Taking Landscaping Up, Not Just Out

In my travels, I’ve noticed more and more urban areas embracing the importance of urban greenspace, and dedicating areas to the cultivation of plants in otherwise harsh urban environments. You’re probably already aware of the many benefits greenspace offers, not just environmentally but socially and emotionally. Plants help scrub the air, maintain stable temperatures, and provide habitat for animals. They create social gathering spaces and public areas for the enjoyment of all, and being able to interact with at least a taste of the natural world can help people feel better. Plus, they’re pretty.

As cities have taken on the task of greening themselves, landscaping has been a key part of the process. It’s an easy way for a city to visibly change its face and demonstrate a commitment to the environment, it’s attractive, and it’s functional. To my delight, I’ve been watching the trend creep not just outwards, but also upwards; green walls are growing more and more common both inside and outside, for example, allowing plants to crawl up buildings and fill spaces with vertical walls of greenery. And rooftop gardens as well as green roofs are more common as well; the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, for example, has an impressive green roof landscaped with native plants.

It creates a totally different feeling in the urban landscape, one where greenery is integrated into every level rather than being confined to the ground. It really does create more of a sensation of being in an urban forest, where there are multiple layers of greenspace going on all around you, with corresponding differences in terms of the kind of habitat offered and what lives there. Instead of jutting up awkwardly from the earth, buildings seem to rise more organically out of it, and they’re integrated with the area around them rather than appearing to fight it every step of the way.

Which is why I was especially interested in Urban Air, a piece of concept art from Stephen Glassman that’s designed to be both a work of art, a political statement, and a functional object. Using a kit system, Urban Air turns a traditional billboard into a bamboo garden suspended in midair, complete with watering systems and everything it needs to maintain its own stable operations. It’s embedded with electronics to track weather patterns, temperature, and other data, turning it not just into an oasis of green, but also a hub of information that could be valuable for everyone from forecasters to neighbourhood residents to researchers interested in urban greenspace, the environment, and minute temperature differences across communities.

I loathe billboards with a flaming passion and always have. They seem to get larger and more obnoxious every year, and it doesn’t help that many are electronic now, with constantly changing intrusive messages. As a driver, I find them distracting and irritating, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to live near one. My hatred is apparently shared by a lot of people, because some cities like Los Angeles have started putting measures in place to limit billboard activity in the interest of maintaining communities.

Urban Air tips the traditional narrative of billboards on its head. Instead of an emblem of commercialism designed to push people into buying or using a given product, it’s a community space offering resources for all, without a specific monetary goal. Unlike other billboards, it offers environmental benefits, and it’s actually pleasant to look at, adding to the environment instead of taking away from it. It sends a message, certainly, but that message is a far cry away from the more traditional billboard narrative; it’s about moving beyond the ecosystem that capitalism has attempted to create and creating something new and different. Something better.

I love the idea of pushing greenspaces up, and not just expanding the area where you might expect to find green things, but also actively claiming things that are not traditionally viewed as great spaces for gardening, or even spaces where you’d expect to see a garden at all. Obviously the billboard environment is not an ideal gardening space. It’s somewhat hostile, many plants would struggle to survive there, and it has some distinct disadvantages in terms of maintenance and control. There’s a big potential for wastage with water and other supplies unless it’s handled well.

Done well, it becomes not just a statement but a sustainable one. Done poorly, it looks neat, but actually doesn’t offer much in the way of environmental advantages, unless people are willing to modify to make it both functional as well as beautiful. Either way, it creates an opening for a larger conversation and it creates an inspirational talking point. It is possible to repurpose urban environments to make them more natural, and to rethink the way these spaces are used. We are living in an era when green space is at a precious premium, although many people do not seem to be aware of this, and where we need more green growing things, not less.

These billboards create an interesting opportunity for turning away from the traditional narratives about cities as seats of capitalism. It may be legally sanctioned billboard modification but it’s an activist act all the same, and it’s one with tremendous potential applications. I have to say, I wouldn’t complain if I drove through a city lined with gardens hanging in the air, each showcasing native plants and creating a lush and fascinating habit for birds, insects, and other wanderers of the sky. It would create a very different look and feel, and one that would change the very nature of the communities below.

Perhaps it is time to return to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon after all.