6 Amazing Living Walls Redefining "Greenspace" in Portland

We explore PSU's exciting outdoor Ecological Learning Plaza and a handful of the city's best vertical gardens.

By Maya Seaman October 10, 2014 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Nomad

Turn the corner off SW Broadway toward Portland State, and you’ll find a three-dimensional wonderland of foliage. Ferns, grasses, and succulents cascade from four partitions in every direction. Part meditation garden and part public art project, the Shattuck Hall Ecological Learning Plaza (left) is at its core a biotic laboratory—a place to study the dazzling fusion of engineering, design, irrigation, and horticulture. 

Spearheaded by PSU associate professor of architecture Jeff Schnabel and funded largely by Metro in 2010, the vertical gardens also function as a working showroom for contractors, designers, and Portland’s many DIY enthusiasts. By testing three different installation systems, Schnabel hopes to uncover optimal maintenance strategies, water requirements, sustainability benefits, and plant selection for such walls in Portland’s “dichotomous” climate (read: dry summers, soggy winters). Over the next two years, the analyzed data from the plaza will be made available online to the public.

Research aside, Schnabel sees additional appeal. “The aesthetics are lovely,” he says, noting such walls’ potential to beautify the blank expanses of vertical concrete around town. He’s also noticed Portland’s smallest residents enjoying his experiment. “We’ve got birds nesting in our green walls,” he says. “I’ve heard frogs inside our green walls. We’ve got hummingbirds and pollinators. It wasn’t intended to be a habitat, but nature has already adopted those walls as a resource.”

Portland’s Best Walls

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Image: Nomad

Hotel Modera (above): At 63 feet by 15 feet, Portland’s first living wall stretches around the hotel’s courtyard, evoking a cubist masterpiece comprising native flora. 

Theory Plaza at OMSI: Designed to soften the concrete-and-brick façade of the science museum restaurant’s back plaza, this verdant wall overlooks the Willamette and the Eastbank Esplanade. 

The Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building: This newly remodeled skyscraper uses myriad green technologies, including exterior aluminum rods as a base for vertical evergreen and deciduous vines, which will provide natural shading and insulation for the building. 

National College of Natural Medicine: Research showing that indoor plants can improve a patient’s healing process inspired this lush wall that hangs in the waiting room of the college’s Southwest Portland clinic.  

Thrasher-Reed Wall: Fed up with neighborhood graffiti, local business owner Gwen Thrasher-Reed commissioned this lush patch of green as a way to beautify her NE Alberta Street environs and prevent vandalism.

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