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13 Apr

Forested Buildings May Save Us from Alien Scrutiny (and Our Own Stupidity)

Bosco Verticale CREDIT: Stefano Boeri/DoodleIf you were an extraterrestrial scientist studying planet Earth, the signature achievement of its human inhabitants probably wouldn't be the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids or the Panama Canal. No, the thing that would impress aliens the most would be how, over the past 8,000 years, people have cut down about half of the lush green forests that once covered much of the planet's land mass. The problem is that it probably would impress the aliens as one of the stupidest things they'd ever seen. Forests, after all, provide humans with everything from building materials to medicines, and, perhaps more importantly, serve as massive carbon dioxide filter.

So, perhaps in an effort combat future alien scrutiny, I present to you the hot new architectural trend: green skyscrapers. You may be thinking: "What's the big deal?" But I'm not talking "green" in the figurative, sustainable-building-materials-and-solar-panels-on-the-roof sense. I'm talking literally green -- in that these towering urban high-rises would be filled with trees as well as people. In fact, judging by the looks of some of the designs, there may be more vegetation than human inhabitants. 

The first such vertical man-made forest is the Bosco Verticale, a complex of towers under construction in Milan, Italy. It's slated to be home to 730 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 ground plants. As you can see from the artists' depiction in this Daily Mail (UK) article, the development will look like what you would imagine a city to appear, several centuries after all the humans have been wiped out by a mysterious virus and the structures left behind have been enveloped by vegetation. That's not entirely coincidental. As architect Michele Bruno explains in the article, "The idea for a vertical forest came when we were involved in a local tree planting project. We imaged a building that allowed the landscape to enter it. By creating a tower that truly becomes a home for the landscape we have a powerful tool."

In Shenzhen, China, which over the past several decades has developed from a rural hinterland to one of the most intensely urbanized landscapes on the planet, a firm called JDS Architects has proposed the construction of a 3,280-foot-tall tower called Logistic City. The exterior would look, oddly, like one of those bright green candle holders that 1960s suburbanites used to burn on their patios at cocktail hour.

But perhaps the trippiest of all is the Japanese architectural firm Shimizu Corporation's Botanical City, an inverted-funnel-shaped offshore tower that would rise from the water like a cypress tree in the Everglades. Inside, Botanical City would contain both terrestrial-style and marine vegetation, in addition to fields that would allow its 30,000 inhabitants to grown their own food and facilitate "human contact with nature." In addition to creating a 100 percent self-sufficient, sustainable urban development it would actually take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it puts in. Yes, it seems these architects have dreamed up a hybrid urban-rural lifestyle that would have satisfied both Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in Green Acres. (I already can hear them singing "The chores! The stores!" from the "daily life zone" in the top floors.) 

And the firm i-Mad architects (that's their name, really!) also has this idea for a curvy tower filled with trees.

Granted, some of these structures look a little, ah, how shall we say it tactfully....wacky. But the idea of integrating green space into cities goes back to the mid-1800s, when social reformers pressed for parks to allow the masses crowding into urban tenements to maintain at least some connection with nature. And today, urban forests could be an important way to at least counterbalance a larger, more disturbing long-term trend. 

Cutting Trees CREDIT: Hemera/ThinkstockAs this New York Times article details, the planet's tree cover absorbs 2.4 billion tons of carbon per year, about a third of the amount that we spew by burning fossil fuels. We desperately need trees. But while the rate of global deforestation has slowed slightly in recent years, according to this Federation of American Scientists report, we're still cutting down about 13 million hectares of trees each year. (A hectare is an area roughly the size of a football field.)  At that rate, humans theoretically would eliminate all of the earth's forests by the year 2319--at which point I suppose that Bambi's descendants will have no choice but to relocate to the atriums of shopping malls, or else stage a guerrilla war and seize control of golf courses. That's not a movie that Walt Disney would have wanted to make.

Interestingly, though, architects are trying to come up with a partial solution--not for Bambi, granted, but for us humans who benefit from trees--with these artificial skyscraper forests. The question to me, though, is whether building skyscraper forests is really the best utilization of our resources. For what it costs to build green towers--we're talking billions of dollars here, conservatively--you could simply buy a lot of seedlings and replant vast tracts of deforested land. Or, as some conservationists are already doing in the Amazon, you could simply pay inhabitants a small stipend not to cut down any more trees. (Here's a Huffington Post article on that idea.)

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