Urban Greening The simple step we can take to beautifully transform our lives

If you live in a city and spend your time working indoors then you need to get more plants into your life.

DUBLIN CITY HAS 70,000 apartments and if five plants were placed on each balcony that would be 350,000 extra plants in our capital. Now that’s urban greening!

Every city has its own energy and with that energy comes a hive of activity. As we battle through each day of city life we are faced with evolving trends and constantly changing lifestyle patterns that makes living in the city exciting. Our lifestyles are changing, so we need to keep an open mind and be willing to adjust further towards change.

Dublin city has grown in size due to a high density of apartments having been built to accommodate a higher population in its centre. There are currently 69,194 apartments in Dublin city with 132,256 occupants, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Dublin’s inner city, in particular, has seen strong population growth. Between 1991 and 2011 the population of Dublin increased by just 9.8%. However, in Dublin’s inner city there was an increase of 62% in the same period. This increase reflects the high level of apartment building in the city from the late 1980s onwards, due in large to tax and other fiscal incentives aimed at stimulating urban regeneration.

You need to get more plants into your life

To value our own health and our city’s health we need to look at ‘urban greening’. We all know the benefits of urban green space such as city parks, community gardens, sports grounds and street trees which are all good for the soul. But urban greening is more than just that. It means planting plants wherever you can to make urban areas greener. There are two sides to this coin, firstly the benefit to the environment and secondly the benefit to our health.

The sights, smells, and sounds of plants are understood to promote relaxation, reduce stress and improve our mental health. If you live in a city and spend your time working indoors then you need to get more plants into your life, as they are your connection with nature. Green up your city garden space, whatever the size, and create your chill out zone. It has been proven that by being in the presence of plants will actually lift your mood.

Plants and trees filter pollutants and dust from the air, reduce carbon dioxide, provide shade, and lower temperatures in urban areas. Green areas increase biodiversity in our cities and green roofs can play an important role in saving energy, reducing the urban heat island effect and adding more green space to transform urban areas.

The Royal Horticultural Society carried out a scientific urban greening review and the four main results were as follows:

  1. Gardens help to keep cities above water by preventing flooding
  2. Gardens are the equivalent of an air conditioning system for our cities
  3. Gardening eases stress and encourage exercise
  4. Gardens support wildlife, whatever the size

Why we need to ‘green up’ our cities

I attended the international green city conference in London last spring, which highlighted international concern for greening cities and showcased some fantastic examples of green infrastructure around the world.

Annemarie Jorritsma, Mayor of Almere – the Netherlands’ newest and greenest city – outlined why it mattered to build a brand new green city and how the Dutch can stick to a plan. There is a lesson on that for us. We heard from a host of experts from around the globe including China, Australia and Korea, as well as from Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians from Britain, who spoke to us about health benefits of gardening.

While in London I went down to visit London’s largest living wall at the ‘Rubens at the Palace Hotel’. This cool wall hosts a total of 10,000 herbaceous plants and is home to bees, butterflies and a wide variety of birds. There are 22 plant species, including native ferns, English ivy, geraniums, strawberries and primroses.

Its irrigation comes from storage tanks on the roof which capture and hold rain water before entering the city’s drainage system helping to prevent flooding. The plants themselves can absorb 10,000 litres of water just like a giant sponge. Now that’s a good vibe!

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Picture from the ‘Rubens at the Palace Hotel’

Vertical forests

Another good example of green building infrastructure is the vertical forest in Milan, Bosco Verticale. There are two residential towers under construction in the centre of Milan hosting 900 trees and 2,000 plants with a variety of shrubs and floral plants. If the plants were placed on the ground, they would cover an area equal to 7,000 square metres of forest. The planting creates a microclimate within each residential apartment absorbing CO2 and dust particles and producing oxygen – you have to like this trend.

As I travelled around the city I was surprised by the amount of plants and trees I saw growing from balconies and rooftops, from large specimen plants and trees to displays of formal topiary dressing up the classic architecture of hotels and apartment blocks. There seems to be genuine love of plants from the fashion capital of Europe and these smart Italians are definitely on their way towards a healthier city. (And they make great pizzas!)

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A random balcony in Milan, taken while on my visit there 2014

Every small step makes a difference 

When we mention the word ‘garden’ we usually think of a typical suburban garden with a lawn, a path to a shed and a washing line. But a city garden can start as small as a clay pot filled with herbs or flowers in the corner of a small balcony.

So what can we do? In a city where space is limited and new green spaces cannot be created, we must look to other areas to naturalise and green up with plants. Using Dublin as an example, if every apartment dweller in the Irish capital placed five plants on their balcony then we would have an additional 350,000 plants in our city. Such a small step would make a huge difference.

What to plant on your balcony? First you must find out how much sunlight your balcony gets. Get a compass app and examine the sunlight pattern. Ironically, you may have a sunny aspect but then be overshadowed by a neighbouring building – that’s life so just go with the flow.

There are plants that will thrive in the sun and others that will thrive in the shade just like in a woodland under trees. Some that will tolerate wind and scorching sun so, whatever the situation, there is always a planting solution.

I used many different varieties of these plants on the green roofs and walls in my winning garden in Bloom last year. The theme of the show garden was ‘Urban Greening’ to highlight the benefits of plants in cities. It also showcased vibrant graffiti artwork for the first time in Bloom, with steel sculptures representing the city elements.

So as our cities grow and as our concrete imprint on nature also grows, can we pull back a blanket of green over our buildings to soften the blow?

Yes we can. Think city, think green!

Kevin Dennis is a landscape designer with CityScape Gardener. Kevin was overall winner of Ireland’s 2014 Bloom Festival with his garden ‘City Life Garden’ . His passion is taking urban areas and transforming them into places of beauty and calm. Kevin is now following on with his Urban Greening Theme and is developing his ideas in city garden spaces.

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