Why building for the future means thinking green

  • 5 Dec 2013

Debates about sustainability do not occur in a vacuum. Population growth is one variable that can put huge pressure on the environment and, if the figures from the Office for National Statistics are anything to go by, then that pressure is only going to increase in the UK.

According to the ONS’s latest figures, the UK’s population grew by 419,000 in the past year reaching 63.7 million – the greatest increase of any country in Europe.  An increasing population inevitably raises questions about land use and, as a result, the issue of sustainability can become more pressing for town planners and builders.

In the concrete jungle, green space is in danger of becoming an endangered species. Yet the benefits of greenery are varied and the increased use of innovative types of greenery – such as living walls, green hoardings and vertical rain gardens – must be a central consideration for public bodies.

If we are to collectively tackle issues such as traffic pollution and declining levels of biodiversity in urban areas, then some creative thinking is required. This creative thinking needs to focus on how green infrastructure can be woven into the public realm.

Simultaneously, there needs to be a step-change in expectations about what can – and should – be achieved when it comes to urban sustainability. Sustainable features like green walls should no longer be viewed as optional supplements to good design. Rather, they should be an integral part of that design.

One frequently asked question is that space is already scarce enough in urban areas, so how can greenery be injected? That is precisely the challenge – how to incorporate green infrastructure into the existing, cluttered streetscape.

The responsibility falls on local authorities, NHS Trusts and other public bodies which play a prominent role in shaping our urban environment. They, their architects and their builders need to ensure that living walls and other greenery becomes a central element in their thinking. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is among the public figures to take a lead on this front with the introduction of green screens in the capital, while Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust has installed an ivy hoarding around the building site for its new King’s Health Partners Cancer Centre, which will open in 2016. However, more politicians and public bodies need to follow suit.

What then, are the precise benefits of urban greenery such as living walls? Primarily, it is one of health, with green walls helping to absorb potentially lethal microscopic pollutants.

The pollutants in our towns and cities that are caused by vehicle emissions are a real risk to human health. Academic studies have pointed to the respiratory illnesses and deaths that are caused by polluted air and, last year, the European Union ruled that the UK was in breach of its air quality directive. In addition, 16 areas of the UK are forecast not to meet the EU’s legal nitrogen dioxide limits by 2015.

Living walls improve air quality – and therefore improve human health. The plants that comprise the walls also release more oxygen into the air and can help city dwellers literally breathe more easily. Moreover, they can help public bodies breathe more easily in the knowledge that they are taking steps to meet air quality targets.

However, the health benefits of living walls are not confined to physical health; they are also good for mental health.

Academics from the University of Exeter’s European Centre of Environment and Human Health published a study in the journal of Psychological Science that examined the relationship between urban green space and mental wellbeing. The research suggested that people are happier when living in urban areas with greater amounts of green space. The scientists’ conclusion was clear: “Findings show that urban green space can deliver significant benefits for mental wellbeing.”

Living walls can also absorb noise from nearby roads, and have been shown to boost local biodiversity levels. They also serve to deter would-be graffiti artists by depriving the vandals of their canvas. 

The benefits of green infrastructure such as living walls are therefore varied. They serve a vital role in promoting the health of both humans and the environment, and can make our neighbourhoods more pleasant places in which to live. By incorporating them into our built environment, we can collectively bring about a green revolution.

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