Breathing life into urban spaces – The power of plants in the city

What role does ‘urban greening’ have in the world of conservation? This is one question that Angus Cunningham, horticulturalist and CEO of Scotscape, considers, as he shares his enthusiasm for this new and burgeoning industry. While Scotscape is amongst the market leaders in the UK, the phenomenon is worldwide. “Wherever you are in the world” Angus enthuses, “the challenge is the same – how are we going to bring more greenery into this city?”

With ‘Breathing Life into Cities’ as a strapline, the company strives to bring sustainable planting into our cities to make them healthier places. Currently, 56% of the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050 it will be 70%. “The countryside has enough challenges of its own,” he explains, “our job is to make cities healthier and more sustainable places to live. Our mission? – to bring biodiversity in.”

Why did you get into Urban Landscaping?

Angus says he was brought up in the borders of Scotland by two very sustainable parents who loved the outdoors – they loved Nature, lived off the land and trips to the supermarket were rare! After going to Aberdeen University to study Land Economy, he went “a little bit off piste”, and headed to London in search of opportunity. Following a year as an apprentice gardener at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, he decided to join the ranks of the self-employed. He loved being free and learning to support himself – and that was the beginning of Scotscape landscaping and garden maintenance.

Over 30 years on, it’s now a company with over 100 employees and prides itself on being one of the most forward-thinking in the industry.

 What exactly is ‘urban greening’? 

Urban greening (the use of vegetation in urban settings) can take many forms. It ranges from ‘quick wins’ such as leaving roadside verges to grow for pollinators, to larger scale parks and Green Roofs which initially became popular in Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With a focus on innovation, Angus’s company specialises in Living Walls, Micro Forests and LivingPillars.

“Green roofs are probably 10 to 15 years ahead of us, but the first commercial living wall in London (UK) with which we were involved was in 2008. So we are only 15 years on – it’s still a new and exciting industry.”

Urban greening has many benefits both socially and environmentally:

  • There is an increasing amount of evidence that greenery in our cities can have a positive effect on mental health.
  • The nature of urban planning has led to ‘the street canyon effect’, which traps pollutants at ground level. Plants are able to absorb some of this pollution and improve air quality.
  • Green roofs and living walls can mitigate the ‘urban heat island effect’ – a phenomenon observed because of the absorption of heat from manmade surfaces. This effect results in higher temperatures in cities than in surrounding rural areas.
  • Green walls can also provide great insulation for the building – helping with energy efficiency. And Green facades and Micro Forests can also help with noise reduction – an important benefit for city living.

Talking to Angus, his key focus and motivation for urban greening is clear: “To expand our range of innovative products and services that have been designed to combine nature and technology to encourage biodiversity.”

The before and after of 5-7 Carnaby Street, London. Living walls are essentially a vertical garden – with perennials, shrubs and small trees, the depth of foliage will develop as the living wall matures. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

There are essentially three systems of Living Wall, Angus explains: hydroponics (soil-less), compost-based, and what Scotscape uses – semi-hydroponic. With this method, plants start in compost, but as the roots go searching for water they spread throughout the whole framework and become hydroponic. By removing any restriction to root spread, they can choose from a larger palette of plants, and also include shrubs and trees.

“The larger the volume and diversity of plants and foliage, the greater the quantity of  particulates you can trap and the broader the range of invertebrates that can be supported. Food and cover will attract nesting birds out of reach from urban predators.”

The expertise they have developed with living walls has led to the development of the Living Pillar™. In truth finding suitable surfaces to support living walls can be difficult, and pavements are often congested both above and below the paving, leaving little space for tree planting. The solution: Lampposts, which can be found everywhere and are perfect for transformation into Living Pillars. Each has over 80 plants (native where possible), with 50% perennials ideal for pollinators, and 50% shrubs acting as carbon collectors and to provide cover for birds. Unlike hanging baskets, Living Pillars provide year-round biodiversity benefits, especially encouraging insect lifecycles.

The pioneering Living Pillar™ developed by Scotscape. These have the potential to provide biodiversity corridors for pollinators by linking existing green spaces. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

“We’re passionate about biodiversity, and I love the idea of biodiversity corridors”, says Angus, and the Living Pillar has the potential to provide these for our pollinators by linking up existing green spaces and providing routes through our cities – the ‘big picture’ dream.

Powered by a small solar panel with a water tank that recycles the irrigation water for sustainability, each installation is also fitted with a selection of Smart sensors which trigger additional irrigation when required, and all can be monitored via an app. But what is apparent, is that the technology has one key purpose – to help the plants survive in challenging environments.

The innovative design of the Living Pillar™. The technology involved helps plants survive in challenging city centre locations. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

The Living Pillars are not designed to replace trees he clarifies, saying they would plant a tree ten times out of ten if possible. The Living Pillars and living walls are there as a solution to introduce long-term planting in areas where trees cannot be planted – we cannot ignore the fact that without plants there is no biodiversity.

Despite conservation organisations encouraging us in recent years to grow not mow our lawns, and help our pollinators with well-placed flower boxes, when you search online for ‘urban greening’ or more specifically the kind of services companies like Scotscape provide, you are more likely to be taken to websites on design, urban planning or architecture.

In your experience, do you feel conservation organisations have really embraced urban greening and to what extent do you feel it is part of the conservation world?

While Angus is very much on his own mission to increase biodiversity, coming from a horticultural background, and running a competitive business, he took a moment to consider where his work fits into the larger conservation picture.

“I think that conservation as such is still focussed on larger open spaces. Having been raised pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I think those in the country have a bit of a dim view of city dwellers. We don’t have many four-legged mammals in the city, and so the focus on rewilding and conservation is more suited there I suppose”.

He continued:

“But I think there’s a strong argument that what we’re doing is conservation. Though we’re not conserving anything that’s there, we’re actually bringing biodiversity into cities because it was displaced – it was pushed out when we built our cities. But if conservation has the connotation of helping nature, then that is what we’re about.”

An inner-city wall transformed by the installation of a living wall. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

To what extent do you work with researchers in conservation?

As the industry is new, so is the research, and Scotscape’s website includes a 2022 biodiversity report on the Living Pillars carried out by the University of East London, and a 2019 air quality report  by the University of Greenwich.

Angus also describes their new relationship with the University of Surrey which is leading the RECLAIM network (Reclaiming forgotten cities) – a collaboration between academic institutions looking at all social and ecological aspects of greenery in our cities. “It’s crucial” says Angus “because we’ve got the practical skills to do what we do, but we need academics’ data and research”.

Angus was also excited to talk about their work with schools. A recent installation involved covering school gates with a living wall among other green initiatives, enabling Surrey University to monitor the difference in pollution levels between the playground and the street. The best bit for Angus was that they involved the school children in planting the living wall, helping them to learn about the plants involved.

At another inner-city project, they worked with a primary school planting a micro-forest. The children not only helped with planting the trees but actually put worms into the soil – learning about their important role in soil ecology.

A recently planted 400m2 micro-forest in a public park in Islington, London. Micro-forests are a simple way to plant sustainable and fast-growing woodland in the degraded soil of urban spaces. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

What is the best part of the job?

“For me it’s the excitement of making a difference. It’s like I’ve got two passions. One, I love doing what we do, genuinely. But I’m also passionate about running a business. I’ve been doing it since I was 20.”

He adds that he’s reached a stage where he’s working with an amazingly strong and passionate team, and his job is to unite them under the banner of helping do their bit for the planet. “Doing what we do just ticks both my boxes”, he says, “we’ve got a team that is motivated and focussed and who love being innovative and pushing the boundaries in the industry”.

He’s also proud that 90% of his team started at the bottom and worked up. “We have a managing director who started life as an irrigation technician, and now he’s turning over 4 million pounds in one of the companies. You know that’s powerful” he says. He’s proud of creating a space that allows people to thrive and show what they can do.

And what are the greatest challenges?

“I was chatting to someone the other day about how being innovative is easy to say but difficult to do”, he recalls. He believes that many can talk the talk, but far fewer can actually walk the walk. In a new industry there is much trial, error and risk involved he explains, and that brings pressure. Especially as our products are often situated in public spaces.

Our industry is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but has become a ‘must have’, he claims, and that pressure to deliver is keenly felt.

But for Angus these challenges are why he finds his work exciting and rewarding:

 “As I said we are pushing the boundaries. We’re doing something that A. is necessary and B. other people haven’t done well. We’re pacesetting and game changing!”

Installing the Living PillarsTM on city lampposts. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

Do you have any advice for those who would like to get into the industry?


I think in general in business, ‘if you fall down eight times – get up nine’ – that’s also a fundamental life skill. In fact, during the interview, Angus recounts how in 2014 his company went into administration:

“It happened when I was 50. I had set up Scotscape as a one-man band, and opted to figure it all out by myself. I didn’t want anyone’s advice – not one of my best decisions and a key reason why we weren’t able to make it through the 2008-2014 recession. We now have a Board which meets regularly and is balanced with external advice ukbusinessmentoring.”

It was a real big moment and everything he had worked for since he was 20 went out the window – emotionally and financially. It was a challenge to start a business from scratch again, but he had something to prove. He acknowledges the first business was all about him. It is now all about the team and the strategy to deliver. The new start has given him the opportunity to learn from the lessons, and re-align his values with his work ethic to bring biodiversity into cities.

The changing role of gardener 

Angus recalls that when he started, typically gardeners were very much at the bottom end of the pay scale, along with jobs such as painter and decorator. There was often no budget left!

“If you were out to seek your fortune, starting as a gardener is a tough route. I think gardeners felt that they became gardeners because they couldn’t do anything else which was true in my case. That was sort of prevalent in the industry – but now we’re being elevated up the ladder because what we do is really necessary. Our industry’s horticultural knowledge is crucial in bringing sustainable planting to really challenging locations in our cities.”

As a result, he thinks that salaries in the industry are getting much better, so “learn about plants, appreciate them, and get a job in the green market – that would be my advice.”

An industry on the rise

According to Angus, the industry is definitely going places, because there’s a lot of money out there for greening projects – from private companies, councils and governments wanting to prove their commitment. Internationally, Singapore may be well ahead of the game with amazing vertical structures and gardens. They are setting a precedent for the rest of the world to catch up, he says.

Within the UK, he explains, one driving factor is the need for corporations and local government to showcase their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) – a set of standards which includes a business’s impact on society and the environment. If a company can demonstrate it takes these factors into account, it can have positive implications for that company and positive effects for the population as a whole. One way for a company to highlight their ‘green’ commitment is through the kind of urban greening products and services offered by companies such as Scotscape.

As a new field, urban greening is also creating new opportunities in a variety of roles. There’s space for those who understand plants and for those in research and development. There will be an increasing number of opportunities for ecologists to undertake studies to try to quantify the effects and benefits of new products and methods to encourage biodiversity. And beyond plants, it’s also a great industry for start-ups.

Angus says “By showcasing our passion and innovative products, we’re attracting really talented people in. They’re coming away from corporate and larger companies because they want to have an impact.”

“It’s more than us, of course, there’s a whole movement – decent people who really would like to make a difference and don’t quite know where to start. I’d encourage anyone anywhere in the world to come and join this movement – there’s such a big market place ahead of us. It is exciting!”

Trialling the ‘Woodland Living Wall’ on the company headquarters. The motivation – In order to increase biodiversity, it must be possible to sustain larger plant species to encourage birds. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

Approaching the end of the interview, Angus again reflects on the conservation role:

“It’s going to get me, this conservation question. I would argue that we are in the conservation industry as we are giving nature a chance in the city (both in a city and inner city!), so we’re introducing and conserving nature just in a different part to where it’s typically found.”

“Maybe if our lampposts achieve traction – and they do work – then I’ll feel we’ve left this world and our cities in a better place. So, in some sense, I suppose that is what a conservationist would say.”

Urban greening as a fun addition to city hoarding. Credit: Angus Cunningham/Scotscape.

To check out the work of Scotscape visit their website or follow them on LinkedIn.

To connect with Angus Cunningham, find him on LinkedIn.

This BBC Earth article highlights six international cities taking innovative steps to bring greenery into cityscapes.


Author Profile | Claire Tyrrell

Claire is a wildlife enthusiast and keen amateur conservationist, and has volunteered long-term in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres across Africa and Asia – largely working with primates. Having worked in the TEFL industry for quite some years (teaching, writing and editing) she now works for the National Trust in visitor welcome and volunteers when possible for the Hampshire Wildlife Trust.

Connect with Claire on LinkedIn.


Interviews, Organisational Manager, Sustainability