A recent study examined public preference for flowering as opposed to green herbaceous vegetation (Dai 2000). The impact of vegetation height (low, medium and tall), colour (yellow or multi-coloured), and pattern of colour distribution (spots or patches) was examined. Again, respondents were asked to rate digital images depicting different combinations of the variables. The variations were inserted into an urban scene including people and a number of residential buildings. The respondents liked the colourful vegetation (both yellow and multi-coloured) distributed in patches as opposed to spots regardless of whether it was low, medium or tall. They disliked the exclusively green herbaceous vegetation, particularly when it was tall. In the study by Jorgensen et al. (2002), referred to earlier, the flowering herb layer edge treatment was preferred to every other woodland edge treatment, including the conventional parkland vegetation of specimen trees and mown grass. This evidence clearly supports the use of naturalistic herbaceous vegetation as an alternative to mown grass in urban green-space. There is also considerable anecdotal evidence indicating that colour, and plenty of it, enhances the public appeal of naturalistic herbaceous vegetation; which Dai’s research (2000) confirms.
Approval for such vegetation is thought to decline outside of the flowering period and especially in winter, when the dried out plants and seed heads are brown. However, recent unpublished research within the Landscape Department of the University of Sheffield (Dunnett, N. and Mynott, L., unpublished) suggests that familiarity with the seasonal changes in such plantings mitigates their negative impact. This seasonal variation in public approval for such plantings can also be diminished by careful species selection to extend the flowering period.
Research has been carried out in Germany regarding public reaction to a new perennial planting mix known as ‘Silbersommer’, developed by the ‘Arbeitskreis Pflanzenverwendung’ to deal with a number of issues, including ease of maintenance and public approval. The concept behind Silbersommer is a robust, ecologically inspired planting, with appeal over at least three seasons, characterised by a preponderance of plants with silver foliage (Bitter and Huettenmoser 2001). This mix has been trialled along streets, plazas and pedestrian zones in several German cities. A survey of public attitudes towards these plantings found that most people did not find its appearance untidy, and valued its naturalistic appearance and perceived ecological value. 75% of those questioned thought that there was a need for more such ecological plantings in the city. The only negative findings were that people would have liked to see a greater variety of colours and plants.
The Silbersommer plantings are very clearly at the horticultural end of the naturalistic continuum, which may well explain why they elicited such a positive response. Public opinion in Germany is not always so positive regarding naturalistic vegetation in urban settings. As far back as 1992, de la Chevallerie was critical about the role of wilderness in the city, claiming that it was unsuitable for an urban setting (de la Chevallerie 1992). In his opinion, urban green-spaces should meet the need for urban development, and social and cultural functionalism. As you cannot play football in a herbaceous meadow, such a
planting does not meet his criteria. Kuehn (2000) concluded that an attempt to establish ruderal, naturalistic vegetation in a park was considered weedy, disordered and inappropriate in an urban setting, though this particular brand of ruderal vegetation may have been very different in terms of species selection from what is more commonly thought of as herbaceous meadow. Milchert (2001), another German commentator, has stated that the majority of the German public consider naturalistic plantings to be ‘weedy’ or a ‘neglected occurrence’, and therefore not aesthetically desirable, and has stressed a greater need for public consultation and information.
Because of the differences between cultures referred to earlier, it should not be assumed that any of these German findings are representative of public opinion throughout the rest of Europe, let alone the Western world as a whole. Public opinion may in fact be much more tolerant of the appearance of naturalistic herbaceous vegetation in Germany as a result of legislation forbidding the use of herbicides in public landscapes, which has permitted the development of ruderal vegetation in many urban settings.
There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that, in the UK, in some settings, meadow – style plantings are viewed as a safety hazard. Plans to introduce a wildflower meadow as part of the King’s Cross Estates Action strategy in London had to be abandoned because of residents’ fears that the tall vegetation might conceal drug-users’ discarded hypodermic syringes (Landscape Design Trust 2001).
Whilst concerns of untidiness and lack of aesthetic appeal outside the flowering season can, to some extent, be dealt with by means of design techniques, and careful species selection, the fundamental question of the appropriateness or seemliness of these kinds of plantings in an urban situation remains. This is connected to the debate highlighted earlier in this chapter about the place for wild nature in our lives. For people who view the appropriate human/nature paradigm as humans in control of nature, there is no problem as long as wild nature is out there, outside the city, but if wild nature appears in the city then are humans still in control? And what if wild nature appears in places traditionally reserved for floral declarations of civic pride, such as urban squares, the focal points of parks or even just roundabouts at busy intersections? Does this mean that the traditional values of human order and control are being abandoned in favour of the anarchy of the wilderness? And what if some parts of the city, perhaps the more prosperous parts, are seen to retain the order and control whilst others are apparently abandoned to the chaos? Does this mean that the powers that be, or even society in general, is abandoning some of its members to the back of beyond?
This might seem to be an exaggerated view of public fears in relation to naturalistic plantings in urban situations but such ideas are encapsulated in the comments by de la Chevallerie and Kuehn, and also in the following statement by Michel Corajoud about the planting in his 1996 park design for Park Gerland in Lyon, France:
Nature in its wild state is not a place for civilised life… With reference to the city I am interested in presenting a fertile kind of nature brought under control, worked on by human hands, and more likely to correspond with the specific nature of urban places.
To summarise, there may well be considerable public resistance to naturalistic herbaceous ecological plantings in public urban spaces, but there is also evidence to suggest that people derive intense pleasure from such plantings, appreciating them for their aesthetic appearance as well as their ecological value. Important considerations are safety, tidiness, length of flowering period, colourfulness, context, and, last but not least, public awareness and consultation.