A not-so-con­crete jun­gle arises in the ur­ban land­scapes of Mi­lan

Italy’s high-rise forests take root around the world


As bal­conies bris­tle with tree branches and sun­shine dap­ples the leaves of thou­sands of plants, two apart­ment build­ings in the heart of Mi­lan have al­most dis­ap­peared un­der lush for­est.

The brain­child of Mi­lanese ar­chi­tect Ste­fano Bo­eri, the Bosco Ver­ti­cale (Ver­ti­cal For­est) uses more than 20,000 trees and plants to adorn the high-rise build­ings from top to bot­tom—a project now be­ing ex­ported all over the world, from China to the Nether­lands.

The two orig­i­nal leafy tow­ers dom­i­nate the sky­line in the north­ern Ital­ian city, giv­ing res­i­dents—which in­clude celebri­ties like foot­baller Ivan Perisic—an en­vi­able view over the new dis­trict of Porta Nuova and be­yond.

Cherry, ap­ple, and olive trees spill over bal­conies along­side beeches and larches, se­lected and po­si­tioned ac­cord­ing to their re­sis­tance to wind and pref­er­ence for sun­light or hu­mid­ity.

Bo­eri said the idea came from his ob­ses­sion with trees and de­ter­mi­na­tion to make them “an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of ar­chi­tec­ture,” par­tic­u­larly as a weapon to com­bat cli­mate change. “I was in Dubai in 2007, and I watched this city grow­ing in the mid­dle of the desert, with more than 200 glass tow­ers mul­ti­ply­ing the ef­fect of heat,” he re­calls. He wanted, in­stead, to cre­ate some­thing that “as well as wel­com­ing life, can con­trib­ute to re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion, be­cause trees ab­sorb mi­cropar­ti­cles and car­bon diox­ide.

“Cities now pro­duce about 75 per­cent of the car­bon diox­ide present in the at­mos­phere. Bring­ing more trees into the city means fight­ing the en­emy on the spot,” he said.

“Best Tall Build­ing World­wide”

Opened in 2014, the Ver­ti­cal For­est won the pres­ti­gious Frank­furt In­ter­na­tional High­rise Award, and the Chicago Coun­cil on Tall Build­ings and Ur­ban Habi­tat named it the Best Tall Build­ing World­wide.

“It’s a unique thing to live here. We’re in di­rect con­tact with the plants while be­ing in the city cen­ter and in a su­per mod­ern skyscraper,” says Si­mona Pizzi, who can see the moun­tains from her 14th floor apart­ment. “The plants have de­vel­oped a lot over the past three years, and we see them chang­ing with the sea­sons,” adds the proud owner of an ap­ple tree, where the white flow­ers con­trast mag­nif­i­cently with the green fo­liage.

Bo­eri worked closely with botanists to cre­ate a nurs­ery of a thou­sand trees that have been trained to grow un­der spe­cific con­di­tions. The team faced nu­mer­ous chal­lenges, from how the bal­conies should be struc­tured to take the weight of the plants, to how to se­cure the tree roots and what needed to go into the soil. They even car­ried out re­sis­tance tests at a hur­ri­cane cen­ter in Mi­ami.

“For ev­ery hu­man be­ing liv­ing in the build­ing, there are about two trees, 10 shrubs, and 40 plants,” Bo­eri said.

The fu­ture of hous­ing?

The veg­e­ta­tion soon trans­formed into a ver­i­ta­ble wildlife park: Nine thou­sand la­dy­birds brought over from Ger­many to eat par­a­sites—to leave the plants pes­ti­cide-free—mul­ti­plied over the space of a few weeks.

“The ex­traor­di­nary thing that we did not ex­pect was the in­cred­i­ble amount of birds that nested here. We have small hawks on the roofs, and swifts that had pre­vi­ously dis­ap­peared from Mi­lan,” Bo­eri said.

The ar­chi­tect and his team are now work­ing on a dozen or so Ver­ti­cal For­est projects around the world, in­clud­ing Lau­sanne in Switzer­land, Utrecht in the Nether­lands, Sao Paolo in Brazil, and Ti­rana in Al­ba­nia.

The aim in Eind­hoven in the Nether­lands is to swap the sort of luxury pads seen in the Mi­lan project, which go for some €11,000 ($12,900) per sq. m., for so­cial hous­ing—a project Bo­eri says he’s par­tic­u­larly keen on. And be­cause the cost of the trees is low, it’s not an un­rea­son­able am­bi­tion, he says.

He is also think­ing big in China, where not only are two tow­ers un­der con­struc­tion in Nan­jing and a ho­tel in the works in Shang­hai, but there are plans for a “For­est City” of some 200 build­ings in Li­uzhou.

“China is now re­al­iz­ing it faces the dra­matic prob­lem of air pol­lu­tion, but also of un­con­trolled ur­ban­iza­tion, with cities grow­ing out of sub­urbs, cre­at­ing megac­i­ties,” he said. “Ev­ery year, 15 mil­lion peas­ants aban­don the coun­try­side to come to the city. We have to come up with some an­swers, with new green cities,” says Bo­eri, who took part in the COP21 con­fer­ence on cli­mate change in Paris in 2015.

The ar­chi­tect has not patented the Ver­ti­cal For­est and has even writ­ten a book re­veal­ing the se­crets and tech­niques be­hind it, which he hopes will en­cour­age a new, greener way of de­vel­op­ing cities.

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