The Green Team Part 27: Growing Green Inside

On the power of green, and how it can boost your creativity

Our last Green Team post took a look at some ways in which designers use technology as a tool for design in the office setting. This post examines how we can better assess the value of our resulting landscape work. 

For years, landscape architects have touted the many benefits of greening a site, from environmental improvement to economical enhancement and social change that results from thoughtful site intervention. Now, through the Landscape Performance Series, developed by the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the value of a landscape can potentially be quantified more objectively. 

In 2013, the Landscape Architecture Foundation stopped by our office for a lunch-and-learn to introduce us to an online tool they are developing to assist designers in evaluating the performance of built landscapes. This presentation and discussion was well received and marks exciting progress for our field. Through case studies, we now have documentation to understand the measureable impacts of landscape interventions, including how much carbon dioxide a project is sequestering, or how a project has impacted adjacent property values.  

But what about the less obvious benefits of a landscape? Wouldn’t it be equally thrilling to learn that the returns of our collective greening go even further than we could have ever imagined?

A 2012 German study titled “Fertile Green: Green Facilitates Creative Performance,” published in the Personality and Psychology Bulletin, conducted experiments on the effects of seeing the color green and creativity. A previously unexplored phenomenon, the study involved four different experiments developed to test the hypothesis that viewing green prior to performing creative tasks promotes creative performance.  In all four experiments, participants displayed more creativity in the tasks that followed after being briefly exposed to the color green over a control color. These tasks ranged from providing as many examples of objects as possible in four different categories to drawing as many as possible based on a given geometric form in the time allotted.

Cissus tetrastigma, glowing in the LED light of an on-site mock-up

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

The lesson here is that dreary offices, neglected public spaces, and dark hallways can be immensely enlivened by the sight of green. There is a long tradition in landscape architecture of the notion of “borrowed landscapes” or “borrowed scenery.” A view, often distant, of a landscape beyond that is incorporated into the immediate space through design. Today, in urban settings, these often take the form of green walls or green roofs that punctuate view corridors. When we catch a glimpse of these spaces, in addition to appreciating all the important environmental functions they provide, they might just be boosting our creativity as well.

As landscape architects, we use green elements—trees, shrubs and groundcovers—to define spaces, create volumes, and screen or frame views. And, on occasion, we’re asked to design a landscape, or a portion of a landscape, that is less spatial and more visible. We’ve installed numerous vertical green landscapes to screen undesirable views and provide green where a natural ground plane is lacking. For a current, if somewhat atypical project in our office, we are bringing green into a through-block arcade at Park Avenue Plaza, a space that receives no natural sunlight. The plaza, a NYC POPS site, is being renovated and redesigned to include a 150-foot green wall that will run from 52nd Street to 53rd Street along the eastern side of the indoor plaza. The green wall will enliven the adjacent corporate interior and satisfy the plaza’s vegetation requirements outlined by POPS, which see green, living elements as essential to successful public spaces.   

Rendering of the Park Avenue Plaza green wall

Courtesy Janson Goldstein LLP

As you might imagine, maintaining plant like in a dark interior space poses several unique challenges and requires some creative problem solving. The design must accommodate a structure that will support the vine, contain the soil, and provide a light source to grow the plants. That's only half the battle; one then, of course, has to select a vine that will not only survive, but thrive in these conditions. The selected evergreen vine, Cissus tetrastigma is native to Southeast Asia and is capable of scaling the steel cable supports. It grows well in temperatures that range from 55-75°F and requires about 250 fc/hr of light. Two types of LED "grow lights" will be installed from the ceiling and also threaded through structural armature to provide the green matter with 12 hours of LED illumination, and thus, simulating the vine's natural sunlight preferences.  

The system is currently being tested in an on-site mockup as minor adjustments are made to the location and direction of the light sources. So far, it has exceeded expectations. In the two-and-a-half months since its installation, many of the vine tendrils have grown over five feet. When complete, visitors and tenants will be able to relax and sip a coffee along a continuous green wall and experience a bit of the outdoors, inside.

Johanna Phelps, RLA, is a senior landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, P.C. in New York City. Since receiving her MLA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, she has worked on urban campus projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, a botanic research institute in Texas, and a public plaza in Bilbao, Spain. 

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