When it opens this summer in Seoul, the Skygarden will be more than just a nice place to walk. Occupying a former elevated highway next to the city’s Central Station, the rooftop park designed by Dutch architectural practice MVRDV is just over half a mile in length. It combines futuristic engineering and a sci-fi visual approach with a very 21st-century aim: to create a library of 254 species of trees, shrubs and flowers for the denizens of South Korea’s capital to enjoy on a sunny day.
“The Skygarden is a contemporary take on the public park,” explains Mafalda Rangel Campos, senior project leader at MVRDV. “It will become an educational arboretum and a nursery for future species, but it also gives a new function for an abandoned overpass. It’s super dynamic – the tree pot species can change and be curated over time; species can grow and be moved on to other sites, so it works as a nursery.”
Seoul has a history of reclaiming urban space. The Cheonggyecheon Stream was abandoned and hidden away until 2005, when urban renewal placed it at the heart of the city’s psychogeography, turning it into a much-loved hub for locals. But Seoul is by no means alone. Indeed, you could say that city landscaping hasn’t been this exciting since the Sun King gave André Le Nôtre carte blanche at Versailles. The idea of reworking redundant corners of the urban sprawl to create something organic and lush is now a global phenomenon, providing tourist attractions that also serve as a practical part of our engineered ecosystems.
The novel location of many of these green spaces is down to space. The struggle for real estate in today’s high-density metropolises means that developers have to look up or down for opportunities – and new developments also need to produce quantifiable profit margins. There are now rooftops in Brooklyn with wineries and farms – commerce at its most Instagrammable. You can go to Rooftop Reds on Flushing Avenue on a summer’s evening, sit on a blanket under the stars, drink their Cab Franc and watch The Big Lebowski.
One of the most interesting start-ups to capitalise on the rise of the urban green space in New York is Brooklyn Grange, which launched in 2010 as an urban farming business. “We were inspired by the small sustainable and organic farms throughout the USA, but also by the urban farming traditions of New Yorkers, which go back to the very beginning of New York City’s founding,” explains COO Gwen Schantz. “We’ve become more than a company that grows and sells food, we also host events and educational programmes, and we share our know-how with others by designing and building green spaces here in the city, and by consulting on green roof and urban agriculture projects internationally.”
Schantz sees their strategy as quintessentially New York City: “There’s nothing more New York than hustling to grow your business, and getting creative in the process,” she says. “We’ve picked up consulting clients in three continents, and we’re looking to bring rooftop farms to cities in Europe and Mexico.”
New York is also home to what has become the gold standard for this kind of development. The High Line, a nature walk built atop abandoned elevated freight lines on Manhattan’s West Side, now attracts five million visitors a year and has revived whole stretches of previously barren avenues nearby – while also, it must be said, killing existing businesses with rent hikes around the Meatpacking District. Eight years after the first phase opened, it is a real-estate gold mine. It has prompted US$5bn in new development, and as of next year, its northern end will terminate at the new Hudson Yards, a from-scratch neighbourhood incorporating structures from numerous starchitects and designers, including Norman Foster and Thomas Heatherwick.
“For the first time in decades, all of the parks on the West Side will be seamlessly connected, the largest network of public spaces in Manhattan since Central Park,” says Jay Cross, president of Related Hudson Yards, the umbrella organisation of companies behind the project. “A five-acre public square and garden will house more than 28,000 plants, 200 trees, a 200-foot long fountain and New York’s newest urban landmark, Vessel.” Alongside Heatherwick’s Vessel, a giant walkable sculpture with a honeycomb structure, 154 interconnected stairways and 80 landings, one of the most arresting buildings in the Hudson Yards blueprints is Bjarke Ingels’ Spiral, an office skyscraper wrapped in a ribbon of green terraces. Ingels’ use of plant life is as compelling as anything Frank Gehry does with curves.
As the ribbon is cut on Hudson Yards, we are likely to see work commence on the city’s next flagship project, the Lowline underground park on the Lower East Side. Bringing green space to an abandoned section of the Subway, a vast subterranean space will be flooded with natural daylight via light tubes and a giant reflector, creating a huge underground park. A seriously high-tech – if a touch dystopian – solution to the Big Apple’s lack of space. Very New York, then? “It’s a celebration of our Subway and our history but at the same time impossibly bold and futuristic,” says James Ramsey of RAAD Studio, the design team responsible. “As our cities worldwide grow, we need to seek out ever more innovative solutions to make them more liveable.”
Another way in which green spaces are incorporated into the modern urban landscape is as major commercial attractions. Consider it the Disneyfication of flora and forests. The Dubai Miracle Garden benefits from being built in a city where space is barely an issue. But this is still the desert, and to create something that looks like Lewis Carroll’s wildest dream takes over 165,000 gallons of water a day, supplied via recycled waste water and drip irrigation. It is the implausibility of the project that makes it so amazing, however wonderfully camp its aesthetic. Jeff Koons, one imagines, must be a fan.
Similarly, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore takes the classic Victorian botanical garden model, learns from Las Vegas, and creates something outlandish. British architects Wilkinson Eyre and landscape architects Grant Associates were behind much of the project, which incorporates 164-foottree-like structures, connected by bridges, containing rainwater collection tanks and pumps.
While so many of these projects look like the renderings for a new Star Trek film, many of the forms are dictated by their function – those extravagant tree shapes in Singapore, for instance. WOW Architects – AKA Warner Wong Design – is a practice with offices in London and Singapore, currently working on Aarohaan, a residential project in India conceived as a “vertical village” with three towers connected by a rooftop sky park. Most intriguing are the giant, lily-like structures in the grounds, which will collect solar energy, as well as rainwater and dew to irrigate the gardens.
“All the parks on the West Side will be seamlessly connected, the largest network of public spaces in Manhattan since Central Park”
And therein lies the other crucial reason why city councils worldwide are making innovative green spaces a priority. It’s not just that they are easy on the eye or that they regenerate areas – we also need them. Our congested cities are choking to death and we must have fresh air. Already, France has legislated to ensure that all new buildings in commercial zones be built with at least a partial covering of green space (or solar panels), and Toronto has had something in place since 2009. Planted buildings are hugely popular. Look at Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forest buildings in Milan – two verdant residential towers that contain as many trees as you’d find in a forest. Similar structures are planned in cities in China, to combat air pollution there. This is genius architecture, not only because of its eco-friendly credentials, but for its aesthetics: planted buildings change with the seasons, going from golden leaves to bright pink blossom. That’s why the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street in London has become a fast favourite among the city’s attractions. It’s loved nearly as much as the building in which it sits – Rafael Viñoly’s so-called “Walkie-Talkie” – is loathed. But then, what’s not to love about a day in the park – even if you have to get a lift 35 storeys up to it?