Bosco Verticale, Milano

Sydney recently hosted the IUCN World Parks Congress, a once-in-a-decade global gathering to share knowledge and innovation as well as set the agenda for protected areas conservation for the decade to come. Over 6000 delegates attended, and it was quite obvious that since the last gathering in Durban in 2004, something had shifted in the discussion and thinking around connecting people to our green spaces and parks, signifying the re-imagining of our cities and how people interact with our natural landscapes.

It was during the last decade, that for the first time in human history, the majority of people lived in urban (rather than rural) areas. According to the World Health Organisation the urban population in 2014 accounted for 54 per cent of the total global population, up from 34 per cent in 1960, and this trend to urbanisation is set to continue.

Originally, organisations such as Parks Victoria (a host of the Congress) focused purely on the conservation and protection of national parks, wilderness areas and large city parklands.

Urbanisation, however, has created a new set of priorities. With more people living in cities we are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, prompting a stronger focus on the health and wellbeing of people and how we connect to nature. Recent scientific research has also proven that plants and nature make us happier, healthier and more engaged. So how do we re-green our urban spaces to meet the demands of a rising urban population? The answer is, we need to bring the parks to the people, rather than simply relying on getting people to the parks.

Enter the opportunity for the built environment and the scaling up of our green walls, roofs and living infrastructure in our cities. It is not unimaginable that within the next decade, Australia, like Singapore, will host cities in parks, as opposed to parks in a city. To achieve this, we will need to create stronger engagement, between our parks and wildlife specialists, government, business and the built environment.

The focus must shift from a token green wall or roof, to looking at a building and its surrounds as a vertical urban park.

Sound a bit like bringing the mountain to Mohammed? Ten years ago that would have been the case, but not anymore. Technology has shifted dramatically. We no longer need massive tracts of land for growing plants. Any surface, be it vertical or horizontal, on a rooftop or on the ground is now ripe for planting and re-greening.

For an example of this, simply look up as you go through Broadway in Sydney to see One Central Park, awarded 2014 Best Tall Building in the World, by the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. The thing you’ll notice – it’s covered in plants. Think this is a one off?

Well, travel a little further afield to Milan in Italy to see Bosco Verticale, which won the 2014 International Highrise Award. The link? The building is also covered in plants and it is also Europe’s first vertical forest.

There’s a theme here, and it’s an exciting one. Buildings and urban spaces no longer have to be harsh, hot, structures. There’s an opportunity to turn these buildings into forests and jungles – and the people who take this opportunity will not only do their bit to help air quality, environment and the well-being of the people who live in and around these buildings and environments, the exciting news is that these buildings sell well and will command a premium. Why? Because they are healthier places to live and work and people like them.

No, not like, love them. In marketing, we call that “heart space” and when a product reaches that zone you can name your price.

Government is also starting to step up with new policies and programs to stimulate the introduction of more green spaces into the fabric of our built environment.

In April 2014, The City of Sydney introduced its green roofs and walls policy (the first of its kind in Australia), the City of Melbourne has also launched the Growing Green Guide and the 2014 Victorian Medal for Landscape Architecture was awarded to the City of Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy and Precinct Plans. We are also starting to see some great leadership from industry groups like the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and Horticulture Australia with their 202020 Vision project.

Suzie Barnett (left) and Nicole Smith.

With such momentum around this new urban green infrastructure and the fact that Australian cities tend to have the best climate for growing plants, there’s appears to be very little stopping us from growing plants all over our built structures and re-connecting our growing urban population to plants and nature.

So what can we expect in the next decade? Greater collaboration between experts in parks and wildlife, landscape gardening, government and business to re-imagine our cities where parks are integrated into the fabric of the built environment and we are constantly connected to nature.

No longer will you need to worry about whether there’s a park across the road from your office or apartment – it’s time to bring the park to your building.

Nicole Smith and Suzie Barnett collaborate as marketers and business strategists with a focus on sustainability and the built environment.

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  1. Good point. I think as cities start to urbanize and become higher density, there is a need to introduce green-scape to soften the urban built-form and mitigate the urban heat island effect. No, not so much that you loose your real parks, Cole. We still need real parks, but the green-scape on, in, above, everywhere of buildings are more important now due to the change of urbanites’ lifestyle, workstyle and what not. These pocket greens afforded by buildings are necessary so that humans don’t turn into to anti-social individuals stuck within the urban concrete forest! Keep it up!

  2. Sorry to be abrupt: it is called landscape architecture and there are many good landscape architects in Sydney. Look them up.

    Also, it is hard to write a poem or hatch an egg or watch clouds or play a sport or buy a coffee or talk to a new neighbour from a green wall or….a private access green roof. Not that they aren’t good, just that we still need real parks. Cole