This small green curtain on the balcony, even when dormant, creates an extra space in our tiny apartment by setting a porous garden edge. This living curtain provides some privacy and some charm. Soon it will be leafing out.
When people ask me about positive government action for urban nature, I always point to the Suginami ward’s giant green curtain. This massive screen of vines rises each summer on their eight story ward office next to the Minami Asagaya station on the Marunouchi subway line. It has inspired local residents to create their own balcony green curtains, inserted a huge green space that occupies very little square footage on the ground, and demonstrated that their old office building can be energy saving, attractive, and full of life.
This Edo morning glory vine is much more delicate and slower-growing than the Okinawa one. I like how twisted and wrapped up the bud is.
Cucumbers grow quickly, and they are easy to attach to the green curtain.
This angle gives you a good sense of the balcony green curtain. By now, it’s very thick and composed of several vines. The Okinawa morning glory is the most vigorous.
Recently I am taking a lot of film photos, and recently I bought a macro lens which allows me to focus on specific elements of the jungle that my balcony is becoming. This is Okinawa morning glory, the mainstay of our green curtain.
In the background you can see the twin towers of Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Hyatt hotel from Lost in Translation, and the Opera City building. The last building always makes me laugh because the Japanese pronunciation is “opera shitty.”
It must feel like a jungle in this Shinjuku Gyoen-mae apartment balcony. The sheer coverage, in height and width, is impressive. Below is what the balcony looks like in context.
In mid-summer, the morning glory provides color, shade, and privacy on my one meter wide (3 feet) apartment balcony. The smaller jasmine leaves provide a nice contrast. Also on my green curtain are Edo morning glory (vs the Okinawa one above) and cucumber.
I like the city backdrop to my balcony green curtain. The rose and jasmine are the first to bloom.
This morning glory green curtain covers the entire balcony in a 1970s apartment building. I am envious of how vigorous and full this vertical garden became. It seems that all the apartments have nets, perhaps to deter birds, yet few are so well used.
The balcony garden in late summer is chaotic. A variety of perennials and annuals, flowers and vegetables, seasonal and year-round plants form a green curtain that provides some shade and cooling for the apartment. The long and narrow space also includes the air conditioner, washing machine, and clothes line.
Spurred by the energy crisis post-Fukushima, there’s been a notable increase in the number of mid-rise office and retail buildings with green walls. In an over-built city, vertical surfaces are the largest potential area for gardening, farming, and habitat creation.
Tokyo has far more vertical surfaces than roof areas, and we are only at the very beginning of creating an urban forest.
I have been following this topic for a while, and have watched this idea spread from notable public spaces like Suginami’s ward office (world’s largest green curtain) to apartment balconies, flower shops, and now commercial and retail spaces. This wide distribution across Tokyo and across building types is very exciting to see.
Some questions I have include:
- What types of plants can be grown vertically and for what functions: aesthetics, habitat, scent, seasonal change, food?
- How can green walls enhance innovative architecture and place-making?
- How can vertical and roof gardens connect buildings, neighbors, and wildlife?
- What is the impact on heat island effect, global competitiveness, and quality of life?
The answers will come from experimentation and diffusion. The photos, from top to bottom, are four green walls I’ve recently seen:
1. Hasegawa Green Building in Shiba Koen
2. Office mid-rise in Shinjuku Gyoen-mae (2 photos). The company that created and maintains this green wall is called Ishikatsu Exterior (石勝イクステリア).
3. Oimachi retail building near station.
4. Daimon office building.
Directly across from the University of Tokyo, I was delighted to see this green awning of bitter melon (also known as goya) growing up the guard rail and then over the sidewalk. The restaurant owner or manager is using a very narrow space to grow the vegetable, and then extending it with simple nets into a canopy. Once across the sidewalk, the goya forms a very tidy green curtain for the second floor window, providing some shade in this hot and humid summer.