Wild at heart – the vital role of greenery in green urban design

17 December 2014



Integrating vegetation into the built environment is about much more than ‘green’ aesthetics; it could be the only way to ensure a healthy, happy, productive future for the planet’s growing population of urban inhabitants, as Elly Earls discovers.


Forget clean lines, right angles and all-glass facades; the city of the future will be fuzzy, hairy, lush and seasonal if a growing number of ecological building design and large-scale vegetal integration exponents get their way.

Indeed, it's much more than a new 'green' aesthetic being championed by architects like Ken Yeang with his Singapore-based Solaris Tower boasting a 1.5km spiral landscape ramp and Stefano Boeri, creator of Milan's 'Vertical Forest'. The most cutting-edge green building projects today can not only absorb rainwater, provide insulation, lower urban air temperatures and reduce air pollution; they are entire ecosystems in themselves, which, as well as going above and beyond the criteria of today's sustainable building accreditations, are designed to make their inhabitants healthier, happier and more productive even as they grapple with the challenges of living in 'the urban millennium'.

"There's a huge body of evidence that human beings have co-evolved with the natural world and are happier, healthier and more productive in the presence of nature," says Tim Beatley, professor of sustainable communities for the department of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, and author of Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning.

"Our stress hormone levels go down, our immune systems get a boost and we're more likely to score highly on creativity tests," he continues. "But we're in the urban age and there is an increasing number of people living in cities. So we have to figure out how to live in compact, dense cities and also recognise our need for regular contact with nature."

"There's a huge body of evidence that human beings have co-evolved with the natural world and are happier, healthier and more productive in the presence of nature."

More architects are addressing these issues in their work and at the same time increasing cities' biodiversity, reducing their pollution levels and boosting individual buildings' efficiency. Just take Singapore's Solaris Tower by Ken Yeang, who was named by The Guardian as 'one of the 50 people who could save the planet'. Green with a capital 'G', it features extensive landscaped areas, including a 1.5km 'linear park' winding around the entire building, roof gardens and corner sky terraces, all of which are irrigated using a large-scale rainwater recycling system and act as a thermal buffer. Compared with similar projects, the building's overall energy consumption is 36% lower.

More important to Yeang, however, is the fact that the building is a living ecosystem in itself, the continuity of the landscaping allowing for fluid movement of organisms and plant species between all of the vegetated areas within the building, thereby enhancing its biodiversity, enabling LTH-Baasa healthier micro-climate around LTH-Baasthe building and lowering its LTH-Baasambient temperature.

"I contend that the next level of green design is to try to match the organic with the inorganic so the whole development becomes a living system," he says. "This also enhances the well being of the users of the buildings."

In order to achieve this effect, his team, along with a consultant ecologist, research the native fauna they want to bring back into the locality of a particular project, and match that with the native flora that will attract the fauna.

"In doing so, I create the landscape conditions that will enable biodiversity targets to be met and the whole development becomes what I call a constructed living ecosystem," Yeang explains. "This ecological approach is more authentic than any other approach."

Flower power
High-profile projects with vegetation at their heart are being designed on an ever larger and more ambitious scale, including One Central Park in Sydney, a collaboration between Jean Nouvel and Patrick Blanc, the self-proclaimed 'inventor of the vertical garden'. Featuring one of the tallest green walls in the world, made up of 21 plant-covered panels, spanning over 1,000m² and home to 35 different species, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has just awarded the project as the '2014 Best Tall Building Worldwide'.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, work is underway by Milroy Perera Associates and Maga Engineering on what is set to become the world's tallest vertical garden when it opens in 2016: Clearpoint Residencies. The 46-storey building will feature planted terraces for each apartment, which will reduce heat gain, absorb sound and act as a natural filter for dust. The project also features solar panels, rainwater harvesting, water recycling systems and solid waste recycling.

"The vegetation will provide a much better environment for the people living in the apartments, and electricity bills will be down by about 45%," according to director of the firm Milroy Perera, who adds that it wasn't easy to get to the point where construction could begin on the project.

"It took me five years to design it and then it was pretty difficult to convince the planning authorities that this could be done in Sri Lanka; there were 17 different approvals we had to get to start building," he explains. "Then, when we finally got approval, we couldn't find a client to finance it because they thought it would cost much more than a normal building, so I turned into an investor-architect."

In the end, though, according to Perera, the project only turned out to be 5-7% more expensive than a 'normal' apartment building and he expects to be able to recover the extra costs in three to four years thanks to electricity and water savings. Moreover, it's been worth it to create something "very different to anything else that has been designed in Colombo".

Elsewhere, in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a pioneering new community project for 10,000 people called Shobuj Pata or 'Green Leaf', which will aim to balance density and efficiency with ecological sustainability, is also facing setbacks, and has been put on hold due to economic and political uncertainty.

It's hardly surprising that the project has proven challenging, given its sheer scale and ambition. It will comprise 2,300 dwelling units spread throughout 30 ten-storey buildings across a 32-acre site, featuring systems that collect and retain water as it arrives on site, limiting the community's dependence on the city's strained and polluted hydrological infrastructure, as well as potentially using a planted facade system to create "a micro-climatic veil" around the residential buildings.

"One of the reasons the city feels so overwhelmingly dense is the lack of any of the lush landscape otherwise found in the countryside," says Jaegap Chung, principal at JCI Architects, the Canada-based firm commissioned to design the community. "The challenge in this proposal is to enrich density by offering a quality of life different from current development models. Shobuj Pata aims to reintroduce this lushness to the urban condition.

"Comprised of indigenous trees, plants, and grasses, it will reconnect residents with the natural beauty of their country through a system of paths, parks, and open public space while creating a cooler micro-climate under the shade of large trees." Chung is hopeful the project will be revived in the next year to year and a half.

Identity crisis
Clearly, the most cutting-edge green projects under development today are about far more than simply aesthetics, yet that doesn't mean, particularly for Yeang, that their design aspects should take a backseat. In contrast, figuring out what the new 'green' aesthetic should look like is one of his key current priorities.
"I think [these buildings] deserve their own aesthetic," he says. "When I was driving through Vancouver recently with a local architect, he pointed out two LEED Platinum buildings to the client, but the client remarked that they looked like any other building on the same street.

"I said a 'green' building should look green - it should be a mixture of organic with inorganic, it should be indeterminate, it should not be pristine, and it should look fuzzy and hairy. So that's what my work is about - trying to figure out what exactly a green building should look like, and it takes up an awful lot of my time."

"A 'green' building should look green - it should be a mixture of organic with inorganic, it should be indeterminate, it should not be pristine, and it should look fuzzy and hairy."

Yeang is realistic, however, about the fact that it won't be easy to convince potential clients or indeed his own industry to really drive his 'fuzzy' style of ecological building design forward. "In the last five to ten years, people have become more open to my concepts, but before that it was extremely difficult," he remarks.

And he still faces challenges today. "Most architects don't have a background in ecology," Yeang explains. "They think achieving zero energy and zero waste and zero water is all there is to green design, but that's just engineering. You must see green design ecologically, in the context of the entire natural environment."

Nonetheless, the Malaysian architect-cum-ecologist is busier than he ever has been on projects everywhere from Bangalore to Chengdu, with no time even for 'a little kip', while Beatley has seen huge interest in his recently launched Biophilic Cities network - a collection of eight cities, including Singapore and San Francisco, striving to bring nature back into the urban landscape. "We're really promoting this idea globally," he says, "and we're getting lots of traction and interest from cities around the world."

So are hairy, indeterminate, ecological buildings the future of urban design? "It's anybody's guess really," Yeang says. "But if we don't do it, the whole world will become synthetic, inorganic and artificial. For me, it's just a good thing to do, but to quote Kermit the Frog from Sesame Street - 'It's not easy being green'."

Shobuj Pata aims to balance density and sustainability.
One Central Park features one of the world’s tallest green walls.
One Central Park comprises 21 plant-covered panels, spanning over 1,000m².
The Solaris Tower features extensive landscaped areas, including a 1.5km ‘linear park’ winding around the entire building.
The Solaris Tower’s roof gardens and corner sky terraces are irrigated using a large-scale rainwater recycling system.


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