living balconies in Bilbao, Spain

living balconies in Bilbao, Spain

All of the more stunning cities I have been to have had flowers and vines, and shrubs and trees, growing out of people’s homes, and visible from the street. It is truly amazing how living plants give a sense of comfort and charm to a city. A city that includes plenty of non-human life is curiously more humane, the city feels more like a shared home,
less like an intensive, mono-culture farm of the human species.

The presence of green living things can be cheering on deep psychological levels as well as cleansing on a biological-chemical levels. To back up the long standing idea that plants inspire calm researchers have recently begun looking at how plants affect wellbeing. Many articles I have found tend to cover studies on pot plants in indoor spaces. [ref 1] Interiors are easy to control in experiments – they either have plants or they don’t. But I do like the ‘take home message’ from Jonathan Kaplan’s urban mindfulness blog:

“Relative to a barren environment, the research suggests that having plants around you is a good thing for your health and productivity.” [ref 2]

…which seems perfectly transferable to the larger urban environment which is even less likely to contain fluffy mascots and family photos. The urban environment can seem full of hard, rough, bland, dusty, dead and empty surfaces when one spends a bit of time out walking.

There are some very interesting but harder to find studies on green exercise – or the effect of exercise outside in ‘green’ spaces. Jules Pretty of Essex University is particularly interested in this topic and has an excellent write up his studies here [ref 3]. He is interested in the emotional benefits of the natural environment. He says as there is less ‘green nature’ in cities, urban dwellers are less able to de-stress by connecting with that green-ness. As cities get larger and more people live in urban areas, the less access the population has to the health benefits of living breathing plants.

To encourage a greener, less stressful and more humane city life, I’d like to show some wonderfully creative and urban examples of humans and plants spending their days together:

Hundertwasser museum - with many green tenants.

Hundertwasser museum – with many green tenants.

One of my favourite examples of green growing city space is the courtyard café at the Hundertwasser museum in Vienna (unfortunately no photos allowed inside – see the video link below) This open interior space had many fine creepers tumbling down from the upper levels like leafy waterfalls, landing amongst a mish-mash of round boulder like tables and proud potted trees reaching up. The museum also includes an example of one of his ‘tree tenants’: Hundertwasser designed a method of growing trees inside, independently in their own space, trained to grow out their own window, from their own little dirt filled room of about 1m2. The combination of a first floor landing filled with weird and wonderful tall pot plants adjacent to a fully grown tree tenant made me want to smile and smile. It was reminiscent of the forest in the bedroom of Max, king of the wild things.

tree tenant at the Hundertwasser museum

tree tenant at the Hundertwasser museum

Hallstatt, Austria

flower boxes in Hallstatt, Austria

In Hallstatt, in the Austrian Alps, houses looked incomplete with out the splash of life of the window boxes. It is here that I came across my first house trained or ‘espalier’ tree. This is a fruit tree trained to grow flat against a wall [ref 5]. A great idea for getting that leafy forest feel with only a small outdoor space. Imagine how pampered you would feel with lush ripe fruit dangling just outside your bedroom window in the morning.

espalier fruit tree

espalier fruit tree

More familiar to us in New Zealand is the humble flower basket– old England still manages to dot its city with hanging flowers on their street poles. Some smaller New Zealand cities and towns have kept this tradition of living colour on the streets; Nelson City is a lovely example.

Nelson, New Zealand

hanging flowers, Nelson, New Zealand

Our larger cities tend to be mildly amused by these as quaint and colonial displays, we show our superiority by professing a love of native flora. We then proceed to rip out existing established colonial planting to replace it with sparse new native planting – designed more for graphic impact than emotional or biological support. I prefer the idea of just continually adding more plants, that may, or may not, look wild and chaotic.

I suspect older cultures are more advanced in their understanding of the emotional necessity of living with plants; here our cities are young enough to remember they were once wild places. New enough to still hold onto the fear of things growing wild and taking over. Our civilisation in NZ cities is somewhat adolescent in it’s insistence on independence from other species. As we mature I hope we will find our family of native plants and birds can offer a stable and meaningful relationship that is not at odds with our modern lifestyle.

And besides, quite aside from the health benefits, urban mini-forests can be deeply, sensually seductive.

Vienna apartment block, July, 2009.

Vienna apartment block with built in planter boxes, July, 2009.

References:
1. stuff.co.nz article University of Technology Sydney, Professor Margaret Burchett:
“We found that plants had a very strong wellbeing effect. It was a reduction of a whole lot of negative feelings: anxiety, anger, depression, confusion, fatigue and stress.”
‘The results are clear, but the reason plants make us feel better are not, although Professor Burchett and other researchers have some theories: “It relieves what they call ‘concentration fatigue’. Unconscious appreciation of live greenery gives you a feeling of calm, a slight ‘awayness’ and being part of a bigger whole.”

2 – urban-mindfulness blog Jonathan Kaplan’s take home message – plants make you feel better.

3 – studies by Professor Jules Pretty green exercise

“It is increasingly well established that the natural and built features of the environment affect behaviour, interpersonal relationships and actual mental states. The environment can, therefore, be therapeutic or have its `dark side’. Why, then, does nature still seem to have a positive effect on people, despite the increasing urbanization of modern societies?”

4 – youtube video of Hundertwasser architecture showing some of his planting details (more towards the 2nd half).

5 – wikipedia on espalier


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