Why This Architect Wants To Build A City Covered In Plants And Trees

Strong evidence suggests that humans descended from tree-dwelling primates (as opposed to those of the knuckle-dragging, earthbound variety). Thanks to Italian architect Stefano Boeri, things are about to come full circle. In his vision of the future, the looming glass-and-steel monoliths emblematic of the last century will gradually give way to — you guessed it — trees.

“It’s one of the most efficient ways to deal with climate change,” he explains over the phone from his office in Milan. According to Boeri, “75% of the CO2 [carbon dioxide] present in our atmosphere is produced by cities. And 35% to 40% of that CO2 is absorbed daily by forests.” The goal is to match our carbon footprint with a corresponding carbon-combating footprint to ensure, against all odds, they are the same size. If we manage that, then we may actually cancel out the deleterious effects of pollution.

The question is how to grow enough trees. Cities have long incorporated nature into the metropolitan sprawl — New York City’s Central Park is one famous example — but all the parks, gardens, and tree-lined boulevards in the world still don’t add up to a sufficiently powerful environmental counterpunch. Boeri realized the solution lay in fusing plants and architecture, maximizing biodiversity by blurring the line between exterior and interior space.

“We are used to seeing green as a kind of ornamental presence,” Boeri says. “My perspective is totally different. I design buildings from the point of view of the trees.”

Inaugurated in October 2014, his debut biodiverse structure the “Bosco Verticale” (“Vertical Forest”) is comprised of two residential towers in central Milan that boast over 21,000 plants, including 800 trees. “It’s a house for trees that also hosts some humans and birds,” he says, laughing.

But it won’t stop there. The Chinese government just greenlit (emphasis on green) the ambitious Liuzhou Forest City in the Guangxi province of southern China.

It’s an innovative integration of landscaping and architecture, more than 70 buildings, including homes, offices, hospitals, hotels, and schools, covered with oxygen-generating, pollution-fighting trees and plants. Slated to complete construction in 2035, the verdant city will serve as a litmus test for an entirely new approach to city planning that’s urgently necessary in a future that promises exponential population growth and climate change.

“In China,” Boeri explains, “every year, something like 50 million people are abandoning the countryside, increasing the dimension of the cities until they form this sort of monster, this concentration of millions and millions of people. So our alternative was: Let’s imagine a system of smaller cities. And green. Totally green.”

Despite its modern underpinnings (or perhaps because of them), the city harkens to the past with architectural models strongly evoking ancient Mayan pyramids. When asked whether they intended the aesthetic similarity, Boeri concedes, “Yes, sure. But there is a big difference. In the case of the Mayan pyramids, we think of everything that happened in the centuries after the abandonment of that building. They are, in our minds, buildings without people — ruins recolonized by nature. But my vision is: We have to think from the beginning of a new kind of cohabitation between trees and people.”

In other words, look to our past to envision our future. The ruins are not a sign of decay. They are a blueprint, a signal that, for the species to flourish, we must learn to live with nature, not separate from it. Or, more truthfully, we must accept that we are nature, meaning that any attempt to live “separately” from it literally divides us from ourselves. Like an autoimmune disorder in which the body, no longer recognizing itself, begins to self-destruct, our collective resistance toward seeing ourselves in nature allows us to destroy the environment without quite acknowledging that we are also destroying ourselves. “I’m not so sure trees are nature and humans are not nature,” Boeri concedes. “I’m not so sure plants are nature and walls are not nature. Nature is something that is inside of us.”

Now is the time for that mentality to take root and grow. 

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