The Green Team Part 9: Going Vertical

When you can’t go out, go up!

Our introductory Green Team blog addressed a common misconception: There is no space left for new landscapes in New York City, the dense urban expanse that is our home turf. In fact, there are available spaces, but they’re likely to come with some complex problems. Finding ourselves wrestling with small, challenging, and limited spaces, we sometimes take an unexpected approach. We look up!

Our initial site analysis for New York projects—and others—entails, in part, identifying ALL available space than can be improved. Crisp, white walls may be de rigueur for the interior artist, but they are far too banal for a vibrant, metropolitan landscape.  By using a site’s vertical surfaces, we can expand the benefits of a project to include increased planting areas, aesthetically appealing live or inanimate screens, thoughtfully designed edge conditions, improved views, reduced cooling requirements for adjacent buildings, and the mitigation of urban heat island effect (UHI), thus furthering the definition of “the space.”

The design of exterior vertical surfaces can take on many forms and configurations including green screens, green walls, cable trellis systems, wall-mounted planters, trellises, and planters housing fastigiate (columnar) species, to name a few. The selection of the proper treatment for these surfaces is based on sun/shade conditions, design intent, the structural capacity of the surface to receive the enhancement, available soil volume for plants, and so on. If we propose a woven wire or cable trellis system, we must consider the method of its attachment to the building’s surface as well as whether the receiving wall or support structure can sustain its weight load in addition to the living, twining plants that will grow over the plane. Some factors that influence plant selection, as well as the ultimate success of the installation, are planters, soil volume, irrigation, and solar orientation.

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We work with a wide variety of systems and approaches on vertical landscapes throughout the city.  At Spring Street Plaza, a 200-foot-long wall abutting the adjacent building was designed and installed to allow us to use a vertical screen system for vines. This wall provided the structural support for the vegetated system while ensuring that no portion of the work was attached to or interfered with the structure of the neighboring property (our post on property lines talks about the consequences of this). Once installed, the green screen, with its dense vine cover comprising six vine species, provided a sense of enclosure for the plaza, acting as a vegetated backdrop to the small “rooms” of the plaza design. The wire grid also provided structure for the installation of custom light tubes into the screen, creating a playful effect of illuminated planting at night. The 10-foot height of the new wall—a pedestrian scale intervention— also helps deemphasize the presence of the adjacent building.

Light tubes inserted into pockets in the wire grid screen accent the vines and illuminate the site.

Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella

A similar type of installation was completed at Ennead Architects’ new Staten Island Courthouse, where vines and custom screen panels span the four stories of a new parking structure on the building’s east and west facades. A mixture of five plant species was used to provide seasonal interest and texture to its surface.

A wire mesh screen system and vines were used to enhance the facade of the Staten Island Courthouse on Central Avenue. 

Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella

Wall mounted planters provide an alternative to mesh and cable systems that are typically enhanced by vine planting. The planters allow for a greater variety of plant species and types, but they come with their own constraints. At Time Warner Center, we installed a series of metal planters along the sidewalk and at the building entry. In addition to structural concerns, these planters required a complex irrigation system and lighting installation. Plant selection was determined based on limited soil volume (which restricts the growth potential of a plant), and the largely south-facing aspect of the planters (hot! hot! hot!). The planters required insulation to moderate heat from the sun and from the lighting elements integrated into the design. Due to irrigation and the small soil volume, effective drainage was also a concern. Through careful detailing and consultant coordination, this vertical landscape continues to thrive nine years later, enhancing the experience of the area for passersby.

The wall mounted planters at Time Warner Center enhance the pedestrian level facade by incorporating landscaping on the vertical building surface.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

Vertical landscape interventions are clearly advantageous in providing urban denizens with lush, living surroundings. Such applications proved beneficial to us when we were working on a series of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). These are subject to approval by the New York City Department of City Planning, which works with private developers to provide them. The abundant amenities required by the NYCDCP’s regulations often require highly creative uses of available space; we will discuss this in our next post.

Terrie Brightman, RLA, ASLA is a practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City with over eight years of professional experience. Since receiving her BLA from the Pennsylvania State University, she has worked on riverfronts in Pittsburgh, private residences in California and Florida, a sustainable community in Turkey, and multiple public parks, plaza and waterfronts throughout New York City.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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