Are Living High-Rises the Answer to Sustainable Urban Construction?

With the world’s population rising, cities bursting at the seams and net-zero carbon targets to meet, innovative architects and developers are pushing the boundaries to construct eco-friendly skyscrapers. Does a trailblazing high-rise called Bosco Verticale (the Vertical Forest) suggest that future skylines will be alive with greenery and foliage? CCL takes a look...

The UK has set into law a commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This will mean that greenhouse gas emissions will need to be significantly reduced (or offset) to neutralise their environmental impact across all industries, in an effort to protect the planet from global warming.

However, according to the World Green Building Council, the built environment is responsible for 39 per cent of the planet’s total carbon footprint, so achieving net-zero carbon by 2050 for the sector is a mammoth task.

With urban populations exploding, and limited space at ground level to accommodate a projected 2 billion extra residents by 2050, the cities of the future will inevitably continue to look up to the skies to find more living space. This means that high-rise buildings, where large numbers of people can live on a relatively small footprint, are here to stay.

In the past, high-rises have been blamed for increasing urban pollution both in terms of their construction and operation. However, new, greener methods of building design and construction alongside smart, sustainable building management systems are already helping to reduce the carbon emissions from today’s growing number of skyscrapers.

Could energy-efficient, low carbon skyscrapers planted with pollution-busting, oxygen-exhaling trees and plants offer us a glimpse into the future of sustainable urban construction?

The Bosco Verticale (the Vertical Forest) in Milan was designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri to be a prototype building for a new ‘architectural biodiversity’ construction style. The two iconic towers measuring 80 and 112 metres high, are planted with 800 trees, 15,000 perennials and 5,000 shrubs. According to the architect, that’s the equivalent of 30,000 square metres of woodland and undergrowth, concentrated on a 3,000 square metre footprint. Since completion in 2014, the towers have become an iconic landmark on the city’s skyline. The video below shows the development five years on.

Video courtesy of Stefano Boeri Architetti

The dense foliage on each facade plays a crucial role in dispersing and removing pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter from the atmosphere. The greenery not only improves the air quality for the occupants and the city, it simultaneously reduces the building’s energy consumption by insulating it against external temperature changes, keeping the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Of course, for residents, the benefits of living high-rises are not limited to the physical. The events of the last 12 months have made many acutely aware of the importance mental health, and the impact of natural surroundings on our psychological wellbeing is widely documented. Research conducted by the Harvard Medical Review has shown a strong connection between time spent surrounded by nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

The case for high-rises alive with greenery appears to be overwhelmingly positive. And if ambitious net-zero carbon targets are to be achieved by 2050, projects like Bosco Verticale will need to become the template, rather than the exception for the high-rises of the future.