Between the Rows: Finding Sustainability in New Places

Sourced from the Greenfield Recorder

When we visit our son in Cambridge, my husband and I can never resist stopping at Harvard Square.

During our most recent trip, we visited the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center. There we were introduced to Harvard’s sustainability plan, which includes buildings and open areas for a healthier and more sustainable campus community.

This building was formerly known as the Holyoke Center, but the first three stories of the domineering 10-story building has been redesigned to open up the space to the city outside, to bring light inside, and to make those spaces welcoming for groups, for socializing and for study. Apparently, it is now necessary for Harvard University itself to provide socializing and organizing space for students because venues around Harvard Square have become so expensive.

The open angles and stairways, and the outdoor balcony with greenery are beautiful and welcoming, but we marveled at the green walls. When you walk into the building, you find yourself surrounded on both sides by two-story high walls of greenery. It’s all very well to think fondly of the halls of ivy of our great learning institutions, but one expects those ivy-covered walls to be outside the building.

A team from Plant Wall Design created a felt and soil medium to hold more than 12,000 plants. The 19 plant species were carefully chosen because of their hardiness in these circumstances and include several philodendron species, creeping fig, rabbit foot fern, maidenhair fern, peperomia and others. They are fed hydroponically with nutrients, and water coming from the Campus Center’s roof. Lighting is provided by special LED lights. The array of shades of green and varied textures is really wonderful.

The plants serve the function of cleaning the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. They also provide some humidity. Beyond the benefits of clean air for the students, the designers at Plant Wall Design must have considered the benefits of biophilia.

Some scientists have concluded that gazing at an image of a natural scene will relax the brain. Some have said that being in nature lightens your mood and makes you more productive. Some say we have an inborn need to maintain connections with nature. To this end, Michael Van Valkenburg Associates created an “open air vitrine” forest in the middle of the building. A vitrine is a glass display case; the Campus Center’s vitrine puts a green forest on display.

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