Architecture & Allergies

By Molly J. Parris

Brand new bright green leaves, plush grass and suddenly blooming flowers are a few of the freshest sites for gray winter eyes.  They signal that no matter how hard we had to work to survive the winter, nature will always reward us with
soothing warm air and refreshed landscapes.  However, most of us also know that this transition soon brings sneezes, sniffles, itchy eyes, and groggy heads.  This year, the Boston area experienced a yellow pine pollen drench not seen in at least a decade.  Local experts attributed it to an unusually dry and warm winter which caused the trees to produce greater levels of pollen.  Recent research suggests that as climate change causes earlier springs and warmer winters, pollen counts will rise accordingly.

Pollination is crucial for leafy neighborhoods, biodiversity, and woodland growth.  To think of how many trillions of pollen spores are delicately spewed into the atmosphere in a spectacular show of plant vitality is to be reminded of the greater systems at work around us – systems that make our experiences possible.  In rural and suburban environments, where the trees and weeds are greater in number than the people who live among them, there is often no better solution than to spray the deck, shut the windows, and wait out the storm.

In the city however, where vegetation is often programmed and only the margins are populated by unwieldy weeds and persistent sumacs (or “Boston Ferns” as we affectionately know them), what can be done to curb profuse pollen counts?  As urban landscapes become greener and plant life moves up in the order of design from a finishing touch to a fundamental component, designers may want to be careful when specifying plants especially because higher CO2 levels in urban areas may contribute to trees releasing more pollen spores.  Female trees should be specified because they will not release pollen and wind dependant pollinating plants should be avoided in favor of those that depend on insects and birds (which will encourage insect diversity as well).  Also, inhabitants of dense neighborhoods should be aware of what type of pollinators their plants are and should encourage their landscapers to be knowledgeable beyond the best-selling shrubs and flowers.

Pollen, which on our surfaces seems simply a nuisance, is actually quite an example of the complex natural systems that operate around us all year even in environments that seem to have abolished them.  Perhaps architects and landscape architects can combat urban airborne pollution by promoting increasingly abundant plant life while taking an intelligent approach to pollen control.