Need some respite from the urban jungle? As anyone who lives in one will know, being surrounded by concrete, steel and glass can become uninspiring. Here’s how different global cities and their inhabitants to reconnect with nature.

As cities become more populated and congested, the demand for buildings will continue to increase and green retreats will be harder to come by. In Shanghai, only about 3% of the city’s land is public green space, according to the latest data collated by the World Cities Culture Forum.

To address the challenge, architects and designers are looking to fill the gaps between buildings that might usually be turned into parking spaces or paved areas that lack character and color.

Filling the gaps in Shanghai

One such example is Kic Park, which is situated in Shanghai’s Yangpu district. Previously an unused area by the side of the road and in front of the Kic Village, built to accommodate university students, it now boasts a wooden boardwalk shaped so passers-by can sit down and have a rest against rectangular patches of grass and trees.

In recent years, pocket parks as they have become known have helped to increase the number of green spaces in Shanghai from 157 in 2012 to 217 earlier this year. The ambition is to have 300 by 2020 as reported by the city’s Greenery and Sanitation Administration Bureau.

Floating paradise in London

In London, a megacity with a river and a network of canals, architects have come up with an ingenious solution for when there is a lack of space that can be turned green: floating parks.

Situated on the Grand Union Canal, the Floating Pocket Park opened back in May and is ideal for workers in nearby offices to enjoy while on their lunch break. It features plants to attract wildlife and a separate pontoon to attract ground-nesting birds.

Floating Pocket Park in London from above
London’s Floating Pocket Park from above.
Photo: Floating Pocket Park London

If you feel inspired by this, one day you could give up your flat or apartment for a houseboat. Tower Bridge Moorings offers an alternative lifestyle to London living, creating a sustainable community built on the water: the floating village consists of moorings for barges and a habitat where flowers, plants and wildlife can thrive.

the Tower Bridge Moorings floating Village at the Thames river bank
Tower Bridge Moorings: a sustainable community of boats.
Photo: smart magazine

Looking skywards in New York

If a metropolis of high-rise buildings, like New York City, starts to trigger feelings of being confined, the only way to go is up. Nothing like the roof of a skyscraper to make you feel on top of the world.

Unused rooftops offered what urban gardeners were looking for: large, open space. NYC-based Brooklyn Grange or Eagle Street Rooftop Farm are now not only oases in a sea of concrete, but veritable farms. The gardens are used to grow vegetables that are then sold to local chefs and restaurants and has previously hosted events to educate the local community on the benefits of gardening above ground. It also offers volunteering opportunities to residents in the neighborhood, so they can get their fingers green and find out more about urban farming at the same time.

Though there are limitations, the main ones being exposure to strong winds and sunlight, gardens can be designed so fencing and walls can provide shelter and shade.

Bees in Copenhagen

Without insects, urban areas would be less green, crop plants wouldn’t be pollinated and urban rooftops certainly wouldn’t be an ideal place to grow foods such as tomatoes and strawberries.

In Copenhagen, rooftops are also being frequented by amateur beekeepers. Urban bee populations have declined in recent years and projects such as Bybi have been working to strengthen them.

Urban beekeeping in Copenhagen
Copenhagen’s urban beekeepers of Bybi.
Photo: Bybi

Bybi produces and sells jars of honey and brews its own honey-based pale ale. It also runs educational workshops for children to learn about how urban beekeeping benefits the local community and environment.

Going back to basics in Berlin

In Berlin, one of Europe’s greenest cities, the so-called Kleingarten alottments are the perfect close-range getaway for nature enthusiasts. Its history is said to be rooted in the mid-1800s when land was leased as part of a public initiative to encourage children to play in healthier environments than the squalid housing they lived in.

urban gardens in Berlin from above
Town within the city: Berlin’s green Kleingarten areas.
Photo: iStock/querbeet

Today, having such a patch of land is ideal for urbanites who live in shared housing or flats and don’t have access to a garden. The allotments can be rented or leased and typically come with a cabin, so are perfect for day trips or feeling the grass on your bare feet after work.

Taking nature indoors in Koka

Residential buildings in Japan can be hermetic structures, but some are now blurring the boundary between indoors and outdoors. In Koka, located in the Shiga prefecture, Hearth Architects have designed Kyomachi House around a tree that twists its way towards a skylight.

a family gathering around a tree in a Kyomachi house
Kyomachi House: built around a tree.
Photo: Hearth Architects

In this order the use the design of Zen gardens: to maximise the space of backyards they are turned into miniature landscapes that often feature rocks, pebbles, ponds and plants – Zen gardens are designed to be places of tranquility. The Kyomachi House embraces this concept by positionin g the indoor garden and skylight so that sunshine can fill the rooms for most of the day, illuminating the nature inside and exuding a Zen-like calm.

House built around a tree: Kyomachi
Get your Zen on.
Photo: Hearth Architects

Permitting anyone to vegetate in Paris

To help the French capital in its bid to increase the city’s green space by 100 hectares by 2020, a law was passed in 2015 encouraging anyone to apply for a permit to vegetate. No action is too small, even if it’s simply planting a tree at the corner of a street or growing climber plants on walls.

Eiffel tower surrounded by plants
Paris is set to become (even) greener.
Photo: iStock/Borchee

If every city followed Paris and passed a similar law, more inhabitants would have access to green space. And, as research shows, this would be good for both physical and mental health and society as a whole.