Habitat restoration and beyond: designing a visual aesthetic into. native plant communities

The creation of natural habitats, using native species, in urban areas is itself a statement about art, design and philosophy, and is characteristic only of those cultures that have become most intensely urbanised and which display a desire to renegotiate their relationship to nature. The areas which are restored can vary considerably in size, from large parks and campus-type locations down to roadsides, community ‘pocket’ parks and small private gardens. They are, especially the smaller ones, often highly managed, in order to maintain plant succession at that point which is seen as most desirable. The definition of desirability is largely to do with what is seen by the public as their idea of nature, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Even quite small areas can have considerable educational value for the public and can help to provide a psychological linkage between urban areas and surrounding rural ones (Thompson 2000).

Habitat restoration is a movement with considerable support in the US, UK, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and in German-speaking countries. It does not seem to be anywhere near as popular in the Latin-speaking cultures of Europe, which must reflect the widely different attitudes to nature that are manifested in the traditional garden art of these cultures, which leans heavily towards the sculptural use of plants. Habitat restoration characteristically involves the almost exclusive use of plants native to the state or the region involved, with this being particularly stressed in the US. Generally, the movement is also characterised by the following.

– The identification of stereotype plant communities to be ‘put back’. In Britain, these are

based upon the National Vegetation Classification.

– The ready availability of native plant seed, often as mixtures and plants, to both

professionals and amateurs. Commercial marketing may, however, result in inappropriate species mixtures and techniques being widely distributed.

– A steadily increasing number of landscape and garden design professionals working in

the field.

– The media, for example television programmes, books, websites and magazine articles

orientated towards this field, with a heavy emphasis on educating amateurs.

– A definite orientation towards grassroots community politics, with native plantings

often being part of projects such as community centres, schools, city farms, etc.

However, another common characteristic is the distinct lack of an artistic element in this field. Habitats are basically treated as a kind of filler, to be poured into the space available. This must contribute to occasional conflict with members of the public who may perceive this product as scruffy or inappropriate landscaping. As HirschmannWoodward notes, in a major study of the relationship between people and landscape, ‘many ecological designs have also been critiqued for not accomodating people’s need for order, meaning and beauty’ (Woodward 1997). Indeed, she and others might argue that ‘filler’ landscaping like this is not really ecological as it leaves humans out of the ecological equation; ‘Ecological design recognises complex relationships between people, the land and a place. It shapes decisions that may affect both positive site function and positive human response to that site’ (Woodward 1997:201).

The solution may lie in designing or ‘stylising’ native landscape plantings so that they become meaningful and visually pleasing elements of the landscape. There are three main ways in which this can be done, as follows.

1 The selection of plant communities on the basis of their visual appeal to the public, and

adapting the environment to suit them.

2 The use of different kinds of plant community as large-scale sculptural material.

3 The altering of the species mix so as to create a more visually appealing plant


The first two aim to work with ‘whole’ plant communities, assemblages of species that would occur in nature, the third involves changes to this assemblage, and it is perhaps more appropriate to discuss it in the next section.