By MIRIAM ACZEL
This past week I was in Seattle, Washington, for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2020 Annual Meeting. It was my first visit to Washington’s capital, and I was delighted to discover how green—and easily walkable—the city is.
On my last day, I toured Amazon’s Spheres—three spherical nature conservatories that form part of the companies’ headquarters. The large glass domes, covered in pentagonal panels are home to over 40,000 plant species, and function as a verdant employee lounge and workspace. Designed by NBBJ and Site Workshop landscape firm, this lush green complex opened in January of 2018. While the spheres are generally reserved for Amazon employees, they open to the public for weekly headquarters tours, as well as an exhibit on the ground floor.
I loved The Spheres’ Living Walls—vertical gardens featuring over 25,000 plants woven into 4,000 square feet of mesh—a creative demonstration of biodiversity.
Amazon’s Living Walls showcase plant species from cloud forests across the planet, selected for their hardiness and ability to thrive in conditions that are also comfortable for humans. Like natural, outdoor cloud forests, these green walls demonstrate ‘vertical stratification’ or the phenomena that certain flora thrive at particular heights. Generally, a forest’s canopy receives a greater amount of light compared to the base, as the light at the base is filtered through the leafy biomass of the canopy. Similarly, there are differences in the amount of moisture, availability of nutrients, and temperature between the canopy and the base, where the base tends to have lower temperatures, but greater amounts of water and nutrients. In designing Amazon’s array of plants, their horticulture team took these natural phenomena into consideration: the living wall’s base feature plants such orchids, aroids, and ferns that have a predilection for lower temperatures, reduced light levels, but greater amounts of water.
And beneath the dense greenery, the living wall has a water irrigation system that both recirculates water as well as essential nutrients. The water supply is pumped to the very top of the walls and from there slowly percolates to the base, where the irrigation system waters and fertilizes the plants as it flows towards the base. The wall is comprised of a mesh system that effectively distributes, and any extra water is caught by basins and routed to central reservoir where the irrigation process begins again—a circular and sustainable process.
And these biodomes aren’t just an innovative plant display, but green walls have functional benefits including reducing the urban heat island effect (urban areas tend to be significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas due to human activities and darker surfaces), in addition to purifying indoor air and reducing indoor air pollution, as well as providing both natural cooling and insulation for buildings.
Health Benefits of Access to Green Spaces
Over 40 years of research demonstrates that access to nature, including parks, gardens, urban forests and green spaces, such as green walls and greenhouses, benefit human health and wellbeing. The research about active living and opportunities to avoid chronic diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory problems) is particularly relevant to large parks where people can enjoy walking and bike paths, and playing fields. But, equally as important is the role of small parks and nature spaces for health.
Stress is a key contributor to poor health, but studies show that stress can be reduced by providing access to nature and green spaces—humans show a positive response to being in green spaces within minutes. Other studies by environmental psychologists indicate that visual exposure to nature, in the form of plants such as trees and flowers–even indoors—can help reduce stress.
Today’s lifestyles are busy, and there is an even greater need for intentional ‘mindfulness’ breaks to take time out in nature. Studies of mindfulness workshops have demonstrated the important benefits of access to green spaces on promoting mindfulness, including improved mood, cognitive functioning and immune responses. Green spaces offer sensory inputs that can be mentally restorative and can improve creativity in both adults and children—and even providing access to urban indoor nature, in the form of greenhouses or green walls, can improve mental function, mood, creativity, and reduce stress and anxiety.
Creative approaches to urban offices like Amazon’s Spheres are a great example of how nature-based solutions can improve modern lifestyles, and also serve as an important way to educate and conserve biodiversity. After my tour of the headquarters, I got to visit the Understory, a new exhibit created for visitors to explore the nature-inspired design innovations that make the Spheres possible. I heard from Amazon’s horticulturalists about how biophilia—the concept that humans have an inherent desire to connect with nature—was the inspiration behind the initial concept of The Spheres.
As the studies and evidence demonstrate, access to nature boosts both physical and mental health and creativity. So why wouldn’t a company want to invest in connecting their employees, and better yet, the public, with urban opportunities to engage with and learn more about nature?
Miriam Aczel is a President’s Scholar PhD Candidate at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy. Her research is on international energy science and policy, with a focus on mitigation of environmental and health impacts of shale gas, greenhouse gas removal technologies, and citizen science and public participation mechanisms. She is also co-founder and co-director of the Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics, a nonprofit supporting educational programs in Cambodia and beyond.
Miriam is Director of Communications and blog editor for Leaders in Energy.