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Wasted space gets green makeover - October 18, 2013

With the amount of available, undeveloped land dwindling day by day, year by year, our developers and engineers need to start thinking outside the box; or in some cases on it.

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. One hundred years ago, only two out of every 10 people lived in a city or urban environment. However, by 2010, more than half of the world’s population now lives in an urban area.

As the urban population continues to skyrocket, the cities themselves continue to grow; upward and outward. This means that engineers, architects and other city developers need to plan for this continued population growth and remember that people need open green spaces to enjoy, not just the gray, beige and black “concrete jungles.”

Green walls are not a new idea and can be traced all the way back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but they have only recently started to become popular in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and others. A green wall is a wall, either free-standing or part of a pre-constructed building, that is partially or completely covered with vegetation growing on a small layer of soil or other growing medium. Green walls vary immensely in size, shape, coverage and types of vegetation, but they all have a plethora of benefits.

Green walls provide a variety of benefits to the general public in urban areas including the fact that green walls are aesthetically pleasing and can create a sense of enclosure and safety in urban areas where privacy is often difficult to come by.

Green walls also reintroduce vegetation into urban environments, which helps to promote natural cooling processes such as photosynthesis and evapotranspiration in plants. With strategic planning and placement of green walls in urban areas, plants can create enough turbulence to break vertical airflow, which slows and cools the air and reduces the urban heat island effect.

Apart from cooling city air, green walls also help mitigate air pollution levels by lowering extreme summer temperatures through photosynthesis, trapping particulate matter and capturing various gases.

Other than benefits to the general public, green walls provide a boost to the local economy. Green walls draw upon several disciplines for their design, installation and maintenance, such as landscape architects, architects, irrigation consultants and more. This creates a need for a well-trained and educated local workforce.

While there are many public benefits from green walls, there are also many private benefits for the businesses that put green walls on their buildings. The green movement is growing and businesses, both public and private, that “go green” have a competitive edge against businesses that do not.

Green walls are an easily identifiable symbol of the green movement since they are visible and directly impact the amount of green space in urban centers.

Green walls can help to reduce temperature fluctuations on the building’s surface, in turn limiting the movement of heat between building walls to the outside air and reducing heat loss. Temperature fluctuations throughout a building’s lifetime can also be damaging to organic construction materials in building façades. By providing an additional layer of exterior insulation, green walls help limit thermal fluctuations.

The vegetated surface provided by strategic urban greenery such as green walls will help to block high frequency sounds, and when constructed with a substrate or growing medium, can also block low-frequency noises, creating a quieter, more productive workplace.

Green walls provide some major human health benefits, as well. Most Americans spend anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors, and as a result are influenced highly by the effectiveness of interior air circulation systems. Air that has been circulated throughout a building with a strategically placed green wall (such as near an air intake valve) will be cleaner and contain less airborne pollutants than a building without any green walls.

The presence of indoor vegetation or indoor green walls will have the same effect and will help provide better air quality. Studies have shown that visual access to natural settings leads to increased job satisfaction and productivity and even improved post-operative recovery rates in medical facilities.

Apart from the benefits to businesses and the general public, living in an urban area, green walls can help mitigate loss of biodiversity due to the effects of urbanization, help sustain a variety of plants, pollinators and invertebrates in a local area, and provide habitat and nesting places for various bird species that might otherwise be lost during urbanization.

Green walls also offer the opportunity for urban agriculture, such as vertical gardens of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. These urban gardens can provide a local source of healthy food for many people in the city who otherwise might not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

As green walls become more popular, it is our hope that cities will go from countless boring, gray skyscrapers to exciting, living towers that reflect the human need to be outdoors and experience nature.

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