‘Living Walls’ bring life to the city

Posted: June 5th, 2015 | Art on the Land, Columnists, Top Story | 2 Comments

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

With more development in urban than suburban areas in 100 years, there is a clear need for more parks, gardens and plants, which could explain the popular new trend of living walls, also referred to as green walls, vertical gardens, or in French, mur végétal.

French botanist and artist Patrick Blanc pioneered the first living wall over 30 years ago, using thousands of plants to cover the exteriors of museums, shopping malls, private homes, hotels and skyscrapers.

Living walls are growing in popularity, especially in areas with limited space for traditional gardens. They can exist inside with proper lighting, or outside in almost any climate.

They differ from green façades (e.g., ivy walls) in that the plants root in a structural support, which is usually fastened at various points to the wall itself, with no damage to the building.

A frame, ridged waterproof panels, automatic irrigation system, and lights make the wall system. A lightweight porous material takes the place of soil, making the walls very light.

The landscape architects who design the walls use hundreds of different types of plants with a multitude of colors, textures and sizes to create striking patterns and endless unique designs.

Living wall Urbana rooftop Delle Willettwebtop

Living Wall on the rooftop of Urbana, a new urban living complex Downtown (Photo by Delle Willett)

A living wall can contain over a thousand plants, all of which absorb and clean pollutants from the air, and create energy-rich oxygen.

The plants receive water and nutrients from within the vertical support instead of from the ground; they are low maintenance because they use an automatic irrigation system, and are water-efficient, especially when compared to the irrigation that is used for gardens and urban parks.

Living walls are at the cutting edge of design trends. They have been featured in (or on) upper-end hotels and restaurants, designer retail stores, chic spas, exclusive clubs — basically any place looking for distinction, something that makes them stand out from their competitors.

In Downtown San Diego there are some amazing living walls:

The law firm of Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch, LLP occupies the top three

floors of a high-rise on B Street, topping off at the 22nd floor. On the roof of the building there was a large recess that originally housed large mechanical units that fed the building.

Procopio relocated this equipment and repurposed the space into an exterior office/garden space open to the sky.

McCullough Landscape Architecture, Inc., was hired to give it life and make it a special retreat from the city. They decided on a large, vertical living wall.

The main challenge was that this wall was planned for a space, 22 floors (300-plus feet) above street level; all construction material needed to be brought up manually in a service elevator and installed on a wall designed to hang 30 feet above the garden floor.

David McCullough worked closely with the installer to select material that would be manageable under such conditions. Plant material was grown offsite by the installer several months prior to construction.

Special planted trays were then carried up the elevators and ladders and installed one at a time. The vertical wall system was chosen with special consideration to how easily the trays could be grown off-site and installed as quickly as needed.

“The garden provides such a great connection to nature, even in a downtown office environment, said Tom Turner, Procopio’s managing partner. “We added speakers and a catering kitchen, so its utilization can range from a relaxing cup of afternoon tea for our staff to a unique and wonderful sunset venue for a client reception. It’s a terrific juxtaposition of the highly urban with the totally natural.”

Designed by GroundLevel Landscape Architecture’s Mike Szabo, the 85-foot-long living wall at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, in the fifth floor student study area, shares space with cactus and succulent plantings cultivated by Armstrong Garden Centers, which showcase the beauty of low water-use planting through thoughtful design.

Completed in 2011, it is the largest green wall of its kind in San Diego and features a sunburst pattern with undulating bands of succulents behind the curved granite study counter. The wall is part of a larger landscaped student-study space.

The system includes a series of troughs that hold a relatively small amount of soil media compared to traditional planting, a custom-crafted low-flow drip irrigation system, and a drainage channel specific to the site’s climatic conditions.

With its creatively located outdoor and indoor gardens, the law school was successful in its goal of achieving LEED Gold certification, and the campus was awarded an Orchid Award for Landscape Architecture in 2011, for being “a scintillating sanctuary in Downtown San Diego.”

Another living wall can be found at the historic Westgate Hotel on Second Street and Broadway.

“The scope of work for the Westgate’s living wall included an understanding of the structural conditions of the wind- and sun-exposed 5th floor deck, including weight, column spacing, drainage, electrical, and irrigation penetrations,” said Kurt Carlson, of KTU+A Landscape Architects and part of the Westgate’s design team.

The planting selection of over 1,300 plants includes a sensitive palette of California grasses and succulents with four types of grasses, and seven types of succulents.

Additionally, the vertical garden functions as a large-scale green mural, becoming the focal point of the high-end resort-style pool deck. Set high above Broadway in the midst of Downtown San Diego, the mural evokes the themes of sun, sky and landscape that make San Diego a significant destination.

Living Walls at Thomas Jefferson School of Law (Courtesy Ground Level Architecture)

Living Walls at Thomas Jefferson School of Law (Courtesy Ground Level Architecture)

The living wall plays several roles, with one side facing towards the swim pool and the other toward a running track, requiring different planting approaches.

The project is unique both locally and regionally and on a par with the best European examples of vertical gardens. With its genuine painterly use of plants maximizing their three-dimensional qualities and inherent expression, the living wall is a contrast to the stone, glass and metal that form the general architecture of the roof.

Along with the 22-by-11-foot central green mural, KTU+A was responsible for other on-structure planting and irrigation work, integrated with the glass architectural features above the pool deck. The installation and size of such a large, environmentally challenged landscape art piece in Southern California is nearly unprecedented.

Richard Cox, general manager of the Westgate Hotel, said their living wall attracts guests to the hotel’s rooftop oasis just to take their pictures in front of the wall. It is also used for professional photo shoots and as a reception-type setting

“Just steps above the city streets you have this little oasis,” Cox said. “Beauty that is not seen. That’s why we do a summer jazz festival out here every Thursday with the wall as a backdrop, beautifully lit up at night.”

All of these living walls were designed in collaboration with Jim Mumford, installed by his construction company, GreenScaped Buildings, and maintained by his crew at Good Earth Plant Company, which has more than 38 years of providing award-winning plant-scaping service and design to the Southern California region and, in the past few years, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, New Jersey and New York.

Landscape architects from Gillespie, Moody and Patterson (GMP) designed the living walls on the sixth floor deck (called “Vitamin D”) and the ground-floor courtyard (called “Unwind”) of the newly opened Urbana rental flats in East Village.

Both locations presented a unique opportunity to introduce plant materials into areas that were limited in space for traditional planting methods.

The living wall on the rooftop is intended to screen some of the mechanical equipment there, while the one at the courtyard is oriented to screen the blank façade of the adjacent building.

GMP’s approach to the design of the living walls was to view each one as if it were a piece of sculptural art, knowing that it would lend itself to not only screen some unsightly views, but that it could also add interest, movement, color, form and texture to each space.

Each location presented an opportunity to work with a different palette of plant materials: The rooftop being in full sun and south-facing enabled them to use a mix of succulents, while the shady courtyard allowed them to develop the living wall using a mix of shade-loving plants including ferns and bromeliads.

“Personally, I find the design aspect very rewarding,” said Rob Streza, senior project manager of GMP. “I view the selection and placement of plants in the living wall as a composition not much different than when an artist puts his brush to a canvas, only different in that the living wall takes on a life of its own and continues to grow and evolve through time, which I feel brings a bit more satisfaction than a static design.”

Living walls have many benefits; see the list in our sidebar and tell us about your own living walls and their benefits in Downtown.

—Delle Willett has been a marketing and PR professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She is PR advisor to the San Diego chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy. She can be reached at


  1. Gayle Falkenthal says:

    It’s marvelous to see how San Diego’s downtown builders are integrating nature into the urban environment. These walls are spectacular – and just plain cool looking too. Thank you Delle for the article and photos.

  2. […] Read more about them and see photos here. Thanks to Delle for the terrific article. […]

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