My book about the people, politics, history, and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published in paperback today.
‘A compelling exploration of river living’ – Homes & Gardens
‘One of the best waterways books for decades’ – Waterways World
‘Chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’ – Caught by the River
‘A serious and fascinating book’ – Hackney Citizen
‘Waterways writing at its finest’ – The Book Barge
‘Babbs is an excellent nature writer’ – The Bookseller
You’ll find Adrift for sale in all good bookshops, in the real world and online, priced £8.99.
This article was written for the Guardian
Forget London’s monolithic new Shard, all eyes will surely be on the Bosco Verticale when it opens in Milan at the end of this year. The new skyscraper promises to bring a hectare of forest into the central business district, as well as hundreds of new homes. Rather than cold steel and glass, the surface of this high-rise will ripple with organic life.
Made of two towers – one 80 metres high, the other 112 metres – Bosco Verticale is currently being planted with 730 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 groundcover plants and 5,000 shrubs. One of the principal architects, Stefano Boeri calls it both “radical” and an “experiment”; a reaction against the “high parallelepipeds, clad by glass, steel or ceramic” he’s witnessed in Dubai.
Jill Fehrenbacher, editor of Inhabitat and a follower of architecture trends, says proposals for buildings featuring copious vegetation are increasingly common. “I have yet to see very many of these ‘living building’ designs become reality, which is why the Bosco Verticale is such a big deal,” she says.
The interdisciplinary team working on the project includes botanists as well as engineers. Their research has ventured into testing the wind resistance of certain species of tree in wind tunnels, as well as finding a suitably lightweight substrate able to meet plants’ nutritional demands. The residents’ needs are also important – trees will be trimmed so foliage doesn’t interrupt their views.
Boeri explains that the Bosco Verticale “hands over to vegetation itself the task of absorbing the dust in the air and of creating an adequate micro-climate in order to filter out the sunlight. This is a kind of biological architecture, which refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.”
Already open, the Park Royal on Pickering hotel in Singapore is another example of a towering building-cum-garden in a dense urban area. WOHA, the architects, say it was inspired by headlands, promontories and planted terraces. Richard Hassell, the firm’s founding director, enjoys blurring the distinction between hard architecture and soft landscapes but admits that working with plants is a challenge.“For architects, it is quite a change in mindset to deal with living things,” he says.
“Normally an architect is trying to make things that are as static as possible, and resist wear and tear. But plants grow, and change, and drop leaves, and wilt and die if you forget about them.”
A ‘living building’ is never really finished. It will change over time and will require much more maintenance than one without plants. For both the Park Royal on Pickering and the Bosco Verticale, the upkeep will be centralised and carried out by specialist staff. Could such projects be called too labour and energy intensive? Jill Fehrenbacher doesn’t think so.
“Living plants…clean the air and produce oxygen, they help humidify indoor air, they reduce storm water runoff and the urban heat island effect, and they help insulate a building,” she argues. “Even though skyscrapers like the Bosco Verticale inherently use a tonne of resources and energy – simply by virtue of being a high-rise building – all of those trees and plants are going to be beneficial to the building occupants, neighbours and local environment.”
And perhaps ‘living buildings’ have worth based on aesthetics alone. “At the very worst, a garden is a delight to the users, so even if there is minimum environmental value, there is still immense value in having more green spaces in dense cities,” says Richard Hassell.
The visual impact of buildings like these certainly can’t be underestimated. Apparently Singapore’s taxi drivers now make detours to drive past the planted hotel, while Stefano Boeri talks about his structures being ‘ecology billboards’. Jill Fehrenbacher says such buildings will be everywhere in twenty years, as we “try to recreate some sort of primeval garden of paradise in our homes and workplaces.”More than mere gardens, planted high-rises have the potential to change our cityscapes.
“For sure this is an experiment but to have a sequence of Bosco Verticales, to reach a critical mass, this could be quite interesting,” says Boeri. “To deurbanise the urban environment is a radical alternative to expensive technology.”The proof of a building’s appeal is surely when the architect himself decides to move-in. And yes, Boeri has reserved himself a small apartment in Bosco Verticale, explaining he’s “extremely attracted” to the idea of living high up in these soon-to-be leafy towers of trees.
This feature was originally written for the Guardian
Picture the urban scene. The chimney with a plume of bush, not smoke. The stuttering guttering, become plant container. The rubble filled wasteland temporarily knotted with growth. The brick rail bridge decked with foliage and flowers. Let us celebrate buddleia’s brazen ways – the way it rampages through unloved urban areas and clings to the side of buildings.
Of course some people hate it. They declare it an invasive weed and call for a cull. In natural areas it can strangle out native species and should be controlled, but in concrete deserts surely we should praise its tenacity and the rich nectars it provides to urban insects. Tamed in the garden it can be a striking butterfly magnet.
Professor Peter Houghton has been studying buddleia for 30 years, and has spent many an afternoon on a railway siding digging up its peppery smelling roots. He once had a freezer full of root samples that, when tested, were revealed to have anti-fungal properties. This could be a way that buddleia protects itself against attack from creatures in the soil. It’s a plant he continues to be fascinated by, but no longer has in his garden or his freezer.
The manmade urban landscape often mimics buddleja’s natural one of rocky mountain tops and dry shingle. Peter explains that “it occupies an ecological niche in tolerating the high levels of calcium found in mortar. Buddleia loves well drained soil and is good at conserving water. The hairs on the underside of the leaves must play a part here, covering the stomata and cutting down evaporation.”
Self-seeding Buddleja davidii was brought to the UK from China in the 1890s. It became widespread as a weed in Britain after World War Two, rushing like wild fire through freshly exposed bomb sites and reveling in all that exposed mortar and rubble. It’s now seen growing with abandon in towns and cities across the UK, and beyond.
Peter’s lifelong investigations include looking into buddleja’s use in traditional medicine. The leaves have been used as a poultice for wound healing in Eastern Asia, South Africa, South America and Mexico. An infusion of the flowers of Buddleja officinalis, which blooms in January, is used as an eye-wash and to reduce inflammation in Chinese medicine. It can be found growing in the Chelsea Physic Garden, which showcases medicinal plants from around the world.
Buddleia is fragrant and floral, and can look great in a garden if it’s kept in check. There are numerous varieties and cultivars available, not just the infamous and fast spreading purple Buddleja davidii that delights and offends in equal measure.
Peter Moore tends to the national collection of buddleia at Longstock Nursery on the Leckford Estate in Hampshire. He spends 15 hours a week dead heading the bushes in summer. Like Professor Houghton, he has also discovered that there’s more to buddleia than its (debatable) good looks. “In Chile they sell Buddleja globosa as a tea – a brew I would not recommend” he says.
What he does recommend is growing the tender Buddleja asiatica in your garden – it has panicles of sweetly scented white flowers. Other favourites include cultivars of the davidii like ‘sugar plum’ (which has velvet burgundy flowers), ‘summerhouse blue’, ‘white wings’ and ‘white profusion’ (which has tiny fried egg flowers).
Small spaces and year round interest
The national collection boasts 15 compact cultivars of Buddleja davidii that would suit smaller spaces. Peter suggests ‘Camberwell beauty’ (which has branched flower panicles), ‘glasnevin’ (lilac-blue flowers), ‘pink spread’ (deep pink) and ‘marble white’. If space is limited to a single patio pot, try the dwarf ‘buzz’ versions created by Thompson and Morgan, which come in four colours, or the ‘bluechip’ from the USA. Another Longstock favourite is ‘silver anniversary’, which looks good in a container or an herbaceous border.
For year round interest, ‘lochinch’ is covered with lavender flowers well into September and has silver-white foliage throughout winter. Hardy evergreen Buddleja auriculata makes a good wall shrub. It has fragrant white flowers in autumn and winter, and provides much needed nectar for early emerging insects. Buddleia is a good choice for wildlife friendly gardeners because it’s so nectar rich, but the RSPB recommend nature fans plant non-invasive Buddleja globosa (which has orange-yellow flowers) rather than prolific Buddleja davidii.
And what, to conclude, of that particular species bad reputation? “Buddleja davidii is like the urban fox – it’s nice to have something wild in the city but it can be annoying too. You have to keep it under control in gardens, but it’s nice to see a wasteland covered in it. It’s certainly one of the most attractive weeds we’ve got, and one of the only ones that’s a bush” says Peter Houghton. To anyone still convinced that buddleia is nothing more than an invasive weed, Peter Moore says visit the national collection in July or August – “you’ll be bowled over”.
How to grow
Bushy buddleia likes well-drained soil and thrives best in sunny spots. The shrub can get large and leggy – hard pruning in late March is essential to keep bushes at a manageable size. De-heading the flowers (as you would a rose) will result in second and even third flushes of flowers and prevent self-seeding.
Look up the RHS 2008-2010 trial report of Buddleja davidii and its close hybrids.
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