Bringing Nature into Our Concrete Jungles

By Pamela Pan (潘美玲)
Photos by Tzu Cheng Liu (劉子正)
Abridged and translated by Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)
Syharn Shen (沈思含)

Bringing Nature into Our Concrete Jungles

By Pamela Pan (潘美玲)
Photos by Tzu Cheng Liu (劉子正)
Abridged and translated by
Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)
Syharn Shen (沈思含)

Reduce, reuse, recycle—With the recent rise in environmental awareness, more and more people are now living a more eco-friendly lifestyle. But, can we also take a step further to try to restore nature and create more greenery in our cities and our lives?

Urbanization need not destroy nature completely, and in recent years, people have found ways to appreciate and coexist with it.

In recent years, more and more new real estates advertise themselves as being close to nature, bringing trees and greenery into their hard, concrete buildings.

Growing a tree in the middle of the house blurs the conventional boundaries of inside and outside, indoors and outdoors, bringing in a refreshing air to Tainan Old House Inn.

While it is easy and common to see trees surround buildings, at Tainan Old House Inn, a tree as tall as three stories high stands right in the middle of the house, surrounded by the building instead. The old tree and the renovated old house complement each other in a vintage sort of way, and the inn has become a destination for those who want to experience living next to a tree.

Green Delights in a Concrete Jungle
As civilization progressed, the distance between humans and nature has grown further and further apart. When we were little, the trees around our house were like our playmates who kept us company as we grew up. Before long, we no longer paid any attention to them as we hurried along the streets with our everyday lives. Trees have in some cases even been regarded as a hindrance to urban development, and those that have stood the test of time have become cultural heritage objects that need protection with "no touching" signs. Who still remembers the joy of climbing a tree, just for the fun of it?

On a cool day in February, we visited Huanmin New Village at Toad Mountain, hidden right inside one of the busiest cultural and shopping districts in Taipei—Gongguan. In our mission to find more greenery in the city, we met Zo Lin (林芝宇), an artist and gatherer who forages for weeds to make herbal teas.

For plants that were gathered from other places, Zo Lin saves the seeds of these plants and cultivates them on her own balcony.

Zo Lin is like a character straight out of a Studio Ghibli film. Calm and gentle, she strolled around the village barefoot, gathering leaves into her bamboo basket. The serenity and tranquility of it all was reminiscent of walking in one of Monet's painted gardens. That day, Lin shared stories of her past as a designer going through her mundane and dull work life. One day, she started tearing up uncontrollably for no reason, and after realizing she could not live like this anymore, she left everything behind and embarked on a journey to find herself, eventually settling on this weed-gathering lifestyle.

"Plucking the leaves are actually good for the plants too; it's like pruning them so they can grow better." "Don't take a whole lot, but just the amount we need." She introduced many different plants to us too, like morning glories, American ginseng, dodder vines, cockscombs, brake ferns, Japanese climbing ferns, etc. I even found Chinese hibiscus, its nectar a delicious snack back in my childhood.

With their unique characteristics, weeds can be made into a refreshing herbal tea. (Photo by Pamela Pan)

Zo Lin was not exactly particular of what leaves she picked; she just chose whatever was around her. The types of plants growing in an area can actually tell us much about the environment. Take bitter vines for example. Although notoriously known for their invasiveness and destructive capability of native habitats, bitter vines only thrive in areas that are ill-maintained, hence serving as an indicator of the environment's well-being.

There is another plant that has been given a new-found use. Bidens pilosa, also commonly known as blackjack, was initially brought to Taiwan for bees to make honey. However, its aggressive expansiveness quickly became a nuisance and a threat to the local biodiversity, turning into a "weed" to farmers. The efforts to getting rid of the plants were futile, and another use was discovered for them—as tea leaves. Thanks to their medicinal properties, blackjack is now a widely-used ingredient in herbal teas.

Picking and gathering plants in the city is a fun way to open one's eyes to the vibrant and abundant greenery existing in the concrete jungle.

The Power of Plants to Inspire Joy
We smile and feel joy when we see a puppy or a kitten. In the same way, we can often find happiness and comfort when we are in touch with nature.

Living in a highly urbanized city does not stop Chong Kok Yew from greening up his apartment.

Chong Kok Yew (張國耀), a professional photographer from Malaysia, created his own little green haven in his apartment in Taipei with a variety of potted plants. He shared with us how he was initially captivated by the beauty of variegated monsteras before becoming fascinated by the color changes in their leaves. "It's like creating an ink wash painting on the leaf; you never know what the next leaf will look like when it appears," said Chong, who also enjoys the process of watering, getting rid of bugs, and repotting his plants. He surmised that maybe it's the repetitive process, like swimming or jogging, that allows him to focus and gain peace of mind.

Plants not only have decorative uses, but can also be part of our life as well. Landscape architect Lee Pi-feng (李碧峰) told us that he once designed a rooftop garden for a client in order to reduce the temperature inside the house (by 4ºC). He planted rows of grass, grew herbs like rosemary and mint as well as succulent plants, and set up a pergola covered in vines. When the rooftop garden was finished, the client and his family voted unanimously to have their breakfast in the garden instead of their usual dining room on the second floor.

In a way, living close to nature in the city equals to enjoying a high standard of living. A resident in Xindian District of New Taipei City, Li Yi-qiao (李宜蕎) keeps trees like royal poinciana, Taiwan golden rain tree and white champaca in her front yard as well as a beautiful bed of pink bougainvilleas in her back yard. From the large French window in her bedroom, she can enjoy the seasonal color changes of the leaves to her heart's content, which is a luxury to most in this bustling city.

Almost like a tiny forest in itself, this little plant kingdom is located in Taipei's Daan District.

Green is the New Gold
It is almost impossible for most city folks living in apartment buildings to have trees in their own house, so why not borrow greenery from Mother Nature?

Housing estates with a park nearby are symbols of high standards of living, but they are also sold at higher prices. This does not concern Li Xun-xun (李薰薰) though, who lives near Daan Forest Park in Taipei and regards the park as her own back garden. A volunteer with the Taiwan Nature Trail Society, Li has also started wildlife photography as a little hobby and even managed to capture images of the very rare crested goshawk and Taiwan barbet.

In recent years, vertical greenery has become one of the hot and new methods of bringing nature back into the city. A great example is Singapore, with over 30% of urban areas covered in greenery, thus staying true to its nickname of "the Garden City." Due to tight space constraints, the country put in many efforts to green up, such as planting trees in high-rise buildings. However, not many people know that Taipei was Singapore's source of inspiration 30 years ago.

A Project to Build Mountains in the City
We paid a visit to a high-rise residential building in Xinzhu built by Banmu Tang Environmental Integration Group, a small architecture atelier in Taiwan aiming to build a mountain in the city with building projects that integrate vertical greenery. A bold and trailblazing endeavor of its time, the mountain building project has reached its ten-year mark this year (2020).
residents with greenery.

A stark contrast to the other buildings, the apartment complex developed by Banmu Tang aims to surround its residents with greenery. (Photo provided by Banmu Tang)

Vertical greening is not just simply placing potted plants on a balcony. How do we plant trees on concrete? How do we set up drainage and solve potential leaking problems? How can we prevent tree roots from damaging the building's structure? And what about long-term maintenance? Banmu Tang's project researcher and secretary Jian Wei-de (簡維德) used a drawing with a sectional view to explain to us the purpose of root barriers, drains, and automatic irrigation systems as well as the optimal thickness of soil, etc. "The most crucial part is the soil, as it is an organic composition formed by fallen leaves and micro-organisms. You have to think of it as a community. Trees usually grow together in a community too, taking care of one another. You have to understand the language of trees," Jian said.

For residents of Banmu Tang's apartments, returning home is retreating into the embrace of nature. (Photo provided by Banmu Tang)

Incorporating greenery into a building is no easy task. Trees must be taken into account in the architectural design, while shrubs and vines are easier to manage and control afterwards. Xinzhu is famous for its strong winds, so trees that grow too tall are not as suitable as small and medium sized ones. Those with softer branches (like the Chinese fringe tree or the subcostate crape myrtle) are also ideal to minimize the chances of broken branches falling and injuring passing residents.

By preserving the ecological system in the environment, more than 200 species of insects and birds can be found in the three apartment complexes built by Banmu Tang. Sometimes herons can even be seen fishing in the apartments' ecological ponds. We were most excited to discover the return of the Chinese tree frog, which has dwindled in numbers due to rapid urbanization. "The frogs' thin skin makes them very sensitive to the environment. So, if a place is polluted, Chinese tree frogs will leave immediately," observed Jian. Creating an environment so natural that animals are willing to return is really wonderful.

The return of the Chinese tree frog is nature's way of recognizing the efforts to restore greenery in the city. (Photo provided by Banmu Tang)

"It is not that difficult to grow a tree well; the know-how is easy to learn. But, we must always remember why we are doing it," Jian said. "The building is in our control, but the greenery is not. What we really care about is the connection between human beings and nature."

Stepping Stones to Reconnecting with Nature
The forest area in Taiwan spans over 60% of the island, but since most residents live in cities, our lives have become isolated from nature. Is it possible to bring some greenery back into our lives?

A nature-lover, Mo Hua-rong (莫華榕) told us how she was not expecting birds to visit her bedroom when she simply placed some potted plants on top of her air conditioner. "Every morning, I wake up to chirpings from two different types of birds. They even made a nest afterwards!" she exclaimed.

Wouldn't it be nice if our green efforts in the city can connect nature with our concrete jungle and build stepping stones for wildlife to return to their natural habitats?

By introducing greenery into our cities, we not only bring beauty and serenity into our lives, but also help restore habitats for wildlife.

Even in New Taipei City, a view with a sea of Chinese banyans can be enjoyed right from a study. (Photo by Wang Chih-hong)

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