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Public Works: A Living Wall May Mean Fewer Floods in London

Vertical gardens aren't necessarily just for decoration.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

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Can living walls help reduce urban flooding? The Victoria Business Improvement District and the Rubens at the Palace Hotel—both located in London, England—recently unveiled a 21-metre-high installation that they say can do just that.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “living wall,” it’s not as terrifying as it sounds. Increasingly common in both new buildings and in retrofits, living walls (sometimes called “green walls” or “vertical gardens”) are walls of living vegetation. They come in all shapes and sizes, and the specific types of plants involved are determined by local climate, aesthetics, lighting, and whether the wall is located indoors or outdoors.

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Living walls can provide a host of benefits, including air purification (plants absorb and break down pollutants), reduced noise levels, and reduced energy costs. Plus, they look pretty and you’ll always feel like you’re attending Harvard.

The wall at Rubens at the Palace came about following an audit by the Victoria BID aimed at determining the best locations for new green space in the Victoria district.

The unique aspect of the Victoria wall, which holds some 10,000 plants and 16 tons of soil, is the way it’s irrigated. Up to 10,000 litres of rainwater can be collected in tanks on the roof of the building and then filtered slowly down through the wall. Since urban surfaces are typically less permeable—and hence more prone to flooding—than absorbent natural surfaces like soil, any water that doesn’t hit the ground contributes to flood prevention.

Here in Toronto, July’s extra-rainy day woke us up to the fact that the climate is changing, meaning balmier winters, sweatier summers, and apocalyptic downpours accompanied by blackouts and Doug Ford directing traffic. Anything we can do to help keep the city above water deserves a look.

Hat tip to Fast Company.

Photos courtesy of Solent News and Photo Agency.


  • Chris Taylor

    So what happens in the wintertime–when the vegetation dies off and you’ve got a wall of dirt being stripped away by freezing wind?

    • Patrick_Metzger

      That’s why climate is an important factor in deciding what you’re going to plant, especially if you’re in a temperate climate and you’re planning to cover the side of a hotel. Part of the design process is ensuring that you incorporate a variety of vegetation, including plants that will keep the thing looking reasonably decorative all year round.

    • tomwest

      Last time I checked, there are lots of plants that survive winter (both London’s and Toronto’s).

  • Ralph H. Lawson

    I think this is a great idea and yes, it can provide a lot of benefits. It’s not only about visual appeal but the other benefits mentioned here such as air purification, reduce noise level and so on and so forth. I think this should be given a chance.

  • Bob

    Nice idea, but London NEVER gets torrential deluges like the type that can flood Toronto. It is the huge quantities all at once that cause flooding here; a few walls covered in greenery aren’t going to stop that, are they?

    • bobo

      Still, it would be nice to have some green walls around instead of vast expanses of precast panels wouldn’t it?