The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Beauty of the Future

These pictures are of the Bosco Verticale, or Veritical Forest, located in Milan.

This is a beautiful building, and even with embedded carbon (the carbon of its materials) it’s better for the environment than normal buildings. The two towers have

a total of 800 trees (480 first and second stage trees, 300 smaller ones, 15,000 perennials and/or ground covering plants and 5,000 shrubs, providing an amount of vegetation equivalent to 30,000 square metres of woodland and undergrowth, concentrated on 3,000 square metres of urban surface.”

It’s cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, has better humidity. The water pumps run off solar power and use ground water.

(It’s my annual fundraiser (and going slower than normal this year.) If you value my writing and can afford to, please consider subscribing or donating.)

It also appears to be a lovely place to live.

Creating any future includes making it something people want. People wanted the suburban house with picket fences, a castle of their own. If they are to embrace a green future, that future has to attractive to them.

There’s no reason that shouldn’t be so. People love trees, plants, waterfalls, mist, ponds and even marshes (so long as they don’t have to slog thru them.) Natural light is healthier and buildings like these need less air conditioning and heating and thus feel better to live in. Air conditioning is better than the alternative, but being cool without it or with less is more comfortable.

An era is as much about aesthetics as about anything else. It is about a look and a feel and a way of doing things. This sort of building, while only a start, shows the way towards a green aesthetic. There’s no need for a green world to feel worse for people, it should feel better.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 6, 2020


The Fortune of the Commons


  1. JoeR

    Saw this in Milan a few years ago (though not with that many trees at the time) and it was really nice and felt very nice to be around.

  2. Stirling S Newberry

    It is a start.

  3. Jack McKinley

    Correction: Its called “embodied energy,” not “embedded carbon”.

    Source: Renewable Energy 101

  4. Zachary Smith

    This is a very beautiful complex, and reading about it makes me wish I was extremely wealthy. The wonderful interior photograph seems to be of a Penthouse apartment either up for sale or recently sold.

    Thirteen million dollars for 5,000 square feet of living space. Premium property, and that’s reflected with a price of over $2,000 per square foot. A pair of smaller and lower apartments sold for about $1,200 per square foot. Don’t know about European property taxes, but maintenance isn’t inexpensive.

    Average expenses for maintenance: 63 euro/sqm/year, including heating, water irrigation, 24/7 reception, 24/7 security, green area maintainence, cleaning of facades, CCTV system, and air conditioning

  5. Trinity

    Um … no.

    Same old same old … fix the actual problem (not enough trees or natural areas in cities) by not addressing the actual problem, but instead by forcing trees into finite spaces without the possibility of growing naturally (real dirt, natural accumulation of nutrients, water tables) or even propagating (ensuring the future). Then there is the problem in putting the same trees on all different sides of the building, and the associated problems for the trees due to differences in the amount of sunlight, wind, and temperature changes from both elevation and these directional differences.

    But they have checked the box that ensures that only a very few people can enjoy those same trees up close. The rest of us can only enjoy them from a distance (this sounds familiar).

    But all these and other problems will be covered up initially by maintenance activities (continually replacing trees and other vegetation to keep up appearances) which cumulatively negates any of the so-called benefits or “sustainability” arguments.

    As a homeowner, I look at those units and shudder by pondering the repair and maintenance problems of the future, knowing that I will be paying those costs, not the buildings’ owners.

    Different narrative, same con. Also has a side benefit of keeping land values high, and focused on producing profit for a few instead of producing value for many (natural areas don’t generate rents or pay taxes … yet, anyway).

    Some years from now, the owners will run out of money in the operating account (but not in their offshore tax havens) because the tenants no longer want to foot the ever increasing repair and maintenance costs, and so the building will be bulldozed to make way for the next con. If anyone is still around, that is.

    And the dream lives on that we will be able to keep all our toys, bells, and whistles (with upgrades for just a few! Get your tickets to Mars now!) without having to sacrifice anything to the angry climate gods.

  6. NL

    Thanks for the diversion.

  7. Astrid

    I’m pretty dubious of this building too. Trees and shrubs are very hard to keep long term out of the ground. It’s basically keeping hundreds of large bonsai, making sure they have just enough water to do well without causing disease or moisture seepage issues, dealing with exposure and glare issues, regular pruning (root and branch), anchoring plants properly but not cause too much load to the structure. There’s a reason why green roofs end up just being weedy sedum and grass patches.

    It’s certainly possible to have communal green space in high density housing, but this flamboyant example is likely to be severely scaled back on a few years, maybe to vines, sedum, grass, and maybe creeping dwarf conifers.

  8. Willy

    New technology or a reboot of something more Babylonian? The Qiyi City Forest Garden has issues yet Freeway Park succeeds. Maybe having hundreds of different owners trying to maintain their own pieces of vertical forest (with the obviously wildly varying results) is quite different from employing the single highly-qualified professional maintenance crew. A viable career opportunity for the future maybe? But I’m not sure if I’d want to leave my key under the mat every other Thursday just to let the landscaping crew tromp in and out over my new living room carpet.

  9. Joan

    There are some underlying thought processes that can be taken from such experiments, and then maybe leave all the rest.

    My ideas for America and Europe are different. For the US, the fact that many American men can reach up and touch their ceiling goes a long way toward feeling cramped in an apartment. The standard lumber size for buildings being three yards rather than four is huge. Add to that, the fact that apartments in the US are shoddily made with thin walls means the inhabitants are miserable because they hear their neighbors constantly and feel the floor and walls rumble every time someone shuts a door. Then add to that the rent crisis, where people are paying a monthly rent on an apartment that is equivalent to a mortgage, and it’s easy to see why Millennials who really can’t afford it are still trying to buy their own standalone houses.

    My suggestion to Americans would be to look into the past and try to return to prior infrastructure that made sense. Much of America lived in very small houses with victory gardens out back, before the sprawling hell of suburbs became the norm. Also the thriving American towns with small business owners living above their shops, everyone walking or taking the trolley to work, etc. Farmers will always need tractors and trucks to haul animals and hay, but for the remainder of the population, not needing a car would relieve a financial burden. This way of life can be returned to even in our present situation, without reinventing the wheel, and it can be done through governance at the local level.

    For Europe, when rebuilding after the war, major cities had the buildings restored further back from the street, effectively chopping their faces off and thus widening the streets for cars. As so much in the West post-war, this was stupid. Some building owners in my city refused to the bitter end, and thus you can see the buildings jut out all the way to the street and imagine how things used to be. Now that the streets are widened and we can’t go back without absurd costs and resources, I’d suggest these parking spaces and auto lanes be where we plan the trees. The old streets where the trams run still exist, and again returning to a previous time, before the auto, just makes sense. There is no “but I need to get somewhere” argument for Europeans driving into a major city. Cars are only for rich people to flex their toys. Everyone else is on the tram, and that includes pregnant women, old people, wheelchair-bound people, large families with lots of children, everyone. The only time I’ve taken a taxi in this city was after surgery, and I didn’t even have the energy to walk down the block to the subway.

  10. Ché Pasa

    Interesting, but no. I’m trying to be open-minded about these things because architects have been trying to puzzle out a better urbanity for just about ever and never quite succeed. Instead, these days we still get various forms of Brutalism that are somehow supposed to make our lives better. And they don’t. Not even when camouflaged with trees and shrubs and such. It’s still a Brutalist building — in Milan of all places. Hm.

    Maybe, really, those who come up with these things hate the City and the people who live there and their work is intended (unconsciously?) to express that hatred. I don’t know.

    Cities have been problematical for as long as they have existed. Their advantages can be and frequently have been deadly, too.

    Is there a better urban idea? There should be after all these thousands of years of city-building and destruction, but nothing different ever quite gels. We revert to what has been tried over and over again, just changing the look of it now and then and fixing up the internal mechanics for comfort and convenience.

    A vertical urban forest that people with enough money can live within is a statement to be sure, but how does it differ from any other stack of residential quarters piled up in every city? It’s the same, really, underneath the foliage.

    But maybe the stack itself is the problem. The rigorous grid. The strict confinement of the population. And maybe there’s no other way to have cities.

  11. Dan Lynch

    Just want to point out that Milan has a mild climate. That sort of building would not work in Fairbanks, Alaska, or Phoenix, Arizona. And I for one, do not have the slightest interest in living in an apartment tower no matter how much it is pimped out.

    It’s like zoos replacing barren cages with rocks and trees to simulate a natural environment. It looks better, but it’s still a cage in a zoo.

  12. anon y'mouse

    a smaller space, while less energy to heat (construction style depending), requires careful planning to be effective for daily living.

    it usually costs more up front, because it needs proper design and higher-end finishing work. and so on for the entire building if you are making something that will last and also not cost much to operate. you are going to spend the money up front and not throughout the lifetime of the building. it’s not impossible but makes the whole thing dependent upon profit/return instead of what should be the considerations: livability, sustainability and long-lastingness.

    i am not saying this should be a constraint. far from it. i say “architects and interior designers for everyone!”

    the first issue is passive solar and proper siting for the land available.

    nearly all that we have built in my lifetime, unless for thoughtful (and well off) private individuals, has been the opposite–slapped down with the idea to get as many suburban homes or crappy apartments from which to charge overinflated rents/mortgages. built to last somewhat less than the full lifespan of one person (almost quite literally). everyone i have ever known who moved into a development had endless troubles with the finish work and were calling the builders for a redo for the next few years. the ground is destroyed with refuse that they often cover over with a thin layer of dirt and sad turf.

    we need to stop treating everything as a pure profit consideration, and stop building things that are worthless in 20 years. and they need to be built with all of the things that people use a larger space for. it has long been my contention that because of poor planning, people rely upon more space in order to place objects that fulfill their living requirements (shelves, desks, worktables and stations, a place to put the microwave and the trash/recycling or an area near the entrance for mail sorting and coats, etc). everything instead needs to be as carefully thought out as a kitchen—a place for everything one needs within easy reach. then people will not feel cramped in small spaces. make the finish work as high end as possible and people would not mind. instead, we have IKEA and a bunch of big rooms to put crap in.

    as for your building: it is beautiful and would provide lots of comfort to live in, but high end only and the maintenance is horrible. the Babylonian Hanging Gardens did not last very long (and were built by a princess) for the same reasons.

    there are a ton of things that can be done. even by “poor” people to improve living quality. did you know that whitewashing your roof can lower the indoor temperature? i saw no one in the South doing this, even though it is an AC zone. much less strategic planting around the building to reduce sun infiltration. everyone has a lawn they must mow regularly (snakes, you know). and a wide open space around their home. and the AC going for 6 months of the year.

  13. nihil obstet

    The residential/commercial construction industry makes a lot of its profit through tax incentives. The incentives are short term. I think it’s 27 years and then you profit from selling the property to someone who will tear it down and activate the incentives all over again. It doesn’t make financial sense to capitalist developer to spend money to make something last.

  14. js

    “fix the actual problem (not enough trees or natural areas in cities) by not addressing the actual problem”

    But there are problems with fixing the actual problem too, natural areas inevitably decrease density some, then you have urban sprawl, then you have transportation over urban sprawl with all that implies. I do think people have a psychological need for parks and natural areas. And yes of course single family housing is a more wasteful and selfish cause of sprawl than parks.

  15. Dale

    The real issue is too many people. Most of you either ignore that or forget it. Determine the carrying capacity of humans for the earth you want, then work toward that goal. Otherwise you’re just blowing steam.

  16. Ché Pasa

    And then I think about the historic districts of Nara and Kyoto, Japan. Very green, lush in fact, very urban and tightly packed, but not, generally, households on top of one another. Multi-generational households living in compact compounds, each with their gardens, tiny as it may be, walking distance to nearly everything necessary for living. Households doing much domestic work, but relying on trade for much as well.

    These cities would burn periodically, paper and wood and reeds after all are highly flammable, and they’d be rebuilt much like they were. What we can see today is an amalgam, mostly dating from the last general fire in the 19th or the early 20th century, with little that’s much older than that. But it has an austere Zen beauty, not so much welcoming as “present.”

    These cities were by our standards today very small, and yet for their time and place they were major capitals eclipsed in time by Edo-becoming-Tokyo, a surpassingly ugly urban excrescence bombed to ruin in the War, rebuilt on modern western lines and ugly, ugly, ugly. But you make do with what you’ve got.

    Few of us would like to live the way the Japanese did in historic Nara or Kyoto. Few of us could. But the look of these places is remarkably coherent, human scaled, and yes, urban.

  17. Temporarily Sane


    What we really need is a global corporatist technocracy staffed by experts who will save us from ourselves. Kind of like what’s being proposed by the World Economic Forum, the amazing NGO representing the wealthiest people on earth. They’ve already come up with a brilliant, innovative solution to our most pressing problems! It’s called the Great Reset and it’s a truly inspiring and positive reimagining of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, fully updated and given a bright new sheen for this new age of the cloud!

    If you are wary of trusting the likes of Bill Gates, the Google Boys, Dickie Branson and that loveable old kraut Klaus Schwab himself teaming up with dispassionate “scientists” to run the world, you can relax. Some of your favorite prominent woke feminists, Democrats, radical leftist revolutionaries, principled environmentalists and select peoples of color have also been brought on board. Greta Thunberg…yup, she is on board!

    So just sit back, enjoy your digital devices and let these caring and compassionate folks save the world for you.

  18. anon y'mouse


    did you see the link for the thousand year shop in Kyoto up at NC the other day?

    i have often thought that the Japanese are some of the few who know how to live properly with extreme density. but it does not at all seem to make for a dramatic skyline.

    note the quality of space for this shop, and then note that each of the rooms can transform into something else, given the need.

    considering our culture has been moving towards “single room living” now for some time (or moving back to it!), i think we can learn something.

    please elaborate on your “few would want to live this way” comment. i don’t know why, other than brainwashing by marketing, more people can’t do so. except, as i said–lower cost means skimping on the materials, so it ends up being a shoddy box like most apartments.

  19. Aaron

    I don’t know about Europe, but in tropical regions vegetation usually means insects. Lots and lots of them. They crawl over everything from the couch, the closet and the bed. Even on your body when you are sleeping. The effect can range from just being annoying to getting potentially deadly allergic reaction. So unless the plants, trees whatever has been made unlivable for insects using a lot of chemical pesticides, this won’t work.

    Also, roots naturally try to penetrate into cracks and expand. So unless these are artificially engineered dwarf versions, the building structure can be severely weakened in a few years.

    Yeah it’s all nice to look at and everything. But urbanites often don’t know how the sausage is made.

  20. Ché Pasa

    @anon y’

    No, I missed that article on the 1000 year shop in Kyoto, so thanks for the link. It rings absolutely true. That’s how (some) things are and have been done in Japan, and that’s part of how the society, culture and people survive no matter what. Even as the “what” gets more and more intense…

    As for my comment on Japanese people or much of anyone else not wanting to live the way their ancestors did, it boils down to basics. Historic Japanese houses were frightfully cold and drafty in the winter, damp and muggy and moldy during the summer — no matter how great they look in restoration. Running water was absent; either there was a well or someone got or brought water to the house from somewhere else. Toilets were basically privies with all the hazards they provided. Servants were necessary — and they were subject to abuse and terrible conditions themselves.

    The houses and whole cities regularly burned down. And were regularly rebuilt only to burn again.

    The Zen austerity and beauty of those historic districts we see today was based in a warrior society that was at root cruel and frequently and often randomly bloody. Obviously people can learn to survive under such conditions, but they generally don’t want to live that way if they don’t have to.

    Historic districts and houses in Japan are rightly admired and yes we can learn something from them — especially how to simplify and live well. But we should be careful about wanting to or trying to duplicate…

    There’s a YouTube channel I follow about the restoration/renovation of an abandoned traditional – style Japanese farmhouse that an Australian of Japanese descent bought for a song. The house was built in the ’80s, I believe, and so was not that old, but it was built according to traditional methods and design, and so was difficult to live in. The exterior is being preserved, but the interior is being de-traditionalized in most respects, updated, modernized, insulated, warmed and cooled, and (sadly to my eye) Westernized, on the thinking that except as a museum, the building had no future as a traditional Japanese farmhouse. Nobody would want to live in it, and in fact, it had been abandoned for years when the present owner bought it.

  21. Ché Pasa

    Correction: Tokyo Lama is Australian of Anglo-Indonesian descent. His wife is Japanese and he’s lived and worked in Japan previously.

  22. Zachary Smith

    Historic Japanese houses were frightfully cold and drafty in the winter, damp and muggy and moldy during the summer — no matter how great they look in restoration.

    Several years ago I got curious about Japanese Houses, and dug out some descriptions I could find in the “free” section of Google Books. From what I read it seems your description is missing only “smelly” and “noisy”. Paper walls are perfect sound conductors, and Westerners trying out the houses more than a hundred years ago noted how the extremely primitive sewage arrangements made the smells difficult to tolerate. Likely assorted insect infestations, mice, and snakes were also an issue, but I’d have dig out those old books to verify the latter stuff.

    I’ve seen instances of extreme poverty (tents, mud huts, etc) in old National Geographic magazines, and while the photographs are quite picturesque, I’d not want to live in any of them!

  23. different clue

    “The City” was invented to be a medium-density labor camp. That’s all it ever was. That’s all it ever will be.

    The “City Beautiful” movement and the “New Urbanism” movement and other such movements are about hanging pretty tinsel on the barbed wire. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    For those of us condemned to live in cities, barbed wire with tinsel on it looks nicer than barbed wire without tinsel on it. And little point-covers on all the bards would be even nicer. Like those little point covers on fencing foils.

    Reachable little parks with real trees and plants in real soil evenly scattered all over the city would be even more nicerer yet. And using less energy to get around and survive rather than more energy to get around and survive would be more nice than not.

    But it will still be a medium-density labor camp. Or maybe a termite mount or ant hill or hornets nest for the people condemned to live in it. And the people will still be pack animals attempting to live like the social insects.

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