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 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
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
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: adaptive landscapes, biodiversity, biophilia, eco-system services, ecology, garden, gardens, landscape, native plants, pm10, pollution entrapment, rain gardens, sustainability, sustainable, trans-migrational landscapes, trees, urban greening, urban heat island, wildlife
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
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.
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
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: air pollution, bio-systems, eco-system services, green walls, living walls, particulates, sustainability, sustainable, urban greening, Vertical Landscapes
I’ve been reading several websites by visionary developers in Azerbaijan, who are proposing some massive Dubai-style developments to the Bay area of Baku, the country’s capital. One, the http://khazarislands.com/ seems like an ambitious Dubai-competitor, an ultra-sleek development on up to 30 artificial islands (think the Palm Jumeirah), the other is based on an existing island and whilst just as pretentious, http://www.ziraisland.com/ at least aims to generate all its own energy from renewables, and to be carbon-neutral.
The buildings are all based on the forms of nine iconic mountains in the Caucasus Range. Actually, not a bad idea from the point of view of seismic safety and thermal efficiency etc. Serious plans to make a huge modern metropolis that is self-sufficient are rare, with perhaps only the Chinese actually trying this with some of their Eco-Cities.
What is needed is to develop a coherent urban greening policy to integrate technologies like living walls and urban tree planting and care, with a carefully thought out irrigation policy. People still don’t see how essential green walls will be in integrating ecosystem services into a buildings basic functionality, but it will come. Let’s watch with interest.
Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Economic Issues, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, living walls, Middle-East, Sustainability, Trees, Vertical Greening Tagged with: arboriculture, Azerbaijan, bio-systems, biophilia, Dubai, green walls, living walls, Middle-East, sustainability, sustainable, Vertical Landscapes
I came across an interesting article by Ruth Potts with the above title (http://www.thenewmaterialism.org/), which summed up pretty well where we need to be headed as a society to make the transition to a resource-scarce future. The crucial thing is, that this could be a much better future. Aren’t we all exhausted with the endless demands on our time, energy and finances that consumerism makes? In the run up to Christmas, how many of us are taking out loans or maxing out our credit cards to pay for the “pleasure” of giving, and how long will we remain in debt for that brief moment?
Christmas was ruined for me, only a few year’s ago, when I read that the quintessential Father Christmas as we know and love him, was “invented” by Coca Cola in the 1930’s (yes, I have now stopped believing!). Fortunately, that is not quite true (about Coca Cola), but there is no doubt that the figure of FC has been mercilessly exploited by commercial interests, and this gets worse every year. In fact, most retail shops now depend upon Christmas to make their yearly sales quotas and profit, so they are not likely to give up the “right” to promote consumerism any time soon.
You may wonder why I write about such things, since my interest really is focussed on vertical and urban greening; actually, my interest is in the survival of the human species and in the retention of a habitable planet, interests we should all have in common. At the core of our dilemma is not carbon emissions: in our typically linear-thinking, reductionist way, we focus upon these as the problem, when in fact they are a symptom of underlying factors. The biggest driver in all our systems is the act of consumption. You can figure out for yourself that there are only so many resources to go around and that the more people you cram into the world, and the more those people demand, the less there is to share out; sooner or later there will be nothing left. And we are hitting so many tipping points right now, we really should be far more concerned than we are, and should be taking far more action. Yet to mention it is almost taboo. We just don’t want to face it; it’s too scary. And what can we do, the little people? I would say quite a lot, actually. As an example, look at how Zara, one of the world’s biggest retail chains, has been forced to commit to producing toxic-free clothing, all within the space of a two-week campaign run by Greenpeace. That’s powerful.
Fact is, if we want a sustainable future, no; if we want a future, we have to kick the consumption habit, before it consumes us all. If we don’t, no amount of urban greening will make any difference…
Posted in Economic Issues, Sustainability Tagged with: new economics, sustainable, tipping points, urban greening
With the climate shifting now so rapidly that we cannot foresee what the future may bring – or rather, with an ever increasing certainty of life as we know it struggling to survive – do we need a new approach to our understanding and management of our natural landscapes? I think this will become inevitable and that this idea needs to become a proactive rather than reactive measure.
A quick look around the globe shows Arctic ice melting at unprecedented rates, massive flooding events (in Bangladesh recently 20m people were displaced), increased hurricanes (h. Sandy), both in frequency and strength, desertification through deforestation and inappropriate agriculture and relentlessly increasing global temperatures, to name just a few that come to mind. And we can see effects much closer to home. The UK is likely to lose most or all of its ash trees due to the fungus Chalara fraxinea, which has mutated and migrated from Japan, where it is a balanced part of its ecosystem. Ash trees make up 40% of the UK landscape canopy. This follow from our lose of elms, but oaks have their problems too, as do horse chestnut and and larch, which although not native, are under attack from imported diseases. We have everywhere, a landscape under stress, that cannot adapt to the rapidly changing environments we humans have imposed upon the planet, either from our living patterns or from pollution. Our landscapes are under duress as never before. Vast and rapid change is inevitable and cannot now be stopped. But there is possibly something we can do, and that is learn to help speed up Nature’s adaptations. This would involve actively changing the flora and fauna of our native landscapes, an approach that would not be without risk, but might mean that some kind of meaningful ecology can adapt and survive.
It is clear that to do nothing is to watch our beloved regional and continental. landscapes change beyond recognition. But this would require a sea-change in thinking and current practices. Ecologists naturally resist the introduction of new species, with good cause; the aforementioned tree diseases are with us at least partly because of imported plants or timber. Lists of invasive species and control advice is provided in the UK by the Non native Species Secretariat; but I now think that we are beyond preventing the influx of invasive species and that we must look ahead and ask ourselves: do we want an ecology and landscape in 50 or 100 years time? Of course the answer is yes; we depend on our landscape, body and soul, and we may regret that we were forgetful of that for so long. But we cannot preserve what was, into the future.
My previous post was a review of a book by Bill McKibben, a leading environmental thinker, who says that we now live on a different planet, that it’s future will never be as its past was; he renames the planet Eaarth. We have caused this; if we are to adapt to our future, we have to re-think our attitudes and expectations. We cannot conserve England’s green and pleasant land; it is gone, or going. We must adapt it to suit its future, to build new ecologies, with new species or variants of existing species that are better able to cope. Ironically, trans-migrating species from one continent to another may save them from extinction in their original habitat.
This would be a big challenge; it is easy to introduce a new tree species, but it is the microflora and fauna that come with them that is important, for both the good and the bad. Sycamores are a now familiar part of the British landscape but are non-native and considered invasive. Whilst they are robust and may be well suited to our warmer climate, they are ecologically barren in the UK landscape, when compared to our oaks, which support some 300 + species of life. And this is the crucial bit; nature builds up complex and diverse ecosystems, of which we are still largely ignorant. Thus if we are to be able to do this with any success, we need to learn a new discipline, that of building micro and macro ecologies to suit our new future. If we put the same energy into this as we do GM research, it would be far more productive and useful – but it can’t be funded by private companies; this is our future, not a potential for financial gain.
And whilst we are at it, let’s build a new agriculture, based on perennial crops and trees, all as part of our ecological future. A diverse polyculture of trees, shrubs and herbs which provide a diversity of food, fuel and resources, including wildlife. Such an agriculture (or agroforestry, forest gardens, permaculture) will not be dependant upon fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers or pesticides as it’s perennial; harvesting can be done by hand or machine, and methane from cellulose digestion can provide the fuel for tractors where they are used. Nuts replace wheat and we move to a far more resilient and varied diet, which will make us healthier and give us food security, both of which are in rapid decline. Such annual crops as we do grow will be the domain more of the market-garden, a philosophy which we must revive to give us local food. Who knows, such balanced, wholesome and resilient landscapes might even be good for our soul’s too; certainly peace of mind relies on having a secure life, and we are rapidly losing that, far more than we realise.
So we need to build a new philosophy and practice of trans-migrating landscapes from areas of stress to areas of comfort, to match the shifting of climates zones around the world. It’s quite a challenge but we might just learn some humility and a far deeper appreciation of nature. In fact, we might just finally discover that we are inseparable…
Posted in Environment, landscapes Tagged with: ecology, landscape, microbial, native plants, sustainable, trans-migrational landscapes, trees
I’ve just finished reading one of the most important books of our time; on the planet, climate change, the economy and the plight of humankind, so I’m going to review it here. This should be at the top of everyone’s reading list if you want to understand what is happening to us at this moment in time.
McKibben is an environmental writer and wrote an important book on the subject 20 years ago, called “The End of Nature”; I never read it, I guess I wasn’t reading environmental books at the time, which is a pity. Twenty years ago we still had time to do something about the state of the planet, but we chose not to. After all, we were having a recession. In fact an earlier landmark publication put the writing on the wall for us back in 1972 – the Club of Rome issued a report called “The Limits to Growth”. We didn’t listen then either, or rather we stopped listening, after we recovered from the shock of the OPEC oil embargo, and we went shopping instead. Retail therapy.
McKibben’s book starts with the simple but stark premise that the old Earth is gone; that we effectively live on a new planet, one that is not so nice, and which will get worse. He calls it Eaarth. His reasoning is simple, the Earth is now cascading through a series of tipping points, from which it cannot now recover from, at least not within a humanly conceivable time-scale. Perhaps the chief of these is the amount of carbon we are pouring into the atmosphere; currently around 390ppm and heading inexorably to >600ppm. The safe level for a habitable planet is 350ppm. See the problem?
McKibben links environmental change firmly with consumption and economic growth. As I have been writing, we are fixated on this as the only possible way of living our lives. Of course it is true that everything is geared for growth and the inevitable consequence of no growth is failure – or so we believe.
But the book, though stark, doesn’t just fill us full of doom; McKibben believes we can, with concerted grass-roots effort, get the carbon emissions back down to 350ppm and he in fact instigated a movement, 350.org to promote – with some considerable success – the need to achieve this goal.
I am reading a number of other books on similar subjects, including Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth”, which I shall review in due course.
Posted in Economic Issues, Environment, Sustainability Tagged with: climate change, new economics, sustainable
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: bio-systems, biodiversity, biomembrane, eco-system services, sustainable
What a title! Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that this is where we are at. What does it mean? It means we have finished one phase of human development and we are about to enter another phase, that of the steady-state economy. It is also increasingly clear that if we don’t adopt this approach, we will overshoot the Earth’s carrying capacity (indeed we already are in many respects) and cause long-term ecosystem collapse, taking us all down with it, along with many forms of higher life.
So it’s adapt or die time. Does it feel like it? Probably not; the sun is shining, life is busy, all feels normal – it’s just another day. But we are on an exponential growth curve and the doubling effect has mind-boggling consequences, which are not apparent for many years. To illustrate: take a chess board. Place a single grain of rice on the first (say bottom – left) square. Place double the number of grains on each subsequent square; easy, right? Wrong. There are NOT ENOUGH grains of rice in the whole WORLD to fill the quantity needed for the last square. This is exponential growth; by the time you get to the vertical bit of growth (where we are now) the consequences are catastrophic.
Human population is doubling every 35 years. In the last 35, we used 25% of the planet’s resources; in the next 35 years, we will demand 50%. Now you can see plainly the consequences of our current trajectory. We will crash, unless we change course. Changing course is as easy as us all, or at least enough of us, deciding to do so. It’s also as difficult as that, and looking at our short-sighted natures and inbred politics, what will actually happen is anybody’s guess. And plenty are guessing…
I was travelling on the tube the other day and saw an advert which said: “Limits? I don’t think so!”, you know, said in that kind of voice. This is a part of our cultural problem: we see limits as an affront to our personal freedom, our right to be who we are. We are told to expect more; actually, we’re told to consume more. All current economies depend on consumption, because consumption means debt, means interest, means growth based on debt. I read somewhere recently: whenever you see the word credit, scrub it out and replace it with debt; that way, you understand more what is involved. We’re all in debt, to our credit cards, banks, mortgages and lease agreements. Next month marks a personal milestone: I will no longer be in any kind of debt. We have to become personally resilient, and I would urge you to remove yourself from debt as fast as you can. Easier said than done, as I know too well.
What do we do, once we have no debt? Grow veggies, insulate your house – make it off-grid if possible – move if where you are is not conducive to independent living and build community, wherever you are. I’m working at the second-to-last and rubbish at the latter.
Most of all, we have to understand and talk about steady-state economies, energy decline and resilience. These subjects can make you unpopular, but doing nothing is not really an option. I’m going to post some reviews on books I’ve been reading soon, there’s some good stuff out there. We have to be active, aware, doing something to change our lives. Chances are we’ll all be better people for it anyway; closer to nature, closer to our communities, less demanding of the Earth’s diminishing resources, grateful even, for the simple bounties of life…
Posted in Economic Issues Tagged with: new economics, steady-state, sustainable, tipping points