Having It All: Combining Green Space and Urban Living

Have urbanites who fled the city during the pandemic now fallen out of love with the green space and rural charm of country living? According to 2021 research by economists UBS, the population shift that decimated US metropolitan centers from coast to coast, a trend that extended to London, England, is reversing, with New York City folk leading the rush back to the urban buzz.

While the statistics show that those who couldn’t bear to tear themselves away permanently from the city are returning, it is with a desire to integrate the newly appreciated accoutrements of nature into their metropolitan lives.

Perhaps it’s the experience of having felt physically better in green space that’s made a difference. “A fundamental need to connect with the natural world is something hardwired into us as human beings,” says James Horrox of US-based Frontier Group, a think tank concerned with better building.

He points out the scientific evidence in favor of punctuating the urban jungle with parks, meadows, and treescapes. “Time spent in natural environments is known to boost our mental and physical health; improve cognitive performance, attention, memory, and creativity; reduce depression; improve sleep; lower stress; and generally enhance our overall happiness and wellbeing. There’s even evidence that living close to green space can help us live longer.”

Householders have discovered the importance of natural surroundings for themselves. A survey by environmental consultancy WSP, in collaboration with think tank Bright Blue, showed 74% of those polled believed developers should be mandated to enhance the natural environment around all new residential buildings.

Downsizing to the City 

Singles, couples, and young families are being joined by empty-nesters, all seeking an infusion of urban excitement. “We’re seeing our two-bedroom penthouses in a complex set in secret gardens, where every resident can find a private space, sell to people who have sold large country houses and are downsizing to the city,” says Sarah Nolan-Watt, sales manager of EcoWorld London, the British offshoot of a Malaysian developer whose ethos is to put nature first. “We have always led on this, but we have seen our principles come into their own during the pandemic,” she adds.

Pioneering architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe were a century ahead of their time in blurring the line between construction and nature, says Ralph Choeff of Florida-based Choeff Levy Fischman, whose many celebrity clients include musician Barry Gibb, actor Matt Damon, and baseball player Alex Rodriguez. “That concept did not take off with the public until later; people chose to live inside in homes with separate rooms. But now, everything is opening up, and we all want to live outside as well as inside.”

Choeff Levy Fischman’s latest projects include a home on a tiny 50-by-50 foot (15 sq m) lot in Miami’s industrial “south of Fifth” area. “It’s surrounded by apartment blocks and commercial buildings, but we introduced nature not only with trees at ground level but with a cascading wall of water in the covered entry,” says principal Ralph Choeff. All rooms enjoy balconies, and a rooftop boasting stunning views is given a country feel with a rustic wooden hot tub and planting galore. The practice is currently building a house in Miami Beach around a banyan tree, which will be the focal point of the residence.

London’s Battersea Power Station, for decades an abandoned industrial landmark, is being reborn as the site for some of Britain’s most elegant urban homes, with the health of the local wildlife population, as well as the needs of human residents, at its heart.

“We are building a bug hotel to encourage insects, catering for the peregrine falcons, and other bird species which have lived here for decades,” says Sarah Banham, head of communities and sustainability for the 42-acre (17 ha) estate. She has briefed landscapers LDA Design to plant grasses and wildflowers in a six-acre (2.4 ha) riverfront park and between the tall buildings to give a sense of the changing seasons.

The design philosophy behind the greening draws on the concept of biophilia, a term coined by Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson to describe an innate human tendency to be drawn toward nature. “Hearing birds sing and seeing plants grow gives people a feeling of well-being and happiness,” Banham says.

The power station has been treated to a green roof and an adjacent Norman Foster building has a sky garden designed by James Corner, creator of New York’s High Line.

Enhancing Quality of Life 

The passion for green space, which first sent pent-up urbanites fleeing to the countryside, is nothing new to Berkeley Homes, which for years has been bent on biodiversity as part of its mission statement for residential development in the UK.

“We firmly believe access to a beautiful open landscape can enhance people’s quality of life,” says chief executive Rob Perrins with reference to the British Ecological Society’s 2021 report Nature-Based Solutions. The report cites planting urban trees, increasing community green spaces, utilising brownfield sites, and building sustainable drainage systems as effective nature-based solutions to improve wellbeing, create economic benefit, increase biodiversity, and fight climate change in cities.

Berkeley’s urban projects include The Green Quarter, a 3,750-home development in west London with 13 acres (5.3 ha) of new green space, its own wetlands, and the promise of 2,500 newly planted trees. Their Kidbrooke Village, developed in partnership with the London Wildlife Trust, is a 5,000-home project within 136 acres (55 ha) of parkland, which has won the Sir David Attenborough Award for Enhancing Biodiversity. Here, four townhouses come with panoramic roof terraces to enjoy gardening with the help of an outdoor tap and unobstructed views of a rewilded adjacent park.

EcoWorld’s Bukit Bintang City Centre (BBCC) in Kuala Lumpur proves nature can be integrated even into a busy commercial development. BBCC, as it’s known, is a mixed-use project on a 19.4-acre (7.9 ha) site within the Malaysian capital’s Golden Triangle, incorporating apartments, hotels, retail, an entertainment complex, and a transit hub, all punctuated by a series of parks, gardens, and green pockets.

Another intensely urban mixed-use development with nature at its heart is CityCenterDC on the site of the former Washington Convention Center. Here, Foster + Partners has designed four buildings to be “human-scaled in contrast with the imposing scale that characterises the surrounding area,” stepping down from a 10-story perimeter to a central plaza, where streets and planted pathways converge with retail and entertainment.

Many apartments have large balconies and terraces, there’s a landscaped pool and fountains, and green roofs for both the apartment and office buildings, with new tree-lined avenues expanding on the original 18th-century alleys connecting the blocks.

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