Building Green – the Bible

Tucked away on the resources section of the Building Green website is a broken link that tells the story of how this group came about.

London Ecology Unit published a highly influential book in 1993 called ‘Building Green – A guide to using plants on roofs, walls and pavements’. It was a prescient tome – heralding techniques and approaches from across Europe and the world that came established only years later in the UK, Building Green was a systemic, ecological approach to urban nature. It became the name of our community group.

When at the Greater London Authority, I created an electronic version of the out of print manuscript – the broken link referred to. Well, here it is in all its free, downloadable glory. Go crazy.

Johnstone and Newton – Building Green

In particular note the appendices which list plants for different locations – walls of different aspects, balconies, roofs etc. Check it out, it’s great – all credit to the originators Jacklyn Johnston and John Newton.

Some inspiration from across the Pond

So we like to think we have some great green roofs and walls here in Brighton. Well, we do – but there are lessons we can learn from others including the good citizens of Olympia WA, San Francisco CA and Portland OR.

I was lucky enough to visit this summer – here are some pictures that I hope act as inspiration. We could think, and act, so much bigger.

In the Government complex at Olympia, Washington, is a large area of green roof established on underground car parks. Food is grown for local food banks, tended by Government workers. Some lovely large squash ripening in the sun. There is a large area of wildflower mix (‘Ecolawn’) sown for insects and appearance, and is not watered. This has been established by the Department of Enterprise Services – basically the legal and procurement department!

Nearby, just outside the historic Capitol building, is an area of rain gardens that have been retrofitted to help manage storm water. They are very attractive, and feature seating to encourage enjoyment.

San Francisco Academy of Sciences has a living roof…that is so large it is a visitor attraction in its own right. Not a very good photo, so I’ve stolen one from the website and there are more here.



Also in San Francisco were these mini gardens, usually in shopping areas, that brought planting into very urban settings, softened the street scene and provided fun features and places to relax. A ‘public parklet’ indeed!


Portland, Oregon is well known for its approach to sustainable urban planning and design. The whole neighbourhood we stayed in (Alberta – much like Brighton in its hipsterness) has bioswales and other street level drainage built in. Basically permeable sidewalks (ownership extends to the kerb so householders plant up their strip of sidewalk however they like), roof drainage to ground level, street level swales and other features incorporated into street furniture and traffic calming. Drains are clearly marked to encourage people not to use them for disposing nasties. Much of the sidewalk strip was used to grow veggies and fruit – including a nearby pub that harvested salad crops from the street and boasted of it on its menu.

Here in Brighton, a number of partners including the Council and Environment Agency have launched a pilot ‘sustainable drainage’ scheme in Portslade. Great, but surely we could be bolder?

The benefits of green walls

Why plant or protect green walls? What’s the point of them?

There have been good studies on this, focused on green walls for buildings. These have put pound (or dollar) signs on costs of establishment and maintenance, and benefits including:

  • increased property value (akin to planting street trees)
  • insulating buildings to reduce air conditioning costs in hot climates
  • acoustic benefit where the covering is thick
  • improving biodiversity
  • improving air quality by trapping dust particles
  • reducing the frequency of building facade maintenance
  • air temperature reduction (urban ‘heat island’)

This study concluded that ‘direct green facades’ – ie climbing plants established onto a building surface – are the most sustainable green wall type, and have a very positive net present value.

Westergate Business Park

There are lots of places in Brighton where this applies – around New England for example, Westergate, American Express, and so on.

For Madeira Drive, our most famous green wall, things are a little different. However, the benefits include:

  • green space for relaxation in a community where the vast majority have no garden, balcony or other outside space
  • a habitat for wildlife – 100 species of plants, birds, butterflies
  • a national arboretum for Japanese spindle, and place to learn how to prune, coppice and manage it
  • a place to study Victorian environmental engineering
  • a green lung in an otherwise sparsely vegetated area – trapping dust
  • a more attractive covering for a rendered cliff face that is so much better visually than sprayed concrete
  • a protective coating for the cliff face – limiting damage and deterioration from wind, rain and cold.
  • a place for volunteers to get active and health
  • a backdrop for TV, film, photo shoots and show piece for Brighton & Hove.

It would be useful to do some economics on this – anyone out there with the requisite skills?