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· Robin Nicholson

Plants in Cities: Health and Wealth

The growing evidence on the benefits of greening our cities

I was brought up as a gardener but our latest sustainability evening made me realise that I have much to learn and it really matters. The speakers provided four perspectives as an architect, a research scientist, a treecare expert and an engineer/plant warrior, followed by a good discussion.

One of our practice leaders, Carol Costello, started with the big picture on the planet and in London before reviewing the range of our interests from classic Cullinan projects such as RMC's HQ (the largest roof garden in Europe in 1990), the Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Sciences where the parts are all connected with gardens on 3 levels, Singapore Management University (main photo) with hanging plants as sunshading, to the more evidence based design of the therapeutic gardens at our Maggie’s in Newcastle, and our research on air quality at Rosendale School in Lambeth with the relatively new London School of Architecture (LSA) that helped us win a new well-building-inspired office on one of the most polluted streets in London. Carol ended with our work at RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex to engage children with the natural world, and with her work on community gardening projects on her housing estate in Lambeth.

Then Rosamund Portus discussed her Geoscience Master’s research into the concepts of the Anthropcene Era and Nature Deficit Disorder, the latter being new to me but which she stressed was definitely not a medical condition. Following up Richard Louv’s ‘Last Child in the Woods’, her hope for the future includes Forest Schools; she presented the compelling argument that children who have exposure to nature are more likely to care for the planet in the future.

Jeremy Barrell runs one of the country’s leading treecare consultancies, with 500 projects a year and a special interest in looking after mature trees when new buildings are inserted amongst them. His inspiring projects from around the world hammered home the point that trees can make places and clean up their environments but tree species and climates vary.  A great pair of photographs of the young Plane trees in Kingsway in 1951 and now, 60 years later show the long-term vision that is needed. Trees encourage walking and cycling and for every unit of investment they pay back in health benefits.

However, all is not well in Sheffield and Wandsworth where hugely valuable mature trees are inexcusably being cut down for the financial benefit of the contractors but to the detriment of the people and their environment. The value of the 6,000 trees felled in Sheffield is estimated at £60m!

Polymath Chris McCarthy, co-founder of Battle McCarthy and now Greenworks, claimed that “you architects” were in a unique position of power (that would be a fine thing) to champion trees and planting and to insist on a fairly detail level of design in order to prepare a Health Impact Assessment (HIA); HIAs are now required for major developments and one needs to be able demonstrate how the project will improve public health not just prevent it getting worse.

Chris then described the Nitrogen Cycle and the scrubbing action of tree leaves, bacteria in the soil and ground water; larger trees are up to 70 times more effective than smaller trees and some species are better than others and don’t discount lichens. He then explained the brilliant GreenBlue Urban’s ArborFlow System for urban trees… that suck in nitrogen dioxide and particulates from car exhausts level, pass over a lichen curtain and to feed the trees – I must go and see them in action in Goldhawk Road in West London. In response to a question Chris touched on the opportunities for urban hydroponics in underused parts of our urban buildings.

Creating gardens alongside or on top of our architecture has been part of the Cullinan approach since its beginnings - we think it’s obvious that nature makes you feel good. However, now there is research evidence that proves the profound mental and physical benefits of living with plants. This evidence is influencing government policy and campaigns to improve our health - the Mayor of London’s Greener City Fund and Healthy Streets for London being just two examples - and can support us in making the case to include plants in our urban designs for places and buildings.

Robin Nicholson

Footnote: We have been working hard to bring more plants into our city by creating a towpath garden for our local community to enjoy on a narrow stretch of land outside our office on Regents Canal. We were delighted to be awarded Islington In Bloom's Silver Gilt Award for Best Forgotten Corner in September this year. 

Cullinan Studio's towpath garden on Regents Canal in London

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