Spring Greening

Urban Blooms’ artful “living walls” incorporate technology, sustainability and community development

click to enlarge Urban Blooms’ living wall at Hyde Park’s E O Kitchen is the largest of its kind in Ohio.
Urban Blooms’ living wall at Hyde Park’s E O Kitchen is the largest of its kind in Ohio.


s freshly poured concrete floors glisten in a new home in Mount Adams, a local startup is hard at work bringing one of the house’s two-story walls to life. Different sizes of precisely framed boxes stretch from the first to the second floor in the open-air home, soon to contain a variety of plant species which will provide a source of beauty, innovation and clean air. This is the most recent installation from Urban Blooms, a growing local nonprofit organization.

Tyler Wolf, founder, executive director and living wall specialist at Urban Blooms, is dedicated to making the city green through a blend of ecology, technology and community outreach. Overlapping technology and environmental consciousness seems like a contradiction in our post-industrialized world, but Wolf has found a way to mesh the two to create more beautiful and sustainable communities.

The team at Urban Blooms builds “living walls” to eliminate the shades of gray we have become accustomed to seeing in the cityscape. “We have driven nature to the outskirts of our communities, so the whole idea of living walls and green infrastructure is to bring ecosystem services and nature back into our urban cores,” Wolf says.

Inspired by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist and the inventor of the vertical garden, Wolf designed his own interpretation of the technique during his time at Ohio State University and in his home in North Avondale, from which Urban Blooms operates. In essence, a living wall is a plant or collection of plants growing vertically inside or outside of a building. There are several different styles and adaptations — even Blanc works in many different ways.

Urban Blooms uses as much locally sourced material as possible to frame the wall. They use irrigation felt that is made from recycled water bottles — this is where the plants live and grow. Plants anchor themselves in the durable felt as it wicks water and nutrients across the surface.

This is a big job for one man, and Wolf is not alone — he works alongside Lily Turner, co-founder and outreach director; Tabby Waxler, director of development; Brendan Quine, technical development director; and design director Joseph Kabenji to create, build and showcase these living walls. Urban Blooms’ most well-known installation is at E+O Kitchen in Hyde Park. The wall stands behind a long banquette where restaurantgoers sit and dine. To many it appears to be an elaborate piece of art, but there’s science hidden behind the plants. Not only are the plants constantly adding moisture to and filtering toxins out of the air, but the installation is also self-irrigating. This is the largest permanent plant wall in Ohio at 18-feet-wide-by-eight-feet-tall, and it features 366 individually placed tropical plants. It is estimated that a wall of this size can remove seven pounds of particulate matter from the air per year.

A lot of time is spent designing walls that are not only visually appealing, but also beneficial to clients and the environment. Urban Blooms is currently prototyping a system that will make living walls more low-maintenance and sustainable.

The mix of technology and ecology is obvious in an installation at OSU, where a program designed and coded by Urban Blooms, Digital Intelligent Garden System (DIGS), is being tested. “It’s the brains behind the garden,” Wolf says. DIGS was created to automate irrigation and optimize water usage. It works by monitoring water vapor in the soil. When it reaches a certain low percentage, the irrigation kicks on, making for a very low-maintenance installation.

Living walls aren’t cheap, and the organization relies on donations and grants to continue construction programs.

The base pricing is $50 to $100 per square foot. This price includes the plants and fluctuates depending on lighting, irrigation and drainage requirements.

During its inception, it was clear to Wolf that Urban Blooms should be a nonprofit. “We are operating for the purpose of urban beautification and education on sustainability,” he says. Because of this, Urban Blooms can offer potential clients the incentive of tax write-offs, up to 50 percent, for having a wall installed on the outside of their building. To be eligible for the tax write-off, the installation must qualify as an urban beautification project, meaning that it’s on the facade of a building with significant public access. It must also be available for use in Urban Blooms’ educational programs.

While the vertical garden is what Urban Blooms has made its name on, there is more to the organization than living walls. A focus on community development and education can be seen through Urban Blooms’ garden projects and pop-up walls around the city. In the last year, they’ve become involved with the East End Veterans Memorial Garden on Riverside Road. Their overlapping goals of urban beautification and education are vivid here. The Cincinnati VA Medical Center sends veterans to the garden as part of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

“The whole program is based around providing healthy living and learning environments and to teach (veterans) sober activities to occupy their time,” Wolf says. With the assistance of volunteers, they teach the veterans how to plant, pick and prepare produce, which is knowledge they can take home with them and apply to their daily lives.

Urban Blooms also draws public interest through pop-up installations around the city.

Currently, Urban Blooms is working with the Royal Botanical Garden of Jordan on a temporary installation that represents the Middle Eastern country for this week’s Cincinnati Flower Show. The whole display will be made of plants that are native to the country. “The Wall of Reflection” will incorporate traditionally embellished Jordanian mirrors to better showcase the area’s artistic style.

Wolf sees his walls as a way to bring communities together. By incorporating art, science, horticulture and environmental engineering, living walls become more than just decoration. They are a symbol of unity and sustainability for Cincinnati.

URBAN BLOOMS will be exhibiting at the Cincinnati Flower Show at Yeatman’s Cove Wednesday-Sunday. More info: urbanblooms.org.

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