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Blurring The Boundaries


Architects, planners and we as residents have control over our built environment and have the power to reinvent the role of greenery within our towns and cities. By changing how we design and live in places and buildings, we have the ability to make our urban landscape more liveable.

Broadly speaking, integrating nature can be thought of in three different ways. We can use sustainably harnessed energy and implement energy efficiencies (by applying passive design techniques for example). We can reduce and prevent localised pollution, including indoor air quality, by using sustainable materials. We can harmonise the built and broader environment by considering our dependencies on ecosystem services and how best to protect and restore them.

From an urban planning perspective, “green infrastructure” is a catch-all term to describe the network of natural and semi-natural features within and between our villages, towns and cities. These features range in scale, from street trees, green roofs and private gardens through to parks and woodlands. In addition, blue infrastructure refers to the water elements where we live, from ponds to rivers and canals. Increasingly, designing and remaking more resilient and healthier places involves blending more of this blue-green infrastructure with traditional grey infrastructure.

Once our ingenuity takes hold, the sky’s the limit. Literally. In an urbanised world where land is being used for settlement, we need to be inventive in creating large areas for tree growing within cities and in peri-urban regions. Vertical construction has proven to be an efficient way of creating more homes and offices while keeping the footprint relatively small, with buildings rising into the sky rather than spreading along the ground. This precedent has been applied in Milan, where Milanesi have expanded their urban green space by creating two “vertical forests”. Not far from the busy Garibaldi train station, a couple of residential tower blocks have been covered in eight hundred trees, five thousand shrubs and fifteen thousand plants. If all these plants were in the ground instead of in the sky, they would cover twenty thousand square metres.

Similar projects have been commissioned in Switzerland, the Netherlands and China, as other cities take up the lead. The most ambitious proposal is Chinese, where the Liuzhou Forest City will have seventy buildings cascading with foliage. This new town will be home to thirty thousand people, with buildings covered by forty thousand trees and one million plants. A forward-thinking city where trees outnumber people. These vertical forests are expected to absorb almost ten thousand tons of carbon dioxide and fifty-seven tons of pollutants per year.

Such ingenuity is not the exclusive domain of visionary architects or progressive urban planners. Residents can be ingenious too, by creating improvised vertical forests on the balconies of apartment buildings. Championed by a few individuals within the building, co-ordinated action creates a façade that absorbs carbon dioxide and other airborne toxins. In buildings without balconies, residents get together instead to grow vibrant roof gardens and parklets in the sky.

The list of benefits to our wellbeing from connecting to, rather than disconnecting from, nature where we live is comprehensive and well documented. In blurring the boundaries, more of these benefits are brought closer to home.

Original article published on LinkedIn on June 5, 2020.

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