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Can urban vertical forests transform Mumbai?

In Mumbai, where designated open spaces within buildings are sold off to buyers under new configurations, creating large green spaces would call for a change of heart from the developers’ lobby

mumbai Updated: Dec 23, 2015 00:28 IST
Smruti Koppikar
In Mumbai, where designated open spaces within buildings are sold off to buyers under new configurations, creating large green spaces would call for a change of heart from the developers’ lobby.
In Mumbai, where designated open spaces within buildings are sold off to buyers under new configurations, creating large green spaces would call for a change of heart from the developers’ lobby.(File photo)

As the year winds down, it is time to look at some new urban designs around the world that caught people’s fancy. At the top of the pile is the Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, in Milan that is being celebrated as the world’s first urban tall forest and a prototype for metropolitan forestation. As Mumbai’s Landscape is all set to go vertical, will the skyscraper covered in green inspire designers here?

Hailed as a ground-breaking model of urban forestation when it was completed last year, the Bosco Verticale skyscraper – often called treescraper – won the prestigious award for “Best Tall Building Worldwide 2015” from the famed Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat last month. This set off a series of debates among urban designers and thinkers on whether the treescraper model is the way to make urban spaces green.

The Bosco Verticale, designed by Stefano Boeri Architects, is a pair of luxury residential towers, 361 feet and 249 feet, with a forested façade. Nearly 900 trees and more than 21,000 plants are grown in specially designed spots across the buildings. The green intersperses with the concrete to add 2.5 acres of lush vegetation to the environment of Milan. The trees and plants absorb CO2 andParticulate Matter, become a buffer against noise pollution, and are believed to lessen the urban heat island effect.

Skyscrapers in the world’s cities, determined by the industrial age, have been all about steel, concrete and glass facades. The Bosco Verticale design may just change that template. Already, the same architect’s studio is designing a vertical urban forest building in Lausanne in Switzerland. The Asian Cairns, a set of irregular cylindrical towers in Shenzhen in China, are another example .Will the Bosco Verticale inspire a change in the skyscraper design? Is there something in it for Mumbai where the last decade brought unprecedented vertical growth?

The urban designers and thinkers I spoke to were cautious about transplanting the model in Mumbai. On the face of it, the idea of a tall urban forest enveloping buildings is more than welcome, and has the potential to transform the city’s landscape, they said. However, several conditions must be fulfilled before such buildings make a fundamental difference to the city’s forested area, they said.

Firstly, one such building stands out for its innovativeness and exclusivity, but it would take a 100 and more towers of urban forest to make a significant difference to the natural environment. Secondly, though the idea is appealing and has the potential to transform urban space, parsimonious developers (mostly all) are wont to see the spaces created for green cover as a waste because it fetches them few or no returns. In Mumbai, where designated open spaces within buildings are sold off to buyers under new configurations, creating large green spaces would call for a change of heart from the developers’ lobby.

But the big debate is, ironically, about the environmental friendliness of the Bosco Verticale model. Facades and balconies have to be shored up to take the weight of the trees and plants which means increasing steel and concrete reinforcements in the buildings. This leads to a rise in the embodied carbon emissions. Only if the net emissions are less than the carbon sequestered in the trees and plants, such treescrapers will begin to make environmental sense. The jury is still out on that, said the designers, but the vertical urban forest is an idea worth considering for Mumbai.