Can you imagine fancy living in 38 acres of forest?
One option would be to live in the bush – though “fancy” may not be the word for such a lifestyle.
For residents of Milan, however, another is to live in one of two towers in the Bosco Verticale – a 38-acre urban forest rising up the wall of two apartment blocks encompassing 750 full size trees, 5,000 scrubs and 11,000 perennials. This forest soaks up around 1,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, and the vegetation creates such privacy that curtains are not needed. Residents instead peer out into their forest in the sky. Kitchens and living rooms thus feel larger.
As cities grow, buildings like this serve as an example of broader trends which are bringing landscaping and nature back into the urban environment. At the recent Green Cities event in Melbourne, renowned horticulturalist, author and TV show host and producer Jamie Durie said a push to embed more nature and landscaping into urban living began around 15 years ago and has been firmly established.
“Twenty years ago, the landscape architect would be over here, the architect would be over here, the architect would come up with a plan and we were left with the skerricks that were left over and were happy to greenify whatever is left over on the floorplan,” he said.
“These days, I am proud to say that there is a more collaborative approach. We are getting better buildings for it and a much more effective result not just for the people who live in these places but importantly for our planet as well.”
According to Durie, trends are evident in several areas.
First, there are vegetable gardens, which are not only producing fresh food but also promoting a sense of community by bringing people into a common space in which they can interact.
Next, the prominence of rooftop gardens has grown with improved technology and outdoor furniture. Vertical rather than lateral plants are also being used to make way for outdoor living. In places such as New York, this is cooling urban heat islands. In some cities, people are placing beehives on rooftops and using pollen rich plants to help bee populations recover in areas where urban development has otherwise deprived bees of natural habitat Durie said.
Also growing are school kitchen gardens. Since commencing in 2004, for example, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation has put 1,603 school kitchen gardens in primary schools, high schools and early learning centres around the nation.
Further, edible plants are being used for architectural functions which are often achieved through ornamentals. Parsley makes fantastic borders, for example. Artichokes make good accent plants. Peaches, apples and pears can be used as hedges. Blueberries can be used as dividers. By using these instead of some ornamental plants, Durie says we can expand the urban food bowl without sacrificing architectural effects.
Next, there are vertical gardens. These, Durie are not simply systems which we attach to walls and grow up facades but also require intelligent selection of the plant themselves. Ficus pumila will attach itself to the building and climb its way up the exterior, he said. Boston Ivy will do likewise and provide deciduous cover.
It is important, Durie said, not just to create a system but to consider whether the building itself can stand what the plants will do to it.
In one case in Atlanta, Durie says a vertical garden was made entirely from herbs from which a chef feeds his patrons every day.
Interesting products are being developed to achieve this. One system which Durie himself developed is a vertical garden ‘blanket’. Constructed of recycled plastic bottles, it features a waterproof membrane at the back, 22 pockets which sit on the front and a drip irrigation system which runs through every pocket to ensure the pocket remains dry. Indicators which can be inserted into these can be used to monitor moisture levels – irrigation switching itself on only when required.
Vertical gardens, Durie said, are a wonderful way in which to greenify urban spaces. By growing tomatoes, carrots and other plants in such spaces, he says we can boost urban food production growing space by 40 per cent.
Finally, Durie talks about adding interest through changing of levels and compartmentalisation. Where people can view entire spaces, he says this creates a sense of monotony. Breaking the landscape up, by contrast, promotes intrigue and encourages people to ‘discover’ the space.
One strategy to achieve a change of level, Durie says, is sunken gardens. These were popular in the 1970s and are now making a comeback.
Beyond outdoors, Durie talks about a push toward indoor plants. Vertical gardens, for example, are now coming inside actual buildings.
This is not just about aesthetics but also well-being. One medium-sized plant in a medium-sized room can improve indoor air quality by 25 per cent, Durie says. Five plants can do so by 75 per cent.
As cities grow, inner urban landscaping is becoming increasingly important.
With strategies referred to above, inroads to greenifying our urban environment are being made.