* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the partner organisations producing zilient.org.
When Ecuadoran biologist Liliana Jaramillo founded her project Nativus Quito, it was because everywhere she looked, only exotic and imported plants were for sale. Indigenous plants were not available on the market - a trend she is passionate to change.
Based in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, at 2,850 metres above sea level, Jaramillo set up Nativus Quito to bring greenery into the city and literally clear the air.
Native species - like the beautiful lupin "chocho de Rumipamba" or the "moradilla", also known as the "flor de papel" or paper flower - are also hardy in the face of urban drought and other extreme weather.
“Ecuador, set among some of the highest mountain peaks in the world, is a highly biodiverse country with different ecosystems,” said Jaramillo. “We must reflect this biodiversity in our cities, to preserve our culture, build our resilience and strengthen our ecosystems.”
In addition, native species contain references to ancient myths, which are culturally important to preserve. If the species die, so too does some of the folklore, she added.
Jaramillo has teamed up with architects, building companies, landscapers and others working on urban design to incorporate native species and greenery into city landscapes.
“We are researching which plants are most suitable for urban living so we can make them commercially viable and widely available for use,” she said.
“This is a key part of the problem, and my plan is to preserve and propagate indigenous species in a nursery, to educate others about their importance and make them available at an affordable price.”
Jaramillo is also working with Gabriel Brito, an anthropologist supporting Nativus Quito’s work. His role is to raise awareness among designers and the broader public of the myths tied to different native species and their cultural significance.
“I have always been interested in this imaginary division that we create between ourselves and nature,” he said.
“We create cities for people, and national parks for wildlife. To me it’s important to break this boundary and help people identify with nature, so that it becomes a part of their world, integrated in our daily lives, and something worth protecting.”
Santiago Jacome, an architect at the firm Superficies Vivas, said new generations of architects and engineers in the public and private sectors are already making strides in integrating urban greenery into ceiling, wall, floor and roof architecture.
TURN DOWN THE HEAT
The world’s most popular green building rating system, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is already being used in several projects in Quito. The design tool encourages the inclusion of extra floors in building design which can be used for rooftop gardens and green installations.
Many buildings in the city are made from concrete, glass, asphalt and steel. These cause a phenomenon known as “urban heat islands”, making urban areas significantly warmer than their surroundings. Increasing green spaces in the city can minimise this effect, Jacome noted.
“Vegetation absorbs solar energy for use in photosynthesis, (it) absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, cooling the air and retaining rainwater by up to 60 percent. It is also an excellent thermal and acoustic insulator. With this in mind, sustainable gardens, rainwater systems, thermal and acoustic insulations are all incorporating plants, trees and vegetation,” said Jacome.
Change is already on the urban horizon. Gardens are springing up on rooftops in parts of Quito. The government of Ecuador is also incentivising the use of native plants in sustainable building projects, by supporting initiatives like Jaramillo’s to help build a more resilient city.
Jaramillo was awarded UN Environment’s 2017 Young Champion of the Earth prize for Latin America and the Caribbean. But there is some way to go before native plants and greenery are available in shops and across sun decks and Quito’s rooftops.
“We will have succeeded if, on Valentine’s Day, young people give native plants with local meaning, instead of roses,” Brito said.
Until then, Nativus Quito will push forward with its mission to keep indigenous greenery - and the legends surrounding it - alive.