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Living Walls for Sustainability at Harvard University

Living Walls Harvard University

Living walls frame the Arcade at the new Richard A. & Susan F. Smith Campus Center features. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

During our most recent trip to Harvard Square we admired the living walls at the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center. There we were introduced to Harvard’s Sustainability Plan which includes buildings and open areas for a healthier and more sustainable campus community. We saw this plan in stunning action. This building was formerly known as the Holyoke Center, but the first three stories of the domineering ten story building has been redesigned to open up the space to the city outside, to bring light inside, and to make those spaces welcoming for groups, for socializing, and for study. Apparently it is now necessary for Harvard itself to provide socializing and organizing space for students because venues around Harvard Square have become so expensive.

The open angles and stairways, and the outdoor balcony with greenery are beautiful and welcoming, but we marveled at the living walls. When you walk into the building you find yourself surrounded on both sides by two-story high walls of greenery. It’s all very well to think fondly of the halls of ivy of our great learning institutions, but one expects those ivy covered walls to be outside the building. A team from Plant Wall Design created a felt and soil medium to hold over 12,000 plants. The 19 plant species were carefully chosen because of their hardiness in these circumstances and include several philodendron species, creeping fig, rabbit foot fern, maidenhair fern, peperomia and others. They are fed hydroponically with nutrients, and water coming from the Campus Center’s roof.  Lighting is provided by special LED lights. The array of shades of green and varied textures is really wonderful.

The plants serve the function of cleaning the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. They also provide some humidity. Beyond the benefits of clean air for the students, the designers at Plant Wall Design must have considered the benefits of biophilia. Some scientists have concluded that gazing at an image of a natural scene will relax the brain. Some have said that being in nature lightens your mood and makes you more productive. Some say we have an inborn need to maintain connections with nature. To this end Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (Van Valkenburg also designed the wonderful wooded Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum) created an ‘open air vitrine’ forest in the middle of the building. A vitrine is a glass display case; the Campus Center’s vitrine puts a green forest on display.

Forest in a glass vitrine

A vitrine filled with trees frames the Arcade at the new Richard A. & Susan F. Smith Campus Center features. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

I commend Harvard for their Sustainability Plan which is about more than the living walls. They have made greater use of their open spaces. We were delighted to walk through Harvard Yard in the gloaming, to see all kinds of groups on cheerfully painted chairs visiting under the shade trees, and picnicking on the lawn. We bought supper from the food trucks on a plaza complete with a large fountain that resembled a rocky splash pad – where children were frolicking. Our connections to each other are surely as important as our connections to nature.

living wall plants

My son Chris and I on elevated walkway to see living wall plants closeup

Harvard’s living walls are not unique. We learned that the Boston Science Museum also has interior green walls designed by Ambius. When we visited Quebec City a number of years ago we saw one exterior wall of a large building covered with greenery, much like Harvard’s interior walls. The goal again was to provide clean air and to lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Many people with small gardens can also include more greenery by using one wall hung system or another. I’ve seen home made drainpipe plantings for home gardens, but a few clicks through Amazon will reveal a world of felt systems for indoors or outdoor gardens, as well and wood and plastic systems. You may also find some systems at your local garden center.

The growing interest in providing plants to purify the air and lower carbon dioxide shows me that people are reacting to climate change and thinking about the benefits of plants to us individually, and to our planet. The importance of street trees in our towns and cities is appreciated and valued more every day. Early this month Greenfield and Montague announced that they had received a gift of 1,000 trees to be planted over the next three years. The grant from the U.S. Forest Service will allow the Franklin Land Trust to work with the Greenfield’s Tree Committee and Montague’s Tree Advisory Committee, and with their departments of public works to plant trees where they are needed, on public land, along streets, and where residents want trees, including replacing dead or dying trees. Planting will begin in the spring of 2019.

Planting a tree will mean cleaner air, cooling shade in the summer, and control over storm water runoff. If you would like to have a tree, call the Greenfield DPW at 413-772-1528, if you live in Montague call the Montague DPW at 413-863 2054. ###

Between the Rows  November 17, 2018

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