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Skyscraper boom in London ought to prompt greener cities

Let’s get a bit more green in London’s skyline. Alex Yeung/Shutterstock

A survey by the New London Architecture think tank has suggested that London’s skyline is set to become a lot more crowded with at least 236 tall buildings over 20 storeys currently proposed, approved or under construction.

All this growth is very well, but will cause some worry. It should prompt us to promote another kind of growth – as Frank Lloyd Wright once said, a physician can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines. And it’s not just vines we could be planting.

Built environment researchers have long understood the value of bringing nature into our urban environments, but you don’t have to study cities to understand why those regularly rated as the best to live in are also the greenest. Whether it’s the icy greenery of Reykjavik and Malmö, the Mediterranean beauty of Barcelona, the natural splendour of Edinburgh and Rio, or the modern near-utopia of Vancouver, people need a healthy dose of nature in their urban idylls.

Darmstadt’s Waldspirale (Forest Spiral)., CC BY

My own favourite vision of just how far we could go to green our cities is the Waldspirale in Darmstadt, Germany. It may be a bit too literal for some but, for its time, it matched that artistry with innovation, and its deliberate design forms an interesting contrast with the organic growth of the urban gardens of Havana and Detroit.

And the future of our urban environments really is looking greener. Green roofs are becoming increasingly common in urban architecture – we even have one here in the heart of Glasgow. Studies show they are healthier, they encourage biodiversity, and they also save energy.

But as well as absorbing pollutants and creating space for people to relax and exercise, even the smallest green spaces can form a vital part of green networks for wildlife, and concentrations of green space can help alleviate the urban heat island effect. And, designing paved areas for permeability helps absorb water when it’s not wanted and release it when it’s needed, making them an important way of mitigating the impacts of both flooding and drought.

We may even be seeing a resurgence in the big ideas of Lloyd Wright, Yeang, and other pioneers of ecological architecture, with greenery being brought into the design of everything from sheds to stadiums, and there are even plans for a green bridge over the Thames. And there’s even more to drawing in nature than just building for it, we can also do more to build with it.

The Garden Bridge. Arup

Buildings constructed of locally-sourced natural and sustainable materials don’t only benefit our environment and health, they can also benefit our economy and society by rejuvenating traditional industries and stemming the loss skills that are critical to maintaining our older and greener building stock. And traditional materials such as timber and sheepswool can also be used to construct and insulate modern building designs, at a lower lifecycle cost to the environment.

But despite all these benefits there is still some resistance to making more use of natural materials coming from the construction industry. By their nature, many natural materials lack the homogeneity and standardisation demanded by some architects and their clients. For example, sheepswool from different breeds will have different properties, so needs to be sourced and processed in sufficient quantities to produce a homogenous product. This is obviously difficult if the supply is small and geographically dispersed.

This also means any claims made about natural products risk being challenged by richer and litigious producers of heavily processed products. The cost of a legal battle could be more than enough to put a small subsistence producer out of business. Work conducted as part of GCU’s Natural Energy Efficiency and Sustainability project has found that this is the most significant barrier to increasing the use of these products in Scotland, and it seems likely that the same applies to green roofs and other building-integrated greenery.

The good news is that the solution to this problem may lie with consumers and particularly the home improvement market as householders rarely invest in measures just to improve the energy performance ratings of their homes.

What is needed is some form of standard or label to promote good practice in the use of natural materials (including green roofs) while not being overly prescriptive or demanding for small producers; a standard which recognises the wider social and economic benefits of using these materials. This is something that we and our partners are working towards for the UK.

Looking to the future, cities may become even greener if vertical farms finally make the transition from science fiction to science fact. Skyscrapers filled with crops could add a new dimension to nature’s reclamation of our urban environments by capitalising on the availability of solar energy. And, growing crops (and raising fish) locally using resource-efficient hydroponic systems could slash the carbon footprints of much of the food we consume.

And as well as all the healthy things, urban greenery could also provide us with a tipple to relax with. Climate change is expected to make many temperate regions ideal for growing grapes, so architects may soon have a better reason to get planting vines. Three cheers to that!

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