An aerial view of Stratford including West Ham stadium and the Arcelormitttal Orbit

As London expands, we can make the city's infrastructure greener than ever

4 August 2016

Our capital continues to be one of the most attractive cities in which to live and work, with the city’s population expected to near 10 million people within a decade and large-scale urban redevelopment continuing apace. But with rapid development comes concerns about its impact on the environment.

The ecological concerns of developers for the most part have been internally focused – within the site boundary to protect existing biodiversity or simply add aesthetic ecological features. However there is an increasing focus on how new developments can go beyond their site boundary and understand how to form meaningful ecological connections to the wider neighbourhood and city.
Surprisingly, it was not until recently that the potential of the vast expanses of buildings and infrastructure has been fully understood as a way to enrich urban wildlife. Biodiverse green roofs have been around for some time, but in a city that is short on space and ever more dense and vertical, the opportunity these roofs provide is limited.

The concept of living walls gained global recognition in 2005, when famed French botanist Patrick Blanc installed 8,600 square feet of living wall at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. This was the first time architects and developers realised the kind of scale that was achievable. Soon after, Malaysian architect and ecologist Ken Yeang changed the game again, wrapping a 16,000 square foot living wall around a DiGi Telecommunications data center near Kuala Lumpur – with plant species that were specifically chosen to support the local indigenous wildlife.

With horizontal acreage at a premium, London’s ecological needs must be met by new infrastructure. That said, projects that have been created with the primary purpose of providing ecology – rather than, say, infrastructure for a structural purpose – inevitably invite public criticism. On the other hand, there are a wealth of new and existing buildings which have carefully worked flourishing habitats in to their designs – for example, New York City’s Old Railroad – an altogether better approach.

Imagine a London skyline where office and residential buildings provide vertical acres of green space which house birds and insects; a city where bridges and retaining walls fulfil more than just their structural purpose, but act as a biodiverse network across the city.

Lendlease and LCR have adopted these principles in their £2.4 billion joint-venture development, International Quarter London in Stratford. While living walls are usually non-structural features of buildings, in Stratford plans are in place to deliver what will ultimately be a 28,000 square foot structural retaining wall (subject to planning), which will itself be a living wall.

It will be built using a unique concrete moulding, replicating the effect of a drystone wall, in order to provide a multitude of crevices for thousands of invertebrates, insects, and small mammals to call home. It is hoped that species such as bees, molluscs, centipedes, and spiders will move into the wall. The larger crevices will be supplemented by a variety of bird and bat boxes to accommodate larger species, such as the song thrush, wren and the rare black redstart. A selection of climbing plants will grow up from the base of the wall to provide food and protection to its inhabitants, as well as providing further nesting opportunities to birds and bats.

This is holistic infrastructure in its truest form, an example of where there is no trade-off between the commercial, structural and ecological needs of a piece of infrastructure; and at almost 28,000 square foot will become the largest living wall in London – almost a third of the area of a football pitch and close to five times the size of the current largest living wall in London.

The location of the project, adjacent to the Olympic Park, is also significant. The environmental corridor running along the Lea Valley to the Thames has huge ecological importance for the migration of local wildlife to the river, and is a major artery of the wider East London Green Grid. In this sense, the International Quarter living wall will act as an ecological stepping stone for those species making the journey along the valley. By looking at ecological needs beyond developers’ site boundaries – allowing wildlife to permeate throughout our city – London’s biodiversity is supported and enhanced while keeping costs at a minimum.

In order to see a wholesale increase in the biodiversity of London, we must move away from an approach that views green infrastructure as something “additional” both physically and in terms of cost. We need to move to a position where our buildings and structures are themselves ecologically designed, driven by both functional and ecological intent.

Developers, builders and architects must recognise their responsibility in delivering healthy, rounded city planning; and look increasingly beyond their site boundaries to understand their opportunity to contribute to a city-wide ecological vision. If public funding for ecologically driven projects cannot be found, then the private sector needs to step in and build on the vision of the Garden Bridge by making biodiversity a priority to their operations.