Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Hanging Gardens

Penned upon the 21st of July, 2008

It’s hard to avoid the subject of environmentalism these days – there’s an environmental issue in the news every day, and it’s reached the point where only the lunatic fringe dismiss it as a lunatic fringe issue. As astute readers will be aware, I’m all for it, and think (in my optimistic moments) that ecologists have a major role in planning future human societies. One issue which has been tickling my lobes lately is the problems of human population. I’m not going to out-and-out call the problem ‘overpopulation’, as it seems a bit more complex to me, and the seemingly obvious solution – less people – has already lead to enforced sterilisations, not to mention rural labour shortages and, well, badness.

Certainly, trying to lessen the world’s human population seems like a good idea, but I think the positive effects could be heightened if we coupled that strategy with others dealing with sprawl and resource usage. I recall reading an interesting piece – I’m not sure exactly where – about the limits of Melbourne’s geographical expansion – no further suburbs are really viable with the economy and transporation we have now, and would be undesirable anyway, as they eat up more and more vital wilderness.

It truly seems time to focus on high-density living, but high-density living has isn’t necessarily seen as desirable – it’s a bit ugly and crowded and smelly and noisy. Well, I think we need to work on new kinds of high-density living – by focusing on ecological urban design. While pondering this, I had an attack of the synchronicity – specifically, two interesting articles laid themselves in front of me. One from the University of Melbourne and one from The Age, describing variations on the same concept – rooftop and wall gardens, plants induced to grow on the sides of buildings, even in the heart of the city.

This might sound fanciful, but it’s no new idea – a frame and a drainage system, and you’ve got something plants can grow on, and it’s been done all over the world. The benefits are impressive even if you’re already familiar with the concept – a rooftop garden can reduce Summer energy use by up to 90%, which is amazing, as well as aiding in catching water, cleaning the air and reducing wear on the building. Wall gardens, of the type created by French biologist Patrick Blanc, can be grown on a simple layer of felt – that’s what hats are made of! I could have a bush take root on my head!

The boosts to a building’s efficiency provided by these gardens is fine and grand, but I think they have even more potential. So many of the negative effects of dense human occupation could be countered by opening our cities up to channels of greenery. All kinds of pollution could be reduced by the filtering capabilities of the plants, decentralised water catchment aided by gardens could ease the pressure on freshwater sources, vulnerable species could coexist with humans safely – entire ecosystems could replenish through human habitation becoming an asset and not a threat.

I suspect, also, that these gardens might help with another problem of dense human habitation – waste and the scavengers that follow. With non-scavenging species able to find a foothold in the urban environment, mightn’t there be predators who could keep populations of rats and so forth down? Especially if we employ what one cleverclogs I was fortunate enough to study under, Freya Mathews, calls synergistic development. If we can resculpt our everyday use of resources that the products of such – waste – not only do not harm life around us but in fact contribute to their needs, we can turn high-density areas from drains on the environment’s bounty to contributors to it. This isn’t so far-fetched – it’s a basic principle of ecology, really – and I suspect this is one field where the science of biomimicry can bloom.

Ideas to graze on, in any case. M Blanc has been in town, setting up a vertical garden in Melbourne Central – here are the details, all part of the International Design Festival.

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Commentary upon “Hanging Gardens”

  1. Melanthios was heard to remark,

    Upon the 30th of November, 2008 at 11:56 am,

    O! I love this ecological idea–it does not demand I compromise my devotion and love of Victorian and Rococo styles!

    I have heard of The Vertical Garden before, and I love your idea for applying it. I can picture it now, a city that looks like a rainforest from the air, with the sounds of water and birds and frogs…o, such beauty. I’m sure stress levels would absolutely *drop* from the lovely ambient sounds.

    We can only hope that it takes off in the more-powerful-than-ecology world of fashion and industry.

  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 9th of December, 2008 at 1:08 am,

    All the best design – be it Classical or Nouveau or Modernist – comes of tailoring the construction to the landscape and adopting organic forms. Miss Merah showed me a particularly excellent example of the latter just the other day – a rural art gallery which looks like nothing so much as a simple stone cliff jutting from the side of a hill, catching light and shadows in its crags.

    So, what better possible design feature than actual organics? There would be problems, naturally – for a start, you’d want to seal the walls behind the gardens well enough that animals couldn’t come and go where they might cause structural damage, sanitation hazards, etc.

    I live, at the moment, in the third council district out from the city centre – the innermost two councils have long had Greens members, and as of last month’s election, our council does too. Perhaps the time is ripe for some nudging in a gardenly direction… perhaps wearing live plants in our hats…

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