Designer Marc Grañén and Barcelona school children in front of their new vertical garden.
Undoubtedly, we need more green space in our cities. And although at times we go out of our way to construct and preserve parks, gardens, and small urban forests, our population continues to grow sometimes as uncontrollably as our lack of common sense. This is a fact that nowadays many people from across different sectors acknowledge and fortunately are fighting against the clock to restore and remedy as much as possible.
Thus, renewable energy strategies, efficient construction practices, and the responsible management of waste, public spaces, and roads become social pillars essential to strengthen and raise a future of balance and harmony, where the reunion with nature is the main objective.
And the road to achieving this hopeful goal inevitably passes through our schools, because children grow from absorbing not only what they learn from adults but also through their direct contact with the environment.
Children enjoying their newly completed vertical garden farm at the Sadako School in Barcelona. Design by Marc Grañén using the Babylon system.
Therefore, if the symbiotic relationship between the immediate environment and the classroom becomes something of a day to day nature, the younger generation will grow assuming that having plants and diverse ecosystems living close by is the norm, which is how it should be - and not vice versa like it is at the present. It is essential that we nourish our streets, all of them, with more trees and shrubs.
We must ensure to have wind turbines, solar panels and landscaped areas on balconies and rooftops. The falcon, the sparrow, the hawk, the titmouse, and black redstart need to experience more than the neon and traffic lights of our built environment. We need many more flowers on sidewalks, butterflies at traffic lights, and we need to cease calling many plants "weeds" just because we are unfamiliar with them and have banished for not knowing how to make them useful. So when the children assume the daily habit of taking care of plants that bear us fruit and which make our existence richer, everything begins to take a different dimension, allowing us to assess many other functional aspects of the co-existence with nature.
And in order for this to be possible, of course we need to be able to count on having spaces large enough spaces to do so - which, unfortunately, many schools nor public spaces do not have. As a result, we are forced to seek and find tangible nearby alternatives: the walls.
We can dress vertically what horizontality doesn’t grant, resulting in countless gardens of exuberance and beauty that diminishes many others through which we often stroll. Vegetated walls have become a very clever and practical solution to the growing needs for this reencounter with nature in urban environments. The plants get used to it very easily and there are new areas in which to grow and thrive without fear of being trampled upon or abused while hosting numerous animal species that enrich the new garden, creating unsuspecting ecosystems where before there was only brick and cement.
Thus, many birds, amphibians, reptiles, and many invertebrates discover new places to live close to our lives, allowing us the privilege to witness firsthand their vital rhythms.
Once we have assimilated the vertical garden, making it functional in addition to beautiful, we have created the icing on the cake that we were previously lacking. Of course, I speak of vertical farm gardens, to eat and use for cooking everything that nature offers us, which we have now made vertical. Actually it is totally indifferent to a lettuce, a strawberry plant, or a rosemary plant to grow on a wall, as long as it never lacks light, water, and the necessary nutrients; the specifics are taken care of by those who design vertical gardens.
In fact, we just need to stroll around through forests and rocky slopes to discover countless natural rock walls where fig trees, rosemary, moss, heather, ferns, and many other species grow in a completely perpendicular manner with the ground.
Plants show us how audacious, capable, and opportunistic they truly are; they vigorously adapt and grow, as if gravity did not affect them at all. Completely foreign to vertigo, they climb searching for light, ever proud of their new habitat - one which we can only copy from what nature has shown us.
And so referring to the original, we transfer what we can to the urban model; adapting it to our needs and conveniences with the hope that this reencounter will help us to learn how to learn - to know more everyday about what we thought was exclusive only to the natural world.
Fortunately, cultivating a farm on the balcony or rooftop of a home or in a schoolyard is beginning to become something more common, propelling us towards a socially cooperative and engaging future. Therefore, this logical evolution leads inescapably to vertical horticulture.
Here, in the schools of Barcelona, we find ourselves in front of an unbeatable combination of factors because vegetation awakens an innate attraction within us, strongly intertwined with the natural curiosity and interest of youngsters. Spurred by encouraging staff, the children want to know more of everything, experience new sensations, and are open to knowledge and perceptions never before dreamed.
Children are shrewd and daring, thirsty for knowledge, and want to know the reasons behind situations and phenomena, resulting in the kinetics that we ourselves imprint onto their lives. Knowledge captivates us and pushes us towards an expansion increasingly interdisciplinary and increasingly multisensory. From these educational centres we work with intensity and hope for schools that open to their surroundings, taking themselves as dynamic learning spaces while rooted in their environment, getting involved with neighborhood organizations and their immediate surroundings. With our vast and varied cultural heritage, this makes our location favorable, providing social streams from around the world, expanding the world, and adding to the already rich multi-culture of the Mediterranean region.
Schools, therefore, should be open, rooted, and especially progressive, exemplified with an active and dynamic methodology, interest and sensitivity towards the social pillars that generate the synergies of Ecology and Sustainability. It is through working together and sharing knowledge and experiences that we come to new concepts and future challenges with an intensive program rooted in the present. Students and teachers propose and project, communicate and interact, and open up to new scenarios, taking advantage of any new concept to work on specific projects that end up being interdisciplinary.
The best reward: after openly criticizing the futility of flowers at his schoolyard at the the Drassanes School in Barcelona, Gerardo seeks intimacy to make sure that everything that had been explained to him before was true.
Therefore, a simple project involving Mediterranean gardening, such as a vertical garden, ends up becoming an open classroom to work on volumes, geometry and arithmetic; artistic workshops are created and new challenges in technology, environmental, and social areas are devised. From the very beginning, all of the students have shown a special interest in knowing what was going to be installed in their schoolyard, including being able to participate themselves in its design.
And so, almost without thinking, the children have found themselves painting and cutting to scale the modules of the vertical garden, calculating the required volumes and areas, while at the same time questioning technical aspects of its assembly.
And now that the vertical gardens dress the patio walls, they touch, smell, feel, and live them; they learn the names of plants and animals that soon colonize here. And the senses are filled with fragrances that the leaves and flowers offer including curry, lavender, thyme, rosemary, mint, oregano. The children taste and refresh the mouth with parsley and fennel, coriander and stevia while admiring the spectacle of butterflies attracted to the common rue and sage. They will learn what plants to cook at home and at school, and which ones to make tea with or infusions that will help them to live better.
The reality of a new, more rich, diverse, and healthy environment will give the children a better quality of life. And the diversity of neighborhoods in the city offers the possibility of observing the behavior of these different ecosystems yards; each has different microclimates and therefore different nesting birds, and variability in the adaptation of plants because not all living walls are oriented in the same manner, nor do the soft breezes blow in the same way. For example, near Collserola, close to the waves, the ecological richness that the city provides becomes evident in the creative flexibility of the designs of these vertical farms:
Thus, children can share the same experiences with many different results and extend them to colleagues from other schools, creating an urban network of biological information vital for understanding the natural biological rhythms of the city.
The school children will observe the birds and study their habitats; they will learn how water is saved by drip irrigation and using the rain sensors; and their eyes will be enriched with the colorful variety that the seasons will present them in different parts of Barcelona.
That is to say, they will grow wiser, living and experiencing the vegetable garden at school as something routine, of a day-to-day nature, contributing knowledge and lessons shared, working from an active and dynamic methodology adapted to the tempo that beats from outside, in the street as if it were a social network.
And far from formal conventionalism, these Barcelona schools have been able to capture the wide range of possibilities that this experience provides, as not only are we facing a project with an important aesthetic format, but also it provides a set of futuristic concepts in the form of educational tools, where educators can see workshops of textures, mathematics, linguistics, environmental science...
The shared hope and enthusiasm of the student’s adaptation of the new experience is reinforced by a project that stimulates his or her imagination and encourages creativity in all areas of learning. And the children will grow up knowing and respecting their new vertical garden, having taken the first steps towards a space that they are able to make themselves.
They feel it and live it and will learn to love it, a fact that undoubtedly will make them appreciate and respect their immediate environment, expanding this ideal as they grow and develop into full individuals in collective groups of increasing global reach - strengthening and rooting their psyches in the concepts of ecology and sustainability that they began to learn at school.
And it is in these first steps that the children have been able to participate and become directly involved in the act of getting dirty hands and planting strawberries, parsley, fennel, oregano, and common rue, and becoming responsible for these pieces of "green concrete."
To eat and share the harvested strawberries and herbs that they have reaped, while watching as water from the irrigation runs through the channels that collect it to not make the school yard wet, to rub their fingers and smell the light intensity of thyme, which they have learned that thyme is also known as timó, is very special.
Language, science, and environment in one act; this is called the open classroom. We have managed to open all classrooms and let the whole world enter because we have allowed the children go outside to learn and experience as much as inside.
Left: Vertical garden in the La Pau School, and Right: An educative session with the children at the Drassanes School, both in Barcelona.
Marc Grañén, Landscape Artist and Creator of PhytoKinetic
The vegetable wall structure chosen for all of the Barcelona schools is Cages Babylon® as its modular system easily adapts to different geometries of the school yards, allowing each educational centre to have its own design. In addition, these systems make it ideal for growing any plant species for domestic use.
It was chosen because its assembly and subsequent installation is quite practical and compatible with the chosen space, while allowing to create daring and dynamic designs proposed by the children themselves. Nailed directly on the wall, the plant structures count with galvanized metal guides that are fixed longitudinally in parallel rows, and where potted cages are hung ready to grow.
These are rubber structures made of galvanized reticular nylon of 10 cm of width, 100 cm long, and 50 cm high, with a single opening located at the top, where the box has inserted with a permeable cloth bag that fills with a mixture of organic substrate which has 15% of hydroponic foam flakes that increase with water performance.
Everything is watered by an automated programmer with batteries connected to a solenoid valve that feeds Techline drip tubes, which pass through the top of the gabions, dropping just enough water for irrigation. A rain sensor disables automatic watering when it rains.
ANNEX II Some related plant species that we find in vertical yards of Barcelona’s schools:
Hailing from Bescanó, Spain in the Catalonia region, Marc says, "My artistic point of view of life and my intense love of natural landscapes make the perfect combination for what has become my daily occupation. I am a landscape artist. Nature is my inspiration and my family, my best teacher. We live in Bescanó, our small hometown in the northeast of Spain.
I’ve created artworks in China, Spain and Russia, and been a speaker in several conferences in the UK, Spain, the Netherlands, China, France… with interviews in media of all continents. I created PhytoKinetic, the first and unique worldwide patented system to make greenroofs on top of vehicles. I have created many private greenroof and greenwall projects, and more than a dozen educative edible greenwalls in Barcelona public schools."
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