Wonder walls: the rise of vertical gardens

With environmental concerns and global food shortages on the rise, greening urban spaces has become increasingly important. Vision takes a journey to the world’s most renowned vertical gardens and finds the benefits of this architectural trend extend way beyond their visual delight

When it comes to trends in urban design it seems that today the only way is up. As cities grow and superscrapers soar, in order to make the best use of our urban space, vertical gardens are blooming.  From Berlin to Beijing, Istanbul to Dubai, verdant walls are sprouting up in urban environments across the globe.

The striking visual advantages of vertical planting are obvious, but the benefits go far beyond the aesthetic. Today’s boom is certainly about more than the beautification of our cityscapes. Aside from brightening our horizons, delighting city-dwellers and chiming with the global trend for urban gardening, there are also environmental benefits for planting up.

Aside from brightening our horizons, delighting city-dwellers and chiming with the global trend for urban gardening, there are also environmental benefits for planting up

Perhaps the world’s most famous vertical garden designer is Paris-based botanist Patrick Blanc. He has been creating his stunning installations for the past 25 years and grows his gardens, which he calls “vegetal walls”, on supporting structures attached to buildings so that the plants roots do not cause damage to the original walls. Although his creations can be seen in cities as diverse as São Paulo and Singapore, some of his best-loved work is on home turf. In 2001 his remarkable interior garden helped establish Paris’s Pershing Hall hotel as an eminent address among the city’s cognoscenti. Another notable work is the lush plant covering on the Musée du Quai Branly, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Designed by the world-renowned French architect, Jean Nouvel, the exterior of this building is as much a draw as the collections housed within.

Back to nature

Blanc patented his concept in 1988 and says that his work is important as it reminds us to interact with nature, even within hectic urban spaces. In a recent interview with French television channel ARTE, he said: “The good thing about the walls is that, in the first place, it’s decorative, and in the second place, it has a really big impact on people because it makes them realise that nature can exist in the city.” Blanc currently has an exhibition of his work on show at the New York Botanical Garden and has revised and updated his book The Vertical Garden: From Nature to the City. He says he wants “to show people that there are no places where there can’t be plants”.

Blanc’s point is amply proven at The Pavilion, a mixed media arts and cultural centre in Dubai, which boasts an impressive vertical interior garden. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gardens are popular in creative spaces; fans claim they can have a significant positive impact on emotional and psychological wellbeing which is crucial to fostering a creative environment. The visual surprise engendered by seeing a vast vertical indoor garden, in the middle of a city in the desert, certainly helps to achieve an intellectually stimulating space.

Abboud Malak, founder of architecture firm Studio M which designed The Pavilion, says: “A lot of people thought it wasn’t real. They would go up to it and touch the leaves and try to figure out if it was actually real, so it’s always a pleasant surprise to find it’s real.” 

According to Malak the garden’s popularity among the city’s art set is down to the fact that it is always changing. “From one month to another it alters. It’s always evolving,” he says of the garden which is four metres high, 10 metres long and boasts a mix of 2,500 plants. “It’s the scale of it too which has a great impact on our psyche. You stand in front of it and you feel that you could be standing on a mountain or in a forest.  You can feel that the air is slightly cooler and you can smell the plants. There’s a sense of wellbeing that comes from standing in front of it,” he says.

Physical benefits

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional benefits related to plant walls, these eco-friendly installations can also have a direct effect on our physical health. Biologist Wolfgang Amelung, of Canadian company Genetron Systems Inc, creates so-called ‘breathing walls’, specifically designed to help purify urban environments.

Amelung aims to help reduce poor air quality by creating entire eco-systems indoors. His mini interior rainforests harness plant power to draw in, trap and break down air pollutants.  Researchers from the Ontario-based University of Guelph tracked the performance of a ‘breathing wall’ which Amelung had installed in a conference room at the headquarters of a life assurance company, Canada Life. In doing so they concluded that this had a demonstrably positive influence on air quality. 

Indeed vertical gardens can help us breathe easier in a variety of ways. Studies have shown that vertical gardens offer natural cooling solutions as they can reduce the temperature of buildings. Green walls rarely rise higher than around 5°C above the ambient temperature. In addition they have a consistently lower temperature than a bare wall. Using plants to help purify the air in buildings can help reduce the use of ventilation systems with their attendant high energy-consumption levels. Now it’s argued that harnessing the cooling effects of vertical gardens could also help reduce the use of carbon footprint-heavy air-conditioning.

From stimulating our creativity to improving our health and improving air quality and reducing energy use, it seems likely that vertical gardens will continue to rise in cities across the world.