Prato Journal: The first “Urban Jungle” in the world proposed for Tuscan city.

by Ron Bernthal

Prato is the capital of the Province of Prato in Tuscany, Italy. Over the centuries, Prato has mainly been famous for its textile industries, with its products being sold to various parts of Italy as well as Europe. Prato has also played an important role in the slow food movement, which is reflected in its wonderful cuisine. The city, with about 200,000 residents, is located just 15 miles from Florence, approximately 30 minutes by car or train.

Prato has many historic buildings dating from the 13th century, and many modern buildings as well, inclduing the Contemporary Arts Center Luigi Pecci (above), which opened in 1988. (photo Ivan Dali)

In March, 2021, the city council of Prato announced that it has approved the three preliminary plans related to the identified areas to the project,  which seek to create the first “Urban Jungle” in the world.

This new project goes beyond simple urban greenification or forestation measures, which are now commonly used. The idea here will be to let greenery completely take over as many building surfaces and interbuilding spaces as possible in specific areas of high density.

This large-scale project will have have two main goals. The first will be the transformation, in terms of functionality, of urban spaces and buildings which had been abandoned or underutilized, such as industrial parks, social housing, etc. The second goal will involve the creation of green hubs that will serve as magnets for neighborhood residents to carry out their leisure, sports, cultural and social lives in their community.

The hoped-for result will be the revitalization of declining and marginalized areas of the city, and their conversion into new centers of sustainability and attractions.  The Urban Jungle project is designed and implemented by several national, local, public and private institutions, including the Municipality of Prato, Stefano Boeri Architects, Pnat (multidisciplinary design company co-founded by Stefano Mancuso), Legambiente Toscana, CNR IBE – Institute for BioEconomy, Estra, greenApes, and Treedom.

The Urban Jungle will, at the beginning, affect three areas of Prato, as an initial experiment. It is well known that plants help reduce atmospheric pollutants, restore the soil and lower temperatures in the so-called heat islands during summer. The Prato Urban Jungle project of the Municipality of Prato will revitalize the most critical neighborhoods of the city from a social, productive and environmental point of view, in a sustainable and inclusive way, by developing areas with a high density of green, the so-called urban jungles, which will be grafted onto the urban landscape by multiplying the natural ability of plants to break down pollutants and return the land to the use of people, transforming the marginal areas into real points of environmental well-being within the city.

The urban jungles will be co-designed with the help of Prato’s residens, through shared urban planning facilitated by the use of digital platforms, which will encourage the community management, increasing inclusion and promoting widespread sustainable development of the urban environment.

The first area will be the Consiag Estra building,  a classic-looking structure which overlooks the busiest public street in the city, with about 50,000 vehicles using the street every day. In this way, the city of Prato obtains a renewed environmental and urban quality, with an attractive capacity for innovative companies that work in the field of sustainability. Consiag–Estra implements corporate welfare through urban forestry interventions, helping to strengthen the ties between the city of Prato and its employees, positioning themselves on the front line of the district and the city.

The proposal for Consiag-Estra includes the construction of an urban forest, available to all citizens, that mitigates the impact of the high-traffic avenue in front of the building; the creation of three types of innovative green facades, which house trees and shrubs around the entire perimeter of the building; and the transformation of the unused roof into a green roof, making it an island of biodiversity, usable by employees as a place for socializing, for small events or physical activity.

Consiag-Estra today (photo provided)
Consiag-Estra, proposed visual plan (rendering © StefanoBoeriArchitetti)

At the EPP Turchia Street location, design plans for the regeneration of Prato’s public building residences include the creation of a large entrance pergola that welcomes the inhabitants and creates a green connection with the greenhouse and the garden; the creation of large green surfaces on the facade with steel cable structures anchored on the perimeter of the three buildings; green sunscreen systems applied to the facades facing south, in order to increase the environmental comfort of the buildings; and the the transformation of the ground floor and the existing car park into a social garden, as a place accessible by the residences’ inhabitants.

EPP Turchia Street today (photo provided)
EPP Turchia Street, proposed visual plan (rendering © StefanoBoeriArchitetti)

The third locaton will be a building on via Giordano in the historic district of the city near the Macrolotto Creative District, another urban redevelopment project nearby.

Building on via Giordano today (photo provided)
Building on via Giordano, after proposed visual plan (rendering © pnat2014)

It is expected that the urban jungle project will bring new and innovative design solutions regarding this project, with stronger commitments by residents to participate in revitalizing their immediate environment using modern new techniques and creative ideas.

Cities like Prato are ideal for human development, and to make urban renewal using plants is the best strategy to support their desired prosperity and a healthier way of life. Plants play a key role in improving the quality of urban space, climate and the environment. Creators of the Urban Jungle project in Prato say “we need to establish the traditional cooperative and symbiotic relationship with nature, including growing additional plants and trees in our cities.”

Unused green space in Prato today (photo provided)
Same greenspace in Prato with residential amenities and new plantings after proposed visual plan (rendering © pnat2014)

According to Pnat, cities must be invaded by trees, because a city with plenty of concrete but few trees is deeply unbalanced. The potentialities of including plants in urban life, in health care systems, in learning structures, in (self)production processes, should be more than just imaged. Pnat believes that “cities should start now, because in our cities of the future, the cohabitation between plants and people will be a main theme.”

The use of leading-edge irrigation and rainwater collection systems and the selection of native plants, with their high CO2 storage capacity, removal of atmospheric pollutants and attraction for pollinating insects, are among the key points of the intervention, to the benefit of an increase in internal comfort in buildings and well-being for the community.

Pnat, a spin-off company of the University of Florence, is an emerging think tank of designers and plant scientists with the aim of conceiving creative solutions based on evidence. Pnat has been awarded by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe the Ideas for Change Award for a coaching trajectory by I3P Politecnico di Torino, and won the first phase of Sme Instruments of Horizon 2020 by European Commission.