Gardens Grow Up: Are Vertical Landscapes the New Green Roofs?

Even if you’re not a gardener or urban planner, you’ve likely heard a thing or two about vertical gardens and/or vertical farming recently. From applications that are purely aesthetic, to those aimed at greening buildings and cleaning air in urban environments, or sustainably increasing agricultural output in urban settings, there is a steady buzz around the notion that one does not need a horizontal substrate to grow things.

Proponents argue that there’s no reason to limit the exterior greenspace on a building to its rooftop. And that vertical farming would bring food production closer to urban centers while avoiding the problems that floods and droughts cause traditional farms.

Others say all this anti-gravity planting is growing in the wrong direction. Back in July of 2008, Adam Stein asked readers of his TerraPass blog: “How is this not the dumbest idea ever?” He points to the high cost of urban real estate, the complexity of the proposed farms and the comparatively larger positive impact of other approaches to our environmental woes, such as carbon pricing, as reasons for his opposition.

And while plant-plastered exterior walls look undeniably cool and while the green-haired vertical gardener Patrick Blanc has already completed some really stunning greenery walls including a recently completed façade for the Athenaeum hotel in London, readers of a story about the walls posted spirited concerns about bug infestations and the costs associated with such projects. In response, one reader countered that living walls can actually remedy bug problems by attracting bug-eating birds and that their value as an added source of insulation offsets their costs. (By the way, check out this interesting interview with Blanc.)

All in all, adding decorative plants or growing crops for local consumption atop existing roofs in urban centers seems a whole lot easier and cost-effective than new architecture that incorporates living walls and vertical farms. It will take many more roofs to produce as much air-cleaning plants or crops as these vertical landscapes promise, however.

What’s your take? Are you all for vertical landscaping or do you think green walls and vertical farms are bound to fail?

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

12 responses

  1. My mother covered her fences in Detroit with organic tomatoes & cucumbers. Anything that grew outside the fence belonged to the neighbors. This was vertical landscaping without pretension.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the link to my piece on vertical farms. It’s probably worth also linking to this other piece, which takes a more thoughtful look at the topic:

    A couple of things to note:

    1. Vertical gardens and vertical farms are entirely different things. Although they’re both slightly more 3D than regular old flat gardens, they otherwise serve different functions and face different constraints. I was specifically criticizing the notion of doing industrial-scale agriculture in skyscrapers. I don’t have much of an opinion on vertical gardens, other than that they seem nice.

    2. My criticism of vertical farms isn’t really contingent on the fact that there are other, better environmental solutions out there. I think vertical farms are likely to be a dumb idea no matter what. My point about carbon pricing is that vertical farms are an incredibly reductive way of thinking about our environmental impacts. When dealing with a complex system — and food production surely counts as a complex system — only a systemic solution like carbon pricing is going to help us find the ideas that have actual merit.

    1. carbon pricing its not a solution because you still produce environmental problem only you change the place. The world is too small that even this solution it's not a solution anymore

  3. carbon pricing its not a solution because you still produce environmental problem only you change the place. The world is too small that even this solution it's not a solution anymore

  4. Vertical farms are a good idea, especially if you consider how devastating effects climate change will have on traditional farming and resulting food shortages. Of course the technology won’t be perfect at the beginning, but what technology is? I think with a bit of research and tweaking, vertical farms will work.

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