Downtown SLO no longer feels welcoming; here’s a green way to solve that

From the point of view of its outward appearance, San Luis Obispo is quickly becoming less welcoming.

Many of the new, over-tall buildings just completed or under construction are contributing to this unwelcome feeling as they appear, within the context of our beloved downtown, both alien and non-conforming.

There are trendy, dark-gray buildings; buildings clad in dark, weathering steel; and scaleless, boxy buildings with small windows whose only appeal is that they can meet quotas and be delivered on time and on budget. These dark buildings trap and radiate heat; the taller buildings compete with neighboring buildings for natural daylight; and the scarcity of windows blocks ventilation.

For architects, creativity and logic sometimes meet. But more often than not they don’t, and when the architect pursues the fashion of the day, logic seldom wins out. Moreover, the incongruous scale of these buildings is a testament to nothing more than greed.

However, short of tearing these buildings down, there is a quick and good solution to all of this.

In front of these ungainly buildings, let’s erect vertical gardens or living walls. These living walls provide visual relief (even in the form of public art) when concealing wall surfaces covered in weathered steel, walls painted dark gray, large expanses of windowless walls and open-air bays surrounding parking garages. They can even mitigate the scale of overly tall buildings.

An added benefit: Green walls help combat greenhouse gas emissions. Living walls have a carbon reducing benefit, as they are able to sequester carbon dioxide in plant biomass and substrate (whether the growth medium be hydroponics or soil).

Recirculating water systems keep the amount of water used on green wall plants to a minimum, helping to conserve water. Living green walls incorporate irrigation systems that deliver what plants need without over-saturation or structural water damage. Living walls not only shield buildings from direct sunlight, but evapotranspiration by plants also helps cool walls and reduce the heat load of adjoining buildings.

Bay Meadows Welcome Center in San Mateo; design by David Brenner, installation by Habitat Horticulture. Garry Belinsky

Living walls comprised of deciduous plant materials have the added benefit of screening out unwanted glare and heat in the summer months while inviting in natural light and heat in the winter. Living walls are easy to clean, absorb sound, increase biodiversity, attract pollinators and could become a form of edible landscape, an urban “farm” that takes up nearly zero square feet.

Finally, living walls, in conjunction with trees, reflective paving and green roofs, can help reduce urban heat island effects by shading building surfaces, deflecting radiation from the sun, and releasing moisture into the atmosphere.

All of this could be economically achieved through rebates and green energy tax credits for retrofits and through green energy ordinances for new construction. Of course living walls will require maintenance, but these maintenance costs will be more than offset by savings in energy required for the cooling and heating of these buildings and through the increase in property values.

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Cedar Alley in San Francisco; design by David Brenner; installation by Habitat Horticulture. Garry Belinksy

Because of the critical, immediate threat of climate change (as of this writing the Amazon forests are engulfed in fire and the Greenland icecap is melting at an alarming rate), architects, developers and planners should have put their egos and/or pocketbooks to rest and dealt directly with the more than likely prospect of potentially catastrophic heat waves and water shortages. They should have creatively dealt with these two challenges to our very survival on this planet in serious, logical and scientific terms.

Sadly, many of our local design professionals (we can’t always blame out-of-town designers), aided and abetted by our planners, are complicit in creating an environment that is not only hostile to behold but also contrary to good environmental stewardship.

So market-driven planning and design has failed us. Our talented Cal Poly design faculty, by virtue of their apathy and/or lack of interest in local civic affairs, have failed us. Even those sitting on our increasingly powerless city advisory committees have failed us.

Then who is left to take the lead? It is incumbent on our duly-elected mayor and City Council members — the public servants most directly accountable to the very residents who voted them into office — to address head-on these exigencies of climate change and to do so while at the same time ensuring our built environment remains inviting to users.

David Brodie of San Luis Obispo is a professor emeritus who taught at UC Berkeley and Cal Poly for over 45 years. Allan Cooper, also of San Luis Obispo, is a licensed architect, member of the AIA and a professor emeritus who taught at Cal Poly for over 34 years. Both have practiced in the fields of urban planning and architecture, and are founding members of Save Our Downtown.

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