horticultural robot
August 23rd, 2016 by Mark Laurence

The way in which we design, create, maintain and use urban landscapes is likely to change radically in the next 15 years (in fact, modern society is in for overwhelming change).  Urbanisation, climate change and the rapid rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will see to that. Don’t think that the rate of change will be the same as has occurred in the previous 15 years, for technological growth is on an exponential growth curve, not a linear one.  Cities and systems are becoming smart, connected to the Internet of Things and that is just for starters.  So how will this change the way we design and use our urban landscapes?

Firstly, we know that there is huge movement of populations from rural to urban life, especially in the developing worlds and most markedly in Asia.  This creates huge pressure for new urban infrastructure and this is not always well planned growth, especially in terms of forward thinking to account for future changes.  Nonetheless, it is happening and happening fast.  The UN expects 66% of the world’s population to be urban by 2050, by which time there will be 9bn of us – so 6bn in cities.  Mega-cities have to grow in a way that sustains huge numbers of people.

Secondly, climate change is also occurring at exponential rates, raising the difficulties of living in any environment but with especial problems for mega cities, most of which are in coastal regions and subject to rising sea levels and worsening weather patterns.  Cities are hotter than the surrounding land due to the nature of materials used, whilst heavy rainfall brings flash-flooding. In arid countries, built environments are in danger of becoming too hot for humans to inhabit. Cities will have to take on these challenges, generating micro-climate.

Thirdly, technological change is happening exponentially and this will impact what we do, how we live, how – if – we work and how we tackle the above problems.  Some view the challenges and changes with fear, thinking they will only exacerbate problems.  They could do, anything can be mismanaged (such as a planet) for example.  I foresee that technology is actually the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we have created, the only thing that can act on the vast scale needed to re-balance an out-of-kilter Gaia.

When we take these three factors into account, we can see that the future of urban landscapes has to be so much more than the addition of the odd pocket-park here and there.  Landscapes have to mitigate the environmental factors, make huge mega-cities liveable for a population increasingly disconnected from nature and provide meaningful lives in an era when many of us may not work in the way we are used to.

A weedy landscape

Weedy and neglected landscape plantings are all too common. No-one wants to pay for maintenance

How will cities become smart and use this to better the environment?  If we are looking to increase the amount of urban landscaping significantly, then the first issue to tackle is cost of maintenance.  No one wants to pay for maintenance and often, no one does.  How many planted landscapes do you see smothered in weeds, wrecking or negating the designed purpose?  Or municipal plantings and car-parks where plants inevitably die and are never replaced, leaving huge gaps.  Shrubs hedge trimmed into amorphous shapes because that’s the quickest way to “maintain” them.  It’s a poor standard and it’s all we’re going to get – no-one is going to pay for trained horticulturalists to do something better.

landscape lobotomy

Landscape lobotomy: maintenance is the quickest, cheapest possible

Yet there is an interesting possibility – automation is likely to remove nearly 50% of jobs in the next decade, especially low-skilled or repetitive ones.  In the landscape trade, there are already semi-autonomous strimmers and grass-cutters on the market, how long before we have horticultural robots maintaining our landscapes?  All the technology is already here, prices are falling and an uplink to an AI would identify every weed known, give the correct procedures, know how and when to prune every plant in common cultivation. Robots would work long hours without tea breaks!  If basic maintenance getters a lot cheaper, we can have more landscape and such robots would be cheaper, eventually.  Living walls would be a prime candidate, with a simple maintenance cradle (much like a 3D printer head) that crosses the wall with a maintenance bot on it.  I’ve seen so many potential living wall projects fall at the maintenance-cost hurdle.  In such a scenario, displaced maintenance crew can retrain as bot-supervisors or true horticulturalist for private clients.

horticultural robot

Horticultural robots will make maintenance cheaper and more effective.

We’re going to have to do more than just make maintenance affordable; rather, that is the factor that releases the possibility to do more urban landscaping.  Many of the elements we need to put in place are already in existence and being used, but we need to join the dots and think holistically.  For example, green roofs are seen as a separate trade from green (I prefer living) walls.  Instead, we need to be talking of biological membranes (biomembranes) for buildings, a whole-system concept, where the living skin regulates the internal environment, filters pollution in both directions, dealing with generation of energy, cooling, clean air and water. Living walls that currently use potable water for irrigation when they could be cleaning up the used greywater that all buildings generate is another example.

building biomembrane

Building Biomembranes regulate building ecology and create vertical landscapes

Systems that provide services that are of consequence to the functioning of a building, street, or neighbourhood need careful management and control, much of which will become automated.  In just the last year, for example, new irrigation controllers have come on the market which not only are connected to you via internet, they also connect to the nearest weather station and adjust their regime according to the conditions.  I use these for living walls; I do not advocate any irrigation for horizontal landscapes in temperate climates.  But things will move beyond this, with AI monitoring ground moisture levels and moving harvested rainwater from one holding system out to another part of the city where it is needed.  And urban farming – especially vertical – will be a large part of mega-city greening, although it might not be on display.  Sophisticated hydroponic systems are springing up in warehouses and roof-top polytunnels all over.  Such food can and should be organic, local, healthy, nutritious.

A smartly connected landscape means we can maximize the benefit it gives to the people who live, work or pass through it.  With the majority of people living in urban mega cities, we have to create an environment that is fit for ultra-dense urban living.  As these metropolis’ grow, people will have less and less daily contact with Nature, which is not good for our deeper wellbeing.  Biophilia is our innate need for contact with the natural world: plants, trees, flowers, insects, sunlight, water, earth.  A concrete jungle is not a substitute for the real thing but we mostly won’t have time to “get out there” and experience wild Nature.

I think inner city pollution will blow over – excuse the pun- in the next 5-10 years as we start a massive switch over to electric transport, most of it driverless.  In fact, drone taxis are already under development and as buildings and living habitats reach skyward we can expect the landscape to move with them.  It will become commonplace to have high-level dronepads – even private ones.  Some people might not even go down to the ground much!  So landscapes and biophilia must come to them.  Fortunately, there is a rash of building-integrated vegetation going on and I see this trend increasing.  Incidentally, if you wanted more good reasons for using bots to maintain planting, imagine working on living walls or trees that are 50 stories up!

As for the wider environment and the looming crisis of climate change, I can only hope that emerging nanotechnologies give us the tools to clean up our act and neutralise the positive feedback loops we are creating.  Scientists are already working on nanotechnologies which capture and convert carbon into useful materials and one day such microscopic machines may roam our land and seas, removing plastics and other dangerous waste.  If this is done at a molecular level, we turn problems into resources.  We’ll be printing our houses (already being tested) compounds made from waste materials but without the current worries of using say, bricks made from recycled plastic which off-gas VOCs.  We can only hope these technologies emerge before it’s too late to save the climate in a state that we can survive in.


So the next 10-15 years are going to see change at an unprecedented rate and it may not all be a smooth ride.  I am excited by it however and think that there is much to be done to ensure that we create new urban environments worthy of habitation and that we take care of all environments and indeed the whole planet.  Smart cities are coming and at their best they could loosen our imaginations and liberate us from a monotonous life of work and stress.  Let’s make that the scenario that happens…

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, living walls, Smart Cities, Sustainability, Urban Landscapes, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

July 10th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

This article first appeared in Pro Landscaper Gulf – a .PDF copy can be seen here on page 12.  It is based on tree consultancy work I have undertaken in Abu Dhabi in recent years.

Irrigation is taken as a necessity when landscaping in arid climates.  It is a view that I wouldn’t like to completely contradict, yet I have seen a fair bit of evidence that tells me many plantings, and trees especially, are over-watered.  Of equal importance is the fact that many of the irrigation methods are wasteful of water and sometimes damaging to the trees themselves.


Tree sprinkler damage

Lawn Watering with sprinklers is damaging the trunk of this Millingtonia


We have to discern the different needs of trees and understand that what is necessary for one species is overkill for another.  I particularly speak of natives verses exotics.  Ghaf and Sidr you will see growing wild and without irrigation but imported exotics need a regular supply.  I have seen Ghaf blown over in irrigated plantings, caused by shallow rooting from an easy water supply.

Bacterial wetrot in Delonix

Bacterial wetwood in Delonix regia caused by overwatering. It also reduces the flowering, for which these trees are famous.

How the water is put on is just as important; pop-up sprinklers in lawns can damage the trunks of trees, causing aerial rooting in species like palm or fig, discolouring bark and causing stress-induced rots to occur in others.  Exotics like the Flame tree (Delonix regia) get over-watered, causing a reduction in flowering and a susceptibility to bacterial wetwood (slime flux). Even drip irrigation is not ideal, as it applies the water at the surface and promotes shallow rooting.  Trees with shallow roots are vulnerable to drought and so dependent upon the irrigation supply – a vicious circle.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

In the UK, we are used to putting in a subterranean irrigation ring around trees, which gets water to the tree roots at a deeper level.  For watering established trees, perforated tubes can be utilised, inserted vertically throughout the root zone and either manually watered, or connected to standard irrigation systems.  Supplying water at a slightly deeper level means less water used and wasted. A word of warning though – most feeding roots occur in the top 300 – 500mm of soil, so watering too deeply can also be wasteful.

Tree roots growing along the line of irrigation pipes

Tree roots growing along the line of surface irrigation pipes

In coastal cities, problems can arise from a naturally high-level, saline water table.  Halophytes (salt tolerant plants) have evolved to cope with this, but for some imported species, salinity can be a problem.  You also have to be aware of the quality of the irrigation water itself, which if drawn from the ground, may have a high saline content. Get your water supply tested if you are unsure.


Ultimately, I believe that planting styles and expectations of “landscape” must change.  A more natural style, with more xeriscaping and use of natives or other arid loving plants from different parts of the world (but from similar conditions), will emerge.  More important, in my view, than using strictly native species, is building plant communities that function and thrive in place without much human care or maintenance.  As climate zones shift rapidly around the world, nature cannot keep up and it will be down to us to create landscapes that sit well in their altered environments, whether native or not.  I believe we can do this with considerably less use of irrigation.  The water we do use should then be grey water (from taps and sinks), which is a much better way to conserve processed water use.

Canopy of Delonix regia

Canopy of Delonix regia

The goal has to be minimal water use, natural, ecologically benign planting and urban environments which feed our biophilic needs for connection to nature.

Zizyphus spina-christi

Zizyphus spina-christi, crown of thorns tree. A native of the UAE

Posted in Arboriculture, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Trees Tagged with: , , , , ,

hazel pruning methods
January 9th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

In my previous post I talked about a regenerative planting methodology for urban landscapes, in which I suggested you would manage, rather than maintain your planting areas. So how exactly do you you do this? Both involve work and the difference is a subtle but important one, in both attitude and application. Think urban forester rather than garden pruner. The picture above illustrates this perfectly, so let me explain.

It shows two hazels in my garden, both planted as young bare-root trees in the winter of 07/08. The one on the left was coppiced down to the ground in the winter of 12/13, the other has been pruned to keep a structure of older wood, with all suckering growth removed annually. What is the difference? The coppiced hazel has been less work overall and has not been touched since it was coppiced, the pruned tree has been pruned annually, which was not great amount of work but this is just one tree. If there were a hundred, it would be a different matter. The main difference is that the pruned tree has catkins, the coppiced tree does not, but I think this is a difference of genetics, rather than pruning technique, as they have always been like that. The shape of the pruned tree is also wider in its spread and will become gnarled as it gets older.

So in terms of management, if you go the coppice route you do nothing much to the trees except coppice them every 4-5 years. I would suggest that 50% of the trees are coppiced so that not all structure is removed at once. Notice that the growth of the coppiced hazel is straighter, making for a productive yield of canes and poles that can be used in the local community. Other trees that can be coppiced include sweet chestnut, lime, alder, ash, willow and hornbeam. Birch and oak will coppice, but from young trees only. Willows and dogwoods grown as bushes for their winter colour can be coppiced or “copparded” (inbetween coppice and pollard) to around 300-600mm every two years to keep the winter stem colours strong.

Salix elaeagnos

Salix elaeagnos (foreground)

By adopting such techniques in our larger masses of urban street planting and parks, we would deliver a more biodiverse, beautiful and biophilic interaction for all concerned. It would also cost less both to establish and possibly to maintain, than traditional planting. The above willow is beautiful and graceful, yet I have seen it all too often used in municipal car-parks and reduced to a-n-other shrub that is caressed all to frequently with the indifference of a hedgetrimmer.

Time to re-wild our inner selves, and our urban landscapes. We can do so much better than the average landscape we see in our towns and cities.

Posted in Arboriculture, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, My Garden, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

regenerative tree planting methodology
December 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

Almost all urban landscapes are contrived and designed, due to their artificial nature and short timescales of development and use.  We see increasing use of mature rootballed trees and extensive hard landscape and this is normal for intense inner urban areas; I do get concerned that the increasing complexity of urban planting systems divorce trees particularly from their natural functions and prevent the occurrence of the biological interactions/communities that go to make up an ecosystem.  For example, I have seen trees planted whose surface levels are around a metre below the surrounding paving level.  No matter how well designed, this seems fundamentally wrong to me.

So I’m thinking that there must be a way of dealing with the majority of less intense landscape zones (especially where there isn’t the financial budget that a high-end development attracts) to provide urban regeneration, ecological restoration and biophilic connection, all on a modest budget.  This would create a new method to allow for wide-spread adoption in urban and suburban zones.  I think the solution comes from Nature’s own process of natural regeneration and a developed philosophy of minimal (but specific) preparation.

silver birch regeneration

silver birch are pioneering species for natural regeneration

Starting from the observation that Nature is very efficient at regenerating itself, what can we do?  Too often, I have seen unnecessary interference in this process.  I still recall that a few years after the great storm of 1987, I walked through some nearby National Trust woodland of pines and birch.  A great deal of damage had been done with many trees blown over.  Birch had however, regrown abundantly from dormant seed and was already three or four foot tall.  The NT then sent in the bulldozers to clear out the fallen wood so the area could be – replanted.  I watched them tracking over all the natural regeneration.  Why didn’t they just leave well alone?  The restoration of the woodland was only slowed down by such clumsy interference and this was not even a productive forest.

If we simply broke up paving in our urban centres and loosened up the sub-base, what would happen?  Nature would soon find a footing and things would start to grow; however, that process would be too slow and unpredictable for human sensibilities.  So what if we did a little more, adding a small amount of topsoil to the rubble, planting small (1+1 year transplants) bare root trees and shrubs,  with plugs of understory forbs, ferns and grasses. Starting so young, we’d generate a successful community in no time.  These could be designed as narrow ribbons – two to four metres wide, inserted into suitable wider areas of paving.

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

The above area was one I thought would be suitable for such an approach; there are many such areas throughout all urban spaces.  They cry out for regeneration, yet seldom can this be done for lack of adequate finance.  Below is a quick sketch showing how it might look.

Sketch showing regenerative planting

Sketch showing regenerative planting

The benefits of such an approach would be huge.  It would cost far less than using a traditional approach to landscaping such an area, maybe half (I haven’t costed it!).  The care would move from maintenance to management, using a rotational coppice methodology, rather than trim and tidy (which always ruins a plants natural habit. Biodiversity would be hugely enhanced, air pollution mitigation would increase, wind buffering, urban heat island reduction, stormwater runoff (they would act as rain gardens) and of course, our biophilic needs, our connection to nature.

Someone needs to be bold and try it; talk to me…

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Living wall designed by Mark Laurence
October 31st, 2015 by Mark Laurence

There is something incredibly exciting about living walls.  Stacking green plants on the vertical plane on buildings, where you’d think they just should not be, goes against the odds.  Yet nowadays they are almost commonplace, and most people have encountered one somewhere.  They cling to life with extraordinary tenacity, usually in a growing medium only a few centimeters thick, with water fed via irrigation pipes. Cynics may criticize and some walls are without doubt better designed and maintained, or use a better system than others, but we should applaud this urban green trend, and encourage it.  We need it.  Modern systems are reliable and use very little water or energy to run.

As a global society we are going through unprecedented changes; now more than 50% of the world’s population is urbanised and this will grow to 75-80% by 2050.  Most of those people are essentially disconnected from Nature. It is now recognised that we have an innate need, called biophilia, to maintain our relationship with Nature.  Not surprising really, when you think how we have evolved, yet the psychological and physical cut-off, over the last 100 years, has been astonishing.  This can only become more pronounced as cities continue to swell, and highly-stressed people produce dysfunctional societies.  If we can green our urban streets then perhaps we can counter this negative effect.  Green walls take up almost no footprint in the urban landscape, not even a pavement width.  All that is needed is a supporting wall and we have plenty of those.  Trees are beautiful and add huge amounts of biophilic interaction into a citiscape, but we find them increasingly difficult to site, due to underground services and growing space needed.  Those of you who read my blog will know that I also consult on trees, so I love them dearly, but I see living walls as having a different role to play and as being more versatile.

Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology

Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology

Living walls have physical benefits on the environment too.  They provide a haven and food source for insects, especially bees.  Birds find seeds, berries and of course, insects on the wall and smaller birds are known to nest amongst the foliage.  Living walls are also helpful in mitigation of air pollution; I was involved with designing and plant selection for a wall put up by Transport for London (top picture) to test the ability of plants to capture pm10 – airborne particulates, primarily from diesel engines.  Whilst we need to remove the source of these pollutants, capturing them is a good secondary strategy.  It turns out that walls in a street canyon (where the building height is greater than the street width) cause the air to move in a cyclical manner, so air passes through the foliage of a living wall several times.  Trees can do this, but dense canopies can actually trap particulates down at street level, concentrating them where people are.  Most trees also are deciduous, so have no such benefits in the winter months.

Interior Living wall in Norway, designed by Mark Laurence

Interior Living wall in Norway, installed by a Vertology partner

We can bring living walls into the interior, and in fact in hostile climates, that’s where you’ll find most of them.  Whilst I have designed outdoor walls in climates as diverse as Dubai, Norway (Trondheim, 62° latitude) and Chicago, in such places it is often easier to put your dose of biophilia indoors!  We spend 80-90% of our time inside, so this makes sense.  Such walls also clean the air.  Much quoted studies by NASA have shown that a range of common houseplants (which are basically plants of a sub-tropical origin) are efficient at removing Volatile  Organic Compounds VOCs, such as formaldehyde) from the air. These can be found in concentrations far higher than outdoors, due to the nature of air recirculation and energy conservation.  So we bring the jungle indoors, where we live and work.

Walls have the most drama when they are large, but they don’t have to be.  Small walls in intimate spaces still have a large impact.  This can be a home, courtyard, rooftop or office reception.  Small is beautiful.

A small indoor living wall by Vertology

A small indoor living wall by Vertology

Having worked extensively with living walls over the last decade,  I now consult, design and install them worldwide via my company Vertology Living Walls, and its approved partners.  Grab yourself some biophilia – install a living wall!

Posted in Biophilia, Design, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Green walls, living walls, Retail, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

November 12th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Is there a “next place to go” for green/living walls? Absolutely there is – there’s probably two next places to go – in opposite directions, seemingly.  First we have a growing need for the mitigation of environmental factors which are largely of our own making; air pollution, rising temperatures, storm and waste water management and purification. Methods of providing ecosystem services, if you like.  We need these in urban areas, right at the heart of where the problems originate or concentrate.  Linear, end-of-pipe solutions to things such as “waste” water (how can H20 ever be waste?) are becoming increasingly unaffordable, especially in third-world regions where the real population growth is taking place.  So we need cyclical systems to deliver on-site solutions.

Global levels of air pollution.  London looks good here, yet still fails WHO limits

Global levels of air pollution. London looks good here, yet still fails WHO limits

Such systems must be cheap and effective.  They will look green, be alive, but not driven by aesthetics, although that is not to say they won’t look good.  But we need these types of wall to be installed an a huge scale, if they are to make a genuine contribution; with the climate changing so rapidly, we need all the help we can give ourselves.  I’m working on such a system now, focusing on air pollution mitigation.

Vertical greening is particularly effective in the urban environment for two reasons: we have very little open space to implement large-scale greening on, and the effects of pollution are most felt in the urban canyon – where the sides of the streets (buildings) equal or exceed the width.. Greening the sides of urban canyons, therefore, has the greatest potential for capturing particulates (pm10 is the range causing most concern).

It is interesting to note that trees are often cited as being good at removal of dust and particulates – but green walls are far better. For a start, most urban trees are deciduous, so they only have leaves for seven months of the year, then there is the recently researched fact that trees in an urban canyon can actually trap particulates under their canopy, preventing the natural air movement from mixing pm10 into the larger air volumes. I work with trees and love them, so have no bias in this; we just need to understand the interactions between air movement and greening.  So this for me, is the next generation of vertical greening technology.  Interestingly, being next-gen doesn’t mean being more high tech.  Given that things have to be cheaper, they have to be low tech but more effective.  This is where understanding the effect of things is crucial.

The street canyon is the best place for vertical greening to remove air pollution.

The street canyon is the best place for vertical greening to remove air pollution.

I said that vertical greening developments would move in two directions; the other is for increased human interaction, for biophilia.  As 80% of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, many of the projected nine billion will have little access to nature.  We need to make our cities green forests – not the urban jungles they have become.  Every building needs to have vertical parks and gardens built in as standard, giving us direct contact with nature (whilst at the same time giving us all those ecosystem services I mentioned earlier), which brings the two directions (function vs beauty) right back into one place. Furthermore, such systems must be easily retrofit-able onto existing building stock.

Vertical "biomembranes" give us vertical landscapes, satisfy our love for nature - biophilia and deliver ecosystem services

Vertical “biomembranes” give us vertical landscapes, satisfy our love for nature – biophilia and deliver ecosystem services

So there is a huge role for vertical greening to play for humanity, keeping us in a functioning, livable environment, giving us beauty, satisfying our need for biophilia and keeping us sane in an urbanised world. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do and I’m certainly looking forward to upping my game with new products that take is in the right direction.


I now run a new company Vertology Living Walls and have an advanced, patent-pending green wall system, Viridiwall™.


Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Environment, Green walls, living walls, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

September 6th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Reporters always have to grab a headline, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the new green wall near Victoria station started grabbing headlines such as “London’s largest living wall prevents flooding”.  It’s a misleading headline to say the least: A, it’s not the largest wall, that “accolade” (if size is all that counts) belongs to Patrick Blanc for his wall at Leamouth Peninsular, constructed by Biotecture in 2009 and B, it doesn’t prevent flooding.  How could it?  Striding about, with a big umbrella?  No, it has rainwater harvesting – as can any building, regardless of whether or not they have green walls (although they then have to have some use for it, such as flushing toilets), and that helps absorb water and delay rainfall from contributing to stormwater runoff.  It may directly capture a small amount on the surface of the wall, but not much.

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and treebox

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and Treebox

Now don’t get me wrong; this is a lovely green wall and most welcome.  I know all the guys involved and they’re all genuine people. The wall will have many environmental benefits. No, what bothers me is the way the press grab shallow headlines that reduce the very real benefits to glib catchphrases, often completely divorced from meaningful context .  Of course rainwater harvesting reduces the risk of flooding, but one small scheme in a large area will have negligible benefit (just as the Edgware Road wall I designed for TfL will, on it’s own, have a negligible effect on air pollution); unless many buildings in that area follow suit and harvest rainwater, the impact will not be felt.

What walls such as this do, is pioneer and display the possibilities of what we may do and the potential outcome if we do enough of it.  But the current attitude is, right, we’ve put up a green wall/green roof/planted trees, so job done, environment’s sorted… it’s just so NOT.

Right now i’m frustrated by this attitude.  For example, it seems that government, having done their bit (on air pollution, mentioned above), now have no monies in the “clean air fund” to take things to the next level; where we so urgently need to be going. The simple reality is that a lot more testing is needed, more system trials; ways need to be found to effect a large-scale roll out of affordable greening (a major criticism is that the technology is too expensive).  If the government won’t make funds available to do this, even in the face of massive EU fines for breaching air quality standards, then who will?  So the Edgware Road green wall becomes just another political chess piece, used then forgotten once it’s done it’s short-term bit of marketing.

It’s time that as a society, we grew up, stopped living off of vacuous soundbites and got to grips with our environmental issues.  One headline I got from a talk I gave last year, was “designer calls for environmental efforts to be put on a war footing”.  Another bit of melodrama, but I did use the phrase, and meant it.  Only with that level of serious intent and commitment can we get to make meaningful progress on adapting our societies to the incoming effects of now unstoppable climate change.

Time to get real…

Posted in Climate Change, Ecosystem Services, Environment, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , ,

August 24th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I’ve got to admit it; plants do something to me.  When in their proximity, either indoors or out, things feel different.  It could be because they change the air, giving me oxygen, removing pollutants and humidifying the atmosphere.  It could be because they give me a subtle but direct contact with Nature.  Maybe they talk to me; I don’t know.  But I know I can’t live without them, and that too many people do just that; they don’t know what they’re missing.

Plant shelve in my office

Plant shelves in my office

Of course, I should have a green wall in my office and will have soon, for a new design I am prototyping.  But shelves will do, as will window ledges, if not in direct sun.  My shelves are beside a window, which is often actually the darkest place in a room.  To illustrate, I have several Tradescantia, of a variety called simply “Dark Green”.  One sits on the window sill and one on the shelf corner almost next to it, a mere 450mm away.  Yet the one on the window sill (West facing) is compact, fully dark green with purple undersides, whilst the other is leggier with larger leaves and less purple.  a quick test with a umol meter (which reads the light that plants “see”) shows that the window plant receives  (this morning on a dull day) a reading of 74, whilst the other plant gets a mere 20.  Come to the far end of the shelf and the reading drops to 03, leaving the plants, effectively, in the dark. Many plants can (amazingly) survive these conditions, but they will not be photosynthetically active and so not delivering the benefits I outlined above.  And of course, they can’t be happy.  So lighting is crucial, yet is a surprisingly difficult thing to fix.  Good fittings and bulbs not intended for greenhouse production are a rare thing.

It is worth mentioning, that what we call houseplants are simply plants that originate in sub-tropical regions and can tolerate the conditions found inside many buildings, such as low light levels, because many of the plants are from forest origins, low nutrient requirements and constant temperatures (little or no seasonal variation in the original home).  Low humidity can be the biggest problem, especially with central heating or in air-conditioned offices.

"inddor" plants on a green wall

“indoor” plants on a green wall

So given the right conditions (and even with a bit of light-abuse), plants will thrive indoors and ultimately, a green wall is the best way to display them, for several reasons: you get a huge area of leaf mass index in a small footprint, giving the maximum amount of benefit, whilst watering and feeding is automated, so you don’t have to worry about that.  The only problem with green walls is that they are expensive, and they need plumbing in to drainage, water and electrical supplies.  I’m about to change all that, so watch this space.

And there are so many plants to grow, although sadly, finding a good source of houseplants, outside of the standard ranges supplied by supermarkets and the larger garden centres, is surprisingly difficult.  Almost all come from the Netherlands these days.  Dibleys are an exception and good for gnesneriads (www.dibleys.com).  In my Biotecture days I had walls of plants being trialed, all gone now and I miss them, but I plan to resume trialing again soon, on a similar scale and have many new plants to test.  They excite me more than (almost) anything, and especially when I think we’re getting ecosystem services from them – but that is the subject for another post, other than the brief mention I gave above.

So do yourself a favour, rediscover your biophilic urges, give yourself a treat and buy some houseplants!

Posted in Biophilia, Ecosystem Services, Indoor Plants, living walls Tagged with: , , , ,

October 23rd, 2012 by Mark Laurence

I gave a talk last week on Internal Bio-Systems for buildings, to eFIG, the European Federation of Interiors Group (http://www.efig.eu.com/) which was reported on swiftly by Horticulture Week .  They picked up on my use of the phrase “war-footing” for the kind of response levels needed to deal with the issues at hand.  Why?  Well, climate change is now more of a real-term threat than terrorism, yet which do we spend the most money on?  With Obama and Romney not even talking about the issue, what is the point of “defence” if for political and business reasons we don’t allow ourselves to see the biggest threat of all which is looming large, and which we’re not even taking defensive actions on?

Bio-Systems need to become an integral part of our solutions to environmental problems, but they need designing and implementing wholesale to make a difference – and what a difference they could make! We can regulate building temperatures and energy use, clean air and water, create biodiversity, quieter streets, rehydrate the local hydrological cycle, grow food where we consume it… so much!  But the odd enthusiastic building owner/user doing it won’t make enough difference – we need critical mass; did I mention CRITICAL?


I’ll post a link to my talk here, once it’s loaded onto Vimeo…

Posted in Design, Economic Issues, Environment, landscapes, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , ,