To truly understand the environmental crisis facing Milan, it’s best to start with a picture—or rather, a masterpiece.
When artist Leonardo da Vinci finished “The Last Supper” in 1498, little did he know the dangers his work of art would face from modern air pollution over 500 years later. The Santa Maria delle Grazie church that houses the famed mural sits in the heart of Milan, Italy: one of the most polluted cities in all of Europe.
In 2009, officials were forced to install a state-of-the-art ventilation system to curb damage to the mural by air particulates. Such measures are reflective of efforts throughout the city to deal with air quality that regularly breaches EU safety limits—a serious concern for the metropolitan city.
A 2003 medical study suggested that breathing Milan’s benzene-laced air was tantamount to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
This past December, during the holiday rush, Mayor Guiliano Pisapia was forced to ban all vehicles and close schools for two days due to dangerous conditions caused by air pollution.
We imagined a building that allowed the landscape to enter it.
“The city is polluted enough to impress someone from L.A.,” quipped Costas Sioutas, a researcher at the University of Southern California studying “The Last Supper” preservation efforts. “It’s not as bad as Cairo or Calcutta, or even Beijing. But it is pretty polluted.”
Further adding to its pollution woes is Milan’s reputation of having less green space than any other city in Italy. A 2007 study found that only four percent of the plain that holds the city and her suburbs is covered by woodlands. Decades of intense urbanization and agro-business have removed the trees that could assist in trapping, scrubbing, and filtering toxins.
Since allocating the necessary downtown real estate for trees is an unlikely scenario, city officials have turned instead to an unorthodox building strategy spearheaded by architect Stefano Boeri. His $83M “Bosco Verticale” apartment towers are considered the world’s first vertical forests; a development that will not only help clean Milan’s dirty air, but also usher in a new commitment to urban biodiversity.
“We imagined a building that allowed the landscape to enter it,” Project Director Michele Brunello told the Daily Mail. “By creating a tower that truly becomes a home for the landscape, we have a powerful tool.”
A Breath of Fresh Air
Milan’s vertical forest will consist of hundreds of trees (some up to 30 ft tall), and thousands of bushes and plants, making up an area equal to 10,000 sqm of forest.
The two towers, which look similar to the classic puzzle game Jenga, will not only form their own micro-climates—replete with species of insects and birds—but also filter dust particles, absorb CO2, consume the residents’ greywater and help with climate control during the changing seasons.
“By highlighting how the use of plants and trees can make the environment healthier and more beautiful maybe we can encourage similar developments elsewhere,” Brunello said.
Indeed, the idea has already caught on in Valencia, Spain, where plans are underway to construct the Torre Huerta—a $15M social housing tower featuring trees on every balcony and space for gardens.
Critics acknowledge that while the towers are beautiful and a positive sign for Milan’s future, more must be done on the ground to improve the quality of life for all.
There’s also the “Flower Tower” in Paris that has over 380 massive bamboo plants lining its ledges and is considered one of the best places to live in the city. Boeri’s “Bosco,” however, is truly the most ambitious when it comes to the sheer level of biomass that’s being integrated.
“We tested various trees in a wind turbine to make sure we had the right ones,” Brunello said, noting concerns some may have of a 30 ft tree plunging 27 stories to the busy streets below. Residents interested in moving in, however, need not worry about their lack of horticulture experience—the towers will each hold a management and maintenance team to provide the care for all of the flora.
Price point woes
Unfortunately, all of this groundbreaking design comes at a steep price. Current lower-level 80 sqm (~861 sqft) apartments start at close to $900,000 and jump to more than $2.6M for a 200 sqm (~2,152 sqft) penthouse.
Critics acknowledge that while the towers are beautiful and a positive sign for Milan’s future, more must be done on the ground to improve the quality of life for all. “The real answers to Milan’s pollution problems lie with sorting out the traffic problems and improving public transport,” environmental campaigner Damiano di Simine told the Independent.
According to Stefano Boeri, the Bosco Verticale project is only the beginning of an ambitious “BioMilano” master plan that includes low-cost green housing, community kitchen gardens, and the revitalization of abandoned farms on the city’s outskirts.
“Milan, like every city in the world today, is at a crossroads,” Boer writes. “It can continue growing by eating up agricultural land, woods, natural space, and thus reducing biodiversity and the space available to other species. Or it can choose to become a biodiverse metropolis, starting with a new agreement between the city, the natural world, and agriculture.”
Illustration by Paul Samples.