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How to Create Your Own Rooftop Oasis

NEW YORK CITY — Rooftops are the city's equivalent of the suburban backyard — a place where apartment dwellers can go for cookouts and outdoor fun.

And residents are making the most of their space, turning them into oases with plants, grills and other things more often found in gardens.

"The more pioneering way to set your rooftop is to set up a rope hammock," according to Alex Maclean, author of "Up On The Roof: New York's Hidden Skyline Spaces," an extensive photographic book dedicated to how New Yorkers use their rooftops.

Maclean, 65, an architect turned pilot and photographer, took more than 3,500 photos of roofs while flying around New York in a light plane and in a helicopter. The book features his best 191 images of what's happening on top of New York's buildings.

Author, photographer, and pilot Alex MacLean, whose latest book about New York's hidden rooftop spaces is called "Up On The Roof".
Author, photographer, and pilot Alex MacLean, whose latest book about New York's hidden rooftop spaces is called "Up On The Roof".
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Alex MacLean

"From street level, you have no idea what is up there," MacLean said of New York's rooftops, which account for about 30 percent of the outdoor space of New York City.

The most common uses of the space that MacLean noted was the thoughtful addition of potted plants, lawn chairs, paddle pools and artificial grass (see below for a starters guide to creating a rooftop oasis).

"You'd do it depending on your time horizon, and start off small and grow bigger with time," he advises novice rooftop pioneers.

So why does New York have such interesting rooftops? The city has a well documented shortage of open space, its buildings tend to have flat roofs, and in certain neighborhoods there is the money needed to transform rooftops into useful, and often beautiful, recreational space, MacLean said.

"In the lower income areas you see people settling the roofs on a modest budget, either rolling out the astroturf so they don't damage the roof surface, and setting up the lawn chairs," he said, "right up to the most incredible rooftops on the Upper East Side, that are just very elaborate, no expense spared."

Rooftop use is not new — New York's museums, bars, schools, and hotels are all using them differently — but Maclean believes a few factors have led to a renewed interest in using the space on top of our buildings more efficiently — the success of Chelsea's High Line and the advent of Google Earth.

According to MacLean, more and more rooftop spaces are now visible due to Google Earth, which has also prompted a generation of graffiti artists to tackle these otherwise unseen spaces, to show their art to the world.

It was by using Google Earth that MacLean got the idea for the book — he spotted a building in Tudor City that he said looked like a castle, and he wanted to photograph it.

"If rooftops do become much in demand, as people start to appreciate the value, you’ll start to see people willing to go to much cheaper apartments if they have rooftop access, and that will ensure a more diverse income group which will result in a more diverse neighborhood," MacLean said.

Claiming your own space can be as simple as throwing down a picnic blanket amid the graffiti and thereby owning the roof, as one of the unwitting subjects does in MacLean's book.

"Just the fact that she is utilizing it, she's claimed that space," he said.

"I think that's pretty special."


To create a rooftop escape of your own, start with some kind of grass-like surface, a potted plant, a lawn chair and perhaps a water feature, MacLean suggests.

An inflatable wading pool will set you back about $22 at Kmart.

There are a huge variety of synthetic grasses on the market, which you can buy by the foot and have cut to order. For a permanent effect, glueing and covering with sand is the way to go, but you’ll need to check the adhesive wont damage the roof surface — that is, if you have permission to do so.

A less permanent, and cheaper, option is something like a 6 foot by 8 foot artificial grass rug, which you can roll up if you are packing up your oasis in the fall. It costs around $18 from Lowes.

For your potted plant, choose something that is heat resistant and needs little soil. What variety you choose will depend upon your individual rooftop conditions — shade, wind, heat and so on. Options to consider include potted palms, azaleas and succulents such as aloe vera.

Beach chairs are available at most hardware stores, for $24 at Kmart. Or you can go slightly more upmarket with a plastic Adirondack-style chair, $63 from Kmart — just consider your winter storage options.

Rooftop images courtesy of "Up on the Roof" by Alex MacLean (Princeton Architectural Press).