Cities get called “concrete jungles” for good reason, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Introducing a lot more vegetation could dramatically change how cities feel for their residents, their capacity to support wildlife, and their air quality while reducing the urban heat island effect that intensifies hot weather. We’re so used to seeing major metropolises the way they are, it can be hard to imagine what they could be. Luckily, international multidisciplinary design firm WATG has done the work for us, digitally transforming New York, London, and their home city of Honolulu with dramatic “greening” animated GIF images.

It was the early days of the pandemic that inspired the Green Block project. The firm’s designers and architects marveled at how peaceful cities felt as traffic all but disappeared, the skies cleared, and the haze of pollution lifted. Suddenly, city residents were waking up to the sounds of birds and could hear subtle sounds of nature like the rustling of leaves. The firm hopes we won’t forget what that felt like, even as life returns to normal post-COVID. Led by John Goldwyn, WATG’s master planner and landscape architect, Green Block challenged the firm’s designers to use the lessons they learned from the pandemic to imagine a better future.

“Our cities have long been overdue for transformation and, as some people flee for greener landscapes in the wake of COVID-19, Green Block proves that you don’t need to sacrifice one for the other – we actually can, in fact, have both the urban and the green lifestyle,” says Goldwyn.

Green Block isn’t just a series of cool animations, either. It’s an actual solution that can see these transformations realized in the real world. This maintenance-free modular concept consists of 100-percent recyclable living building materials impregnated with native wildflower seeds and an integrated irrigation reservoir. A single module can be used throughout the city in all kinds of applications, including sidewalk mini-parks, ecological corridors, green walls, and more. Essentially, it’s an answer to the question that often comes up when you see architecture concepts full of living vegetation: how will it actually be supported and maintained?

The GIF images show Green Block in action. In New York, the iconic Flatiron district goes from its current overly hardscaped reality to a lush paradise full of vines, trees, vertical greenery, and a grassy pedestrian boulevard. The transformation aims to reduce the impact of cars, provide homes for bees, filter the air, and increase the amount of space residents enjoy for exercise and leisure. Restaurants and retail get new outdoor spaces to grow plants or offer outdoor seating and shopping, and everyone gets an enhanced connection to nature.

In London, we watch as the greenery is literally rolled out like carpets, invigorating virtually every aspect of one of the city’s most traffic-congested streets. Fleet Street comes alive in a whole new way with cycle routes, new walkable vegetated connections to the city’s parks, urban garden allotments, and even camouflage panels for construction sites. “This idea claws back space from the roads and returns it to the people of London,” Goldwyn explains.

In Honolulu, WATG pays homage to its origins as a pioneer of hospitality design with a vision of what’s possible for the tourist-laden Kalakaua Avenue on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki. The palm trees already present along the avenue are augmented by flowering native species, larger grassy areas to lounge and picnic on, and luxuriant plant life spilling over the balconies of neighboring high-rise hotels.

Goldwyn adds that “on a global level, the goal of Green Block is to facilitate and encourage further discussions around sustainable living, and how that can be incrementally and practically achieved in urban areas. This project reinforces WATG’s founding principles: designing resilient destinations and spaces where people thrive, using sustainable and resilient materials and techniques, championing and preserving the environments and communities that we touch, and delivering exceptional design solutions.”