimpse new horizons? Then go up – up to the rooftops of the city!
During the pandemic, rooftops were a huge boon. Suddenly, these dead, underutilised spaces became havens for those unable to leave their apartment building. There was rooftop yoga, with those overlooking an instructor’s rooftop class following along from their balconies and windows. There were exercise classes, and tennis games held high above the empty streets. And gardens sprang up on our cities’ rooftops, as people brought the outdoor experience home. Unable to go down, we went up. And our roofs became sanctuaries.
“In the lockdowns, urban roofs were a blessing,” explains Marina Kyriakou. “A lot of people started using this formerly dead space when they couldn’t get out of their building: the rooftops across Europe became a place of refuge for thousands.”
Marina is an expert on rooftops. The Project Manager for European Creative Rooftop Network (ECRN), she and her colleagues were conducting in-depth studies on rooftop usage long before we’d heard of Covid-19. “In 2017, Urban Gorillas held a rooftop event connecting two roofs in the north and south of the city,” she reveals. “The idea was a symbolic breaking of the borders: making both sides of the city accessible to everyone.”
Using binoculars and technology, the group – an interdisciplinary team of urban enthusiasts who aim to activate community spaces – joined the two rooftops in an effort to “see the whole city as a whole. From street level you can see very little of the city, and you’re hampered by the border – ultimately, you’re always going to reach a dead end,” Marina explains. “But get higher, and the borders disappear; suddenly, you’re able to view the city in its entirety.”
This initial event soon led to similar undertakings, and saw the launch of the Nicosia chapter of ECRN. Working with residents from nine other European cities (including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Faro, and Gothenburg), Marina and colleagues began a more intense study of the higher reaches – all with a view to embracing the potential of urban roofscapes.
“As well as dissolving borders and providing a united view of the city skyline, rooftops offer an untapped level of cultural, creative and social space,” says Marina. “As an organisation, Urban Gorillas focuses on public spaces such as streets, parks and squares as places of community interaction. But under ECRN, we began looking more closely at another underutilised open space, the capital’s rooftops…”
In spring 2021, the group began mapping Nicosia’s rooftops, making a careful study of those which were already promoting creative events and cultural efforts, and those which had untapped potential. “Each of the nine cities in the project had to map at least nine rooftops,” Marina explains. “And that included directly visiting the site, finding out how it was being used, and discussing its potential. There were a number of rooftops,” she adds, “which were already being well utilised – the 10.10 Hall for example, had a telescope on the roof and held frequent star gazing events; the Home for Cooperation used their roof for yoga and cultural events.
“But many rooftops,” she continues, “were merely dead space: unused, unexploited, and often packed with ugly machinery. And yet – as we’ve seen during the pandemic – there’s so much potential there; so many advantages to the fact that our city’s rooftops offer an elevated, quieter perspective in the midst of a densely populated area. These rooftops could be the incubator of creative solutions for the social, economic, and environmental challenges faced by Europe in the near future.”
Supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Commission, the ECRN has gone on to host several events promoting the usage of urban rooftops, including a number of engagement events aimed at the city’s youth.
“We’ve held events with primary school students, including one in which we asked them to imagine how the city’s rooftops might be used in the future. Their drawings,” she smiles, “were wonderful! We’ve also hosted an urban entrepreneurship workshop at the University of Cyprus, in which we invited students to conceive and present their ideas on entrepreneurial activities related to rooftops,” Marina adds. “And one important suggestion was that schools could create their own gardens on their roofs.
“Cyprus has very few green rooftops,” she notes, “and this is something we plan to work on in the project. We’re learning a lot about greening our roofs from our colleagues in partner cities: climate, architecture, people, and needs differ greatly. And though we may not be able to replicate what’s being done in more northerly cities, we’re starting conversations about appropriate rooftop usage in Nicosia: using rooftops for sustainability activities such as community gardens, which would stabilise buildings’ temperature, improve energy consumption, increase health and self-sufficiency, and even boost the social aspect of citizens.”
In 2022, the group plan to further their activities through an exchange of knowledge: inviting foreign artists to rooftop residencies, hosting rooftop concerts and similar events to increase awareness, and liaising with authorities to open up the roofs of public buildings.
“We hope to persuade more public buildings such as libraries and town halls to allow access to their rooftops for events and activities such as concerts and gatherings, and encourage private buildings to rethink the way their roofs are used,” Marina suggests. “It may not be easy,” she suggests. “Across any city, there are different levels of ownership and privacy when it comes to our rooftops. But the potential is incredible – we’ve seen that during the pandemic…
“And by opening up new rooftops, we can change the way people perceive our city: we’re going up to look further; improving urban communities by utilising what was – for years – only seen as dead space. Go up,” she concludes, “and along with new horizons, you’ll discover a new land!”